If you plan to "thrive" when you are 65, you need to invest in your health decades earlier. A new study in the October issue of The Journal of Gerontology: Medical Sciences (Volume 63A, Number 10) finds that fewer than 10 percent of people aged 65-85 maintain exceptional emotional and physical health throughout their golden years. These so-called "thrivers" share specific behavioral and lifestyle characteristics that may hold the key to healthy aging, according to the study's authors.

"Important predictors of thriving were the absence of chronic illness, income over $30,000, having never smoked, and drinking alcohol in moderation," said lead author Mark Kaplan, DrPH, of Portland State University. "We also found that people who had a positive outlook and lower stress levels were more likely to thrive in old age."

"Many of these factors can be modified when you are young or middle-aged," said co-author David Feeny, PhD, of the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research. "While these findings may seem like common sense, now we have evidence about which factors contribute to exceptional health during retirement years."

This is the first research to evaluate which factors help older people maintain exceptional health over a long period of time. Most previous investigations have focused on factors that contribute to poor health, and they have made those determinations based on one-time surveys.

This study included 2,432 Canadian residents, aged 65-85, who filled out an extensive health survey every other year from 1994-2004. One measure, called the Health Utilities Index Mark 3, asked people to rate their abilities in eight categories, including vision, hearing, speech, ambulation, dexterity, emotion, cognition, and pain. Thrivers were those who rated themselves as having no or only mild disability in all eight categories on at least five of the six surveys.

If respondents reported moderate or severe disability on any of the six surveys, they were classified as non-thrivers. Just over half (or 50.8 percent) of the respondents started out as thrivers, but by the end of the ten years, only 8 percent of the respondents were considered thrivers. By the end of the study period, just under half (47 percent) of the respondents were classified as non-thrivers. The rest (36 percent) had either died or were institutionalized (9 percent).

"Even though the study was conducted in Canada, the findings are certainly applicable to the United States and other industrialized nations," said co-author Bentson McFarland, MD, PhD, of the Oregon Health & Science University. "Our population here in the United States is similar demographically to Canada's, and both health care systems rely on the same underlying technologies," says McFarland.

The study was funded by a grant from the National Institute on Aging.

The Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences is a refereed publication of The Gerontological Society of America, the nation's oldest and largest interdisciplinary organization devoted to research, education, and practice in the field of aging. The principal mission of the Society - and its 5,000+ members - is to advance the study of aging and disseminate information among scientists, decision makers, and the general public. GSA's structure also includes a policy institute, the National Academy on an Aging Society, and an educational branch, the Association of Gerontology in Higher Education.

The Gerontological Society of America

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