I’ve often thought that growing old is rather like adolescence; like teens, older people seem to change at their own pace. You may notice some friends slowing down sooner than expected, while others continue to be quite active well into their 80s and 90s. They continue to travel, play music, ski, attend church, learn new computer tricks, and take on many other life-affirming activities.
At first glance, you might think the active agers have lived “charmed lives.” Everything goes their way. But dig deeper and you hear about the setbacks common to most people. Many have been widowed, survived war, accidents, job losses, illnesses, and other misfortunes. And yet, they continue to thrive. What makes such long, active lives possible? Is it genetics? Healthy habits? Good health care? A great attitude? A combination of all these things?
Questions like these have fueled much of my research at the University of Washington and Kaiser Permanente. In our longitudinal study of aging, called Adult Changes in Thought or ACT, my colleagues and I have collected data on more than 5,000 study participants over many decades. We study differences between those who develop dementia and those who don’t. From this, we learn how the body—and especially the brain—changes over time.
Our findings—along with discoveries from scientists worldwide—have made me realize there are no magic bullets, no fountains of youth. But there is one quality common among many who age well and happily: resilience, which is the capacity to adapt and grow stronger in the face of adversity or stress. Resilient people are like trees in the wind that don’t break, but bend. They have the strength and flexibility to stay healthy or bounce back from illness and other challenges.
Where does resilience come from? My own observation tells me that resilient people typically follow a “PATH” that can be described with this three-part mnemonic:
1. P for pro-activity: They take charge of their health and happiness by preventing illness and managing chronic conditions that may develop. They partner with their health care providers, sharing important decisions, and getting care that’s just right for them—not too little and not too much.
2. A for acceptance: They understand that change will come with age, which allows them to approach the future with equanimity and mindfulness, in large part by understanding their own values. Acceptance often leads people to seek more meaning, fulfillment, and purpose in life as they grow older. They keep contributing to the world through work, volunteerism, and hobbies.
3. TH for THree reservoirs: Those with resilience build reserves of well-being in three ways—mentally, physically, and socially. They develop mental reserve by fostering, protecting, and enhancing brain function. Their physical reserves include a healthy heart, strong bones and muscles, and good vision and hearing. Building social reserves means having adequate financial resources, as well as a strong network of friends and family they enjoy spending time with and can depend on.
While the distance yet ahead cannot be measured, following the interrelated steps on this PATH toward resilience may help you lead a happier, healthier life along the way.
Dr. Eric B. Larson is a senior investigator at Kaiser Permanente Washington Research Institute and former vice president for research and health care innovation at Kaiser Permanente Washington. He is author of Enlightened Aging: Building Resilience for a Long, Active Life (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017).