Originally created 05/26/98

Book seeks to dispel myths related to aging



Although Successful Aging sounds like the title of yet another how-to book promoting wonder pills or miracle exercises, this new work is in a different league.

Heralded as a benchmark in reshaping society's historically negative view of aging, it approaches the subject by exploring aging in terms of health and vitality rather than expected disease and decline. Offering guidance on intelligent lifestyle choices, the book addresses such fundamental questions as these:

What does it mean to age successfully? What can each of us do to succeed at this most important task? And what changes in American society will enable more men and women to age successfully?

Without making excessive promises, Successful Aging (Pantheon) debunks a number of myths, including the belief that genetics are destiny and that physical and mental deterioration are coded into our genes. In fact, say the authors, the influence of genetics shrinks with the years while lifestyle choices become increasingly important.

"There are many books on aging, but two things set ours apart," said University of Michigan psychologist and co-author Robert L. Kahn. "The first and most important is that this is science-based. The second is that we are very explicit about our concept of successful aging, and we are not promising instantaneous or revolutionary change by gulping some pill."

What the authors do say is that it is never too late to make healthy behavioral choices, including exercising, cultivating new friends and becoming engaged in activities, three of the most powerful determinants of health and functioning in seniors.

"The bottom line is, we studied people at different ages, and we found no evidence for a point at which it was too late to start exercising or treating disabilities aggressively or doing anything else to improve health," Mr. Kahn said.

And they lay out guidelines for changes in personal behavior, societal expectations and public policy.

The book summarizes the MacArthur Foundation Study of Aging in America, a 10-year project involving an interdisciplinary network of researchers. "Essentially, we are defining a new gerontology," said Mr. Kahn, who is co-author of the book with Dr. John W. Rowe, president of New York's Mount Sinai Hospital and School of Medicine. Both were members of the 16-scientist network that studied thousands of older people, including sets of twins.

They were looking for success stories, Mr. Kahn said. How do many people remain healthy, mentally acute and independent well into their 90s? The researchers, studying biology, neuroscience, epidemiology, physiology and other specialties, focused on the factors that permitted older people to continue to function well.

As a result, the studies dispel a handful of cliches about aging that have long shaped individual and institutional attitudes, including: "To be old is to be sick"; "You can't teach an old dog new tricks"; and "It's all in the genes."

The researchers found that memory decline can be reversed, that loneliness can kill and that well-intentioned help can teach old people to be helpless.

"We're saying that instead of the rocking chair and the shawl, it's OK for older people to be active and do all the things within their capability," Mr. Kahn said. "Right now, because we measure only paid employment in determining productivity, we generally have a wrong idea about what older people are doing. We aren't counting such things as child care, home care, volunteer work and all the other things that keep society glued together." In funding the research, the MacArthur Foundation was prodded by several realities that might be summarized as the "new longevity."

"This generation is the beneficiary of tremendous medical advances," Mr. Kahn said. Faced with the gift of unprecedented extended years their next challenge is to improve the quality of those years, he said.

And although their emphasis on diet and exercise merely reaffirms today's common wisdom, he said, the research has produced new insights. "The findings that exercise helps to maintain mental and cognitive skills as well as physical ability in old age is new and interesting and exciting."

Successful Aging provides guidelines. Chapters deal with avoiding disease and disability in later life, the positive role of exercise and nutrition, and strategies to maintain and enhance both physical performance and mental function.

The final chapter suggests changes by government and the private sector that could create more flexibility in the lifelong mix of education, employment and leisure. Productivity could be redefined to include unpaid work, the workday reorganized into four-hour modules and health insurance separated from employment.

The 250-page book, which was compiled from hundreds of scientific studies published over the research period, is footnoted but not academic. "We struggled to make it user-friendly, but not dumb it down," said Mr. Kahn, 80. As professor emeritus at Michigan, he continues his work at the Institute for Social Research.

Noting that Successful Aging is now third on the best-seller list at the online bookstore at http://www.amazon.com, Mr. Kahn thinks he and Mr. Rowe have succeeded. "The whole point was to get the word out because we are convinced that people can really transform their later lives."