As a physician and researcher, I’ve noticed an attitude among people I call “activist agers”—those who are proactive about building resilience and avoiding illness as they age.
It’s an approach that says, “I take action on my own behalf. I’m a problem solver. I don’t give up in the face of difficulty. I embrace opportunities to make matters better for myself and those around me.”
Our generation seems to hold this outlook in spades, with our long-lived interest in self-actualization and activism. Think of all the change we have instigated over the years in areas such as politics, education, the arts—and certainly in health and health care.
I knew a group of women when I was in medical school in the early 1970s who formed the Boston Women’s Health Collective. They published Our Bodies, Ourselves—a charter for the burgeoning women’s health movement. They pushed back against paternalism in Western medicine. They were true revolutionaries for a self-care movement, where patients started taking more control of their health, making care decisions based on their own values.
After five decades, is our generation still taking charge of our own well-being? My experience tells me some of us do and some don’t. But those who are proactive are more likely to live well into their 70s, 80s, and beyond.
So what does it take to be an activist ager? Here are eight behaviors I’ve noticed:
- They set a high priority on healthy lifestyle—staying physically active, engaged, and avoiding tobacco, unhealthy foods, and too much alcohol.
- They consciously try to keep stress to a minimum. When stress inevitably happens, they manage it through prayer, exercise, meditation, or other activities that enhance self-awareness and promote relaxation.
- They keep a careful eye on chronic conditions, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, arthritis, or high cholesterol. They partner with their doctors to track and manage symptoms. They don’t succumb to “magic bullet” promises.
- They pay close attention to preventing illnesses and injuries. They get flu shots, for instance. They do all they can to avoid falls.
- They’refeisty in their relationships with care providers. They come to appointments with a list of well-formed questions about their concerns.
- They ask lots of questions about prescription drugs: What are the benefits and risks? The side effects? Could exercising more or eating better make this drug unnecessary?
- They resist over-treatment and over-prescribing. They pursue “Goldilocks” care instead: Not too little, not too much. “Just right” means balancing health care’s benefits against its harms.
- They prefer “shared-decision making” in situations where there’s not enough scientific evidence for doctors to give individuals clear-cut“yes” or “no” (Examples: Should I have prostate cancer screening? What about breast reconstruction following a mastectomy?) They appreciate doctors who provide tools and processes that encourage patients to ask lots of questions, to weight pros and cons based on their own values, and to communicate their choices.
In the end, being an activist ager may not suit everyone. For some it may even seem anti-establishment. Fortunately for many of us, that’s a stance that feels quite familiar.
Dr. Eric B. Larsonis vice president for research and health care innovation at Kaiser Permanente Washington and author of Enlightened Aging: Building Resilience for a Long, Active Life(Rowman & Littlefield, 2017).