Successful aging can be the norm, says UCLA psychology professor Alan Castel in his new book, “Better with Age: The Psychology of Successful Aging” (Oxford University Press). Castel sees many inspiring role models of aging. French Impressionist Claude Monet, he notes, began his beloved water lily paintings at age 73.
Castel cites hundreds of research studies, including his own, combined with personal accounts from older Americans, including Maya Angelou, Warren Buffett, John Wooden, Bob Newhart, Frank Gehry, David Letterman, Jack LaLanne, Jared Diamond, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, John Glenn and Vin Scully.
Castel notes that architect Gehry designed conventional buildings and shopping malls early in his career, and decades later designed the creative buildings he would only dream about when he was younger. Others who did much of their best work when they were older include Mark Twain, Paul Cezanne, Frank Lloyd Wright, Robert Frost and Virginia Woolf, he writes.
“There are a lot of myths about aging, and people often have negative stereotypes of what it means to get old,” Castel said. “I have studied aging for two decades, and have seen many impressive role models of aging, as well as people who struggle in older age. This book provides both science behind what we can to do age well and role models of successful aging. While some books focus on how to try to prevent or delay aging, ‘Better with Age’ shows how we can age successfully and enjoy the benefits of old age. I have combined the lessons the psychology of aging teaches us with insights from some of the people who have succeeded in aging well.”
Castel cites a 1979 study by Harvard University social psychologist Ellen Langer in which men in their 70s and 80s went to a week-long retreat at a motel that was re-designed to reflect the décor and music from 1959. The men, who were all dependent on family members for their care, were more independent by the end of the week, and had significant improvements in their hearing, memory, strength and scores on intelligence tests. Some played catch with a football. One group of the men, who were told to behave like they were 20 years younger, showed greater flexibility, and even looked younger, according to observers who saw photos of them at the start and end of the week.
In another study, researchers analyzed Catholic nuns’ diary entries made in the 1930s and 1940s, when the nuns were in their 20s, and determined their level of happiness from these diaries. More than 50 years later, 75 percent of the most cheerful nuns survived to age 80, while only 40 percent of the least happy nuns survived to 80. The happiest nuns lived 10 years longer than the least happy nuns.
Happiness increases our lives by four to 10 years, a recent research review suggested. “As an added bonus,” Castel writes, “those additional years are likely to be happy ones.”
Successful aging involves being productive, mentally fit, and, most importantly, leading a meaningful life, Castel writes.