Old Age? Science Suggests It's Not that Bad

Well-being, happiness, thriving, and other buzzwords can have a variety of different meanings in and outside of the scientific community. Well-being is no longer just a personal state of being, it is a serious question in science. The science of well-being is a growing field focusing on more than physical health and the temporal state of happiness. Recent research is revealing that many of us may have popular misconceptions about aging and well-being.

Turns out that it may not be so bad to be old after all, which is really good news for the 10,000 baby boomers that turn 69 each day. A recently released report "State Well-Being Ranks for Older Americans" by Gallup, Healthways, and the MIT AgeLab based upon data from the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index shows that older Americans, those age 55 and older, have a higher state of well-being than the younger population. Looking at the 55+ population in greater resolution, people age 75 and older have the highest well-being, followed by those 65-74, and finally those 55-64.

What do we mean by well-being? It is a multitude of dimensions that work together to create quality of life, such as eating well, exercising, having access to healthcare, financial security, a sense of purpose and social aspects of life, and the like. The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index captures these measures in five elements:

Purpose: Liking what you do each day and being motivated to achieve your goals
Social: Having supportive relationships and love in your life
Financial: Managing your economic life to reduce stress and increase security
Community: Liking where you live, feeling safe and having pride in your community
Physical: Having good health and enough energy to get things done daily

Despite what we may think about old age, older adults score higher than younger adults in all five elements. Why?

Is aging well like real estate: location, location, location? Typically we imagine retirement as perfect warm weather, being on the golf course by day and on the beach with a beautiful sunset by night. But looking at the top 10 states for older adult well-being, aside from Hawaii, there are a handful of landlocked areas all have snowy winters in the mix--not what typically jumps to mind when thinking of where to age well. Moreover, there is significant overlap in the top and bottom 10 between the 55+ population and the entire population, begging the question does it really matter where you age? Perhaps more important are the activities and behaviors you pursue wherever you are.

Top 10 states for older adult well-being:

1. Hawaii
2. Montana
3. South Dakota
4. Alaska
5. Iowa
6. New Hampshire
7. Utah
8. Oregon
9. New Mexico
10. Connecticut

It may not be just where we live in our traditional retirement years, but what we are doing differently. At the national level, we are taking better care of ourselves as we age. Perhaps we are finally starting to take the advice of our physicians and treat our bodies better or maybe there is a natural 'attrition' of those with bad habits over time. The data show that older adults are opting for the salad instead of (or in addition to) the fries with their burger; the likelihood of eating fresh fruits and vegetables increases with age. Similarly, smoking rates sharply decline with older age. Not only are people taking better care of themselves as they age, but older adults are engaging in the activities they enjoy--they are more likely to report learning or doing something interesting everyday in comparison to younger adults.

The data in the report suggest a very different older American population than 50 years ago. Older Americans in the early 1960s reported far higher levels of malnutrition, poverty, and isolation than those today. Individual behavioral and social changes have certainly contributed greatly to these improvements. Public policy has been instrumental as well. The Older Americans Act, which turned 50 this year, provides access to resources and improves quality of life through Meals on Wheels, transportation, and a variety of other critical community service programs provided by area agencies on aging across the United States. These interventions, along with greatly improved access to healthcare, may be a policy success, but they are also a tribute to the nation's commitment to aging well. While progress has been made, many older adults still face challenges. Given the unprecedented growth in the population of older Americans, the uncertain financial future of retirement, and the higher incidence of chronic conditions, we must now navigate a future to maintain the advances in well-being we have already achieved and develop new strategies to meet growing expectations to live longer, better.

MIT AgeLab's Dana Ellis contributed to this article.