(NaturalNews) In many people, cognitive skills and quality of life improve steadily even to the end of life, according to a study conducted by researchers from the University of California-San Diego,Stanford University, and published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.
According to popular U.S. perception, aging is defined by progressive physical, cognitive and psychosocial decline. The country's changing demographics - there are currently 40 million people over the age of 65, with the fastest growth among people over 80 - are regularly discussed as a public health problem.
"While there is a growing public health interest in understanding and promoting successful aging, until now little published research has combined measures of physical health with cognitive and psychological assessments, in a large and randomly selected sample," said lead researcher Dilip V. Jeste.
The Successful Aging Evaluation (SAGE) study included 1,006 elderly residents of San Diego, all of whom completed a 25-minute phone interview and a comprehensive mail-in survey. Participants answered objective questions about their health to allow researchers to determine their degree of chronic disease and disability. They also answered subjective questions about life characteristics such social engagement and their own perception, on a 10-point scale, of the degree to which they had "successfully aged."
Successful aging was not defined by the researchers, allowing the participants to answer based on their own understanding of the concept.
Perceived well-being improves with advancing age
"Even though older age was closely associated with worse physical and cognitive functioning, it was also related to better mental functioning," co-author Colin Depp said.
The researchers also found that the effects of a person's self-perception were comparable in importance to their objective physical health. Participants who rated themselves as aging more successfully had higher cognitive function, less depression, more optimism and resilience, more education, and perceived their physical and mental health as better than participants who thought they had aged less successfully. These findings were independent of the patients' objective physical condition.
"Sometimes the most relevant outcomes are from the perspective of the subjects themselves," said Jeste.
Participants' attitudes about their aging success were also independent of income, education, marriage, or other potentially confounding variables.
"It was clear to us that, even in the midst of physical or cognitive decline, individuals in our study reported feeling that their well-being had improved with age," Jeste said.
The study has serious implications for how individuals and their healthcare providers approach advancing age, Jeste said.
"Perfect physical health is neither necessary nor sufficient," he said. "There is potential for enhancing successful aging by fostering resilience and treating or preventing depression."
It also suggests we might need to change the ways that we talk about aging as a society, he noted.
"There is considerable discussion in public forums about the financial drain on the society due to rising costs of healthcare for older adults - what some people disparagingly label the 'silver tsunami,'" Jeste said. "But, successfully aging older adults can be a great resource for younger generations."