Forever Young: A Path to Successful Aging

The man who wrote "Forever Young" recently turned 72. From our perspective, it appears Dylan was being remarkably prescient. More than 30 years after he wrote his famous song, a landmark MacArthur Foundation study found that successful aging depends on three key behaviors or characteristics.
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The man who wrote "Forever Young" recently turned 72. Bob Dylan, by all accounts, appears to be aging successfully.

Dylan was only 33 when he wrote the lyrics to that famous song. Was he being prescient, trying to discover the path to a life well-lived? Or was he, like many of his peers, simply obsessed with holding on to his youth without ever growing old?

From our perspective, it appears Dylan was being remarkably prescient. More than 30 years after he wrote his famous song, a landmark MacArthur Foundation study found that successful aging depends on three key behaviors or characteristics:

• Low risk of disease or disease-related disability
• High mental and physical function
• Active engagement with life

Let's look at the lyrics and see how well they stack up against those findings.

May your wishes all come true. Nearly nine out of ten Americans believe they will live a long life, according to the Pfizer Get Old Survey released today. Statistics bear them out: in the last century, life expectancy has increased by 20 years. But people aren't just adding years to the end of their lives, those years can be filled with health, vitality and active engagement in the world around them. For many, retirement is no longer a time of forced leisure but a time of renewal - a time for giving back and sharing wisdom.

May you always be courageous. Bette Davis once quipped, "Getting old isn't for sissies." Her words must have resonated with the 40 percent of those in the Pfizer survey who worry that being old is something to fear due to potential health and financial concerns. Apparently, they didn't read the MacArthur Foundation study we noted earlier. Had they done so, they would have found that the life style choices we all make today, more than heredity, determine our future health and vitality. They would also have learned that high self-esteem is the strongest predictor of successful aging. Getting old the way we want to starts with embracing who we are today and having the courage and heart to live as best we can.

May your hands always be busy. May your feet always be swift. Staying engaged with life, whether through work for pay or volunteering, yields substantial personal health and well-being benefits. According to the Get Old Survey, the greatest fear among workers (61 percent) is not being able to find a new job should they lose their current one. But as millions of older adults have found, work is just one way to remain active and engaged. Many people who retire today are establishing encore careers - paid or voluntary positions that they select based on their own interests and their determination to give back and make a difference in other people's lives, especially young people's lives. As we grow older, we can choose to share our wisdom and experience, serving as mentors, caregivers, and guides.

Remaining physically active also contributes significantly to successful aging. Increases in chronic disease and obesity threaten advances in healthy aging. People of all ages can take charge and begin today to eat healthy, stop smoking, drink in moderation and exercise.

May you build a ladder to the stars and climb on every rung. May you always do for others and let others do for you. We all know that the Boomer generation will soon swell the ranks of older adults in this country and around the world. It's a phenomenon that's been coming for a long time, yet not enough communities have prepared for the reality of it. The Pfizer survey found that less than 30 percent of respondents believe their community is very prepared to support an aging population. We need to pick up the pace and plan our communities to serve as places where everyone, of every age, has a role and responsibility - and the supports needed to succeed across the life course, from birth to old age. Our communities should be places that are good to grow up and grow old.

Because of its sheer size, the boomer generation has focused attention on the greying of society. But the boomers are merely the vanguard. Because of advances in health, future generations will have ever longer life expectancies. According to the Research Network on an Aging Society - a MacArthur Foundation initiative - we must begin adapting now to the changes that lie ahead. The network advises that, as society grows older, we will need to put new community supports in place. Further, changes in the structure, geographic dispersion and function of the family will threaten it traditional role of safety net. If we are to age successfully, we must continue to reinforce the strong social compact that exists among generations. That strong intergenerational bond is how we transmit culture, knowledge and human values and advance civil society.

Living longer, healthier lives means we have enormous opportunity to stay active, engage with others, and make meaningful contributions to society. Aging successfully is not about the imitation of youth, it's about having a youthful outlook and taking pleasure in living a meaningful life.

Claim your age at every age. Let's change the conversation from burden to benefit so future generations don't fear aging, but embrace every age they ever are. Go to to claim your age and join the conversation!

John W. Rowe is the co-author of Successful Aging. Dr. Rowe currently leads the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on An Aging Society and is a Professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

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