As the year comes to a close, many of us often use this time to reflect on our lives, accomplishments, missteps and what’s next. Having spent the last 40+ years in the field of aging, I can’t help but look at the amazing changes that have occurred and be grateful for the opportunity I’ve had to play a small part in this extraordinary journey and transformation.
Like it was yesterday, I remember my freshman year at USC where I was introduced to the Andrus School of Gerontology while attending the university on a golf scholarship. I’ll never forget my counselor making the correlation of me playing golf with the study of aging because most of the time I’d spent on the golf course was with older adults and retirees. She believed my experience could provide unique insight into a field that was in its early stages and that I had the potential to be a pioneer of sorts. Little did I know back then, she was right. At the young age of 18, sitting in class after class listening and learning about all the problem sides of aging, I instinctively knew a new view on aging and retirement was clearly needed and that my passion and role from that point forward was to help bring more balance to this story by sharing the good news about aging.
The USC Gerontology program was in its infancy at the time, which provided the unique opportunity to specialize in specific areas of interest – which for me was definitely retirement and healthy, successful aging. While in many ways I had to blaze my own trail, there was enough initial research for me to prove my theory that there was more to the existing focus of study on aging being an automatic time of decline, and I was 100% committed to help change that thinking … and thus, change lives.
While my foundation revolved around what I’d experienced at a very young, impressionable stage in my life – observing and engaging with healthy, happy retirees enjoying a new life phase, the hurdle to overcome was the negative image of aging that seemed primarily the result of the majority of studies on aging at that time being all done in nursing homes. So in order to break the ‘mold of old’ as I called it, I believed the focus needed to shift, or at least include studying those not in nursing homes and to learn more about the psychological aspects and its role in the aging process. In short order it became very clear that mindset, attitude and beliefs played a key role in healthy, successful aging and retirement.
Huge help in this effort came along via two scientists, John Rowe and Robert Kahn who forever changed the field of aging/gerontology with their book, Successful Aging. A definite industry game-changer, that for the first time provided scientific research proving aging was not just an automatic time of decline, and instead was based on 70% lifestyle, 30% genetics. Most people think it’s the opposite. Their work finally provided proof, foundation and validity to the fact that how and why people age differently is based not just on age, but also on how they live their lives.
But what drives people in how they live their lives? While there are obviously numerous elements, in all my years I’ve spent studying aging, and of all the questions I’m often asked about what’s the ‘secret’, I absolutely, positively believe one of, if not the main drivers is … attitude. Think about it … mindset, attitude, and beliefs drive behaviors. So if we believe the second half of life can be a time of good health and vitality, we’re much more likely to incorporate the lifestyle behaviors that will enable that to happen. If we think it’s an automatic time of decline, we give it up, go to the couch, and blame all our problems on age.
While this may sound simplistic, a landmark Yale study of a few years ago proved that what we think matters. It found that those with a positive outlook on life and living long were likely to live 7 years longer than those with a negative outlook who were twice as likely to die of a heart attack.
So much of my work in this field has focused on shifting thinking — getting people to think differently … or at least getting them current about what’s possible with age and living a long, healthy life. Studies like Yale’s and those within the book Successful Aging provided the scientific facts and foundation that helped support my work. But it was more than just that, I believed we needed real stories of real people living long and living well – many overcoming and working through all sorts of challenges in the process in order to really change the image of aging.
One of the most effective strategies/techniques I’ve used in my work (speaking and authoring two books, ‘What’s AGE Got To Do With It? Secrets to Aging in Extraordinary Ways Volume 1 and 2) revolves around the saying, ‘Facts tell, stories sell.’ By sharing stories of everyday people/successful agers who I refer to as Super Seniors, and incorporating the scientific-gerontological aspects behind their achievements, the concept of living longer and what’s possible has changed – and is continuing to do so. Aging’s success story of creating a new image of aging and retirement is here … and definitely here to stay!
While this has clearly been some of the most enjoyable and meaningful work I could have ever hoped to be part of, it’s not just me. It’s been all the various people, partnerships and industries working together, that has lead to aging’s success story … and will continue to do so.
So as we close out the year and look to a new decade of 2020, imagine what more can still be done as there is little more rewarding in life than leaving an imprint, and in the process, continuing to help make a positive difference and impact in the lives of others.