We generally tend to think that as people age, they inevitably end up with a major illness or memory loss, leaving them isolated and unhappy. But for the majority of older individuals, this isn’t the case.
“These are myths about aging,” says Norman Abeles, professor emeritus of psychology at Michigan State University. “Many older people really are different than that.”
Most people do have some sort of health or cognitive impairment as they age, but in most cases, these are easily dealt with, Abeles says. When people retire, many are able to live fulfilling, productive lives.
And a few key traits you possess – including curiosity, resilience and sociability – go a long way toward staying happy and healthy long after retirement.
1. Sociability: Talk to someone new everyday
One of the most important keys to happiness as you age is remaining connected to others.
Isolation can be dangerous for aging adults and it may even make you more likely to be placed in a nursing home and have worse health issues, says Lee Lindquist, MD, chief of geriatrics at Chicago’s Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Studies have shown that aging women who keep active social networks were one-quarter less likely to have dementia than those who didn’t.
If you are a natural introvert or don’t have a wide social network, Lindquist recommends doing what one of her patients does: try and talk to one new person every day.
“It may be someone at the deli counter or in an exercise class,” she says. “You have to put yourself out there a little bit.”
When you are around people your own age, Abeles recommends using three simple topics that almost all aging individuals love to discuss: grandchildren, food and health.
“Stick with safe topics,” he says. “Stay away from politics and religion.”
2. Staying physically active
Physical activity is extremely important as you age. According to the World Health Organization, exercising over the age of 65 improves cardiovascular and muscular fitness, increases bone strength and reduces the risk of conditions like heart disease, cancer, diabetes, chronic lung disease, depression and cognitive disorders.
The WHO recommends getting 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity every week.
If you are able to play golf, tennis or swim, those are ideal types of physical activity. But gardening or going for walks are great ways to remain active. Some senior centers and health systems even offer classes for people in wheelchairs or who have limited mobility.
3. Curiosity: Try a new challenge
It’s easy, especially when you are retired, to do the same things every day. Sticking with a constant routine means you are relying on the part of your brain known as the basal ganglia. This is the area responsible for performing tasks you’ve done so much they require almost no thought, like walking down the street or driving home from work.
The problem with using this part of the brain so much is it puts you on auto pilot and doesn’t challenge your brain or build new learning pathways, which is important as you age, Lindquist says. You need to shake things up now and again and expand your horizons.
And if you can, try things that really challenge you like learning a new language or how to play a musical instrument. These both help your brain work in ways it hasn’t before. Intergenerational activities are also a great way to learn new things and avoid getting in a rut, Lindquist says.
To do this, you can attend something as simple as grandparent’s day at your grandchild’s school or volunteer at a youth center. Organizations like Michigan State University host annual summer classes for alumni and their grandchildren known as Grandparent’s University.
And Pittsburgh State University offers an Intergenerational Activities Sourcebook that provides myriad ideas for engaging with youth. “Think of your brain as a muscle; if you don’t exercise it, it turns to fudge,” Lindquist says. “Watching TV 24-7 isn’t active or stimulating.”
4. Be purposeful
Lindquist tells people that being 65 shouldn’t be considered the end but the fourth quarter. Especially if you are retired, this should be the time you are able to find a new purpose and do the things that make you happy.
After retirement, some people make dramatic changes like starting a new career, becoming a foster parent, or doing intensive volunteer work like joining the Peace Corps. But you don’t have to move to Africa to have a purpose-filled life. You may choose to do some part-time consulting or volunteer a few days a week at a local charity.
Studies have shown that just having a purpose or feeling useful to others can help you live longer and reduce the risk of health conditions like heart disease and insomnia. And an August 2017 study in the Journal of the American Medical Foundation Psychiatry found that people over the age of 50 who reported having some sort of purpose in life had better physical health than those who didn’t.
Researchers found that even small increases in purpose decreased their risk of developing weak grip strength and slowed walking (both markers of physical decline) by more than 10 percent.
No matter what you do to maintain a sense of purpose in your life as you age, having a reason to get up in the morning will make your days healthier and happier.
5. Positivity: Embrace aging
If you’ve seen the movie Grumpy Old Men, you likely had at least one moment where you thought, “I know someone just like that!” As people age, it’s easy to become more negative and critical of things and people around you. But Lindquist says having a positive attitude at this time is crucial.
“As they age, people need to embrace the things they love about life,” Lindquist says. “It’s about finding joy with loved ones and family and friends.”
And feeling good about aging in particular can help improve your mental and physical health, according to recent research.
A 2012 Irish study looked at data from more than 4,000 individuals who answered a questionnaire on their attitudes toward aging. People with negative perceptions of aging were more likely to have decline in cognition, executive function and attention than those who had positive ideas of aging.
Another small study out of researchers in North Carolina State University found that older people who were positive about aging fared better under stress than those who didn’t.
6. Resilience: Adapt to adversity
No one ever said aging was easy. Though many people today are able to remain healthy and active well into their later years, life experience inevitably brings illness, loss and some mental decline.
But being resilient – learning to adapt to adversity – can help guide you through the tougher times and even come out stronger. It may seem that most older adults suffer from loneliness and isolation, but many report they are content and are less likely to suffer from major depression than the general public according to a paper from the Arizona Center on Aging.
As we age, we tend to become more resilient, argue the researchers, enabling us to recover from challenges, sustain purpose and continue to grow through turmoil, loss and illness.
According to the Arizona research, resilience can be beneficial psychologically and physically for people, helping them recover following stress and injury, reduce depression after a loss and promote immune health.
“It’s not easy getting older, so we have to be strong,” says Lindquist. “We need inner strength to overcome pain and hardship and keep persevering.”