What, exactly, does “successful aging” mean? For more than a half century, researchers and gerontologists have argued whether successful aging is better defined subjectively (how older adults view their own state of aging) or objectively (physical disease-related disability or mental decline). Answering this question is more than an academic exercise. As the first members of the famed “baby boom generation” reach age 65, understanding what it means to remain healthy and independent in later life could have an enormous impact on health care delivery and medical policy.

Researchers from the New Jersey Institute for Successful Aging (NJISA) at the UMDNJ-School of Osteopathic Medicine have recently unveiled new findings that clarify what it means to age successfully, and point to modifiable factors that could help more people remain healthy as they age. The researchers found that people are more likely to age successfully if they are educated, have never been incarcerated, are married, consume only moderate amounts of alcohol and either work for pay or do volunteer work. The findings, based on telephone surveys of more than 5,600 New Jersey residents between the ages of 50 and 74, appear in an advance article in The Gerontologist.

“What you do before age 50 really will generally have the bigger impact on how well you age,” said lead author Rachel Pruchno, PhD, who is also the director of research at NJISA. “Our research shows how aging is a lifelong process. The person you become at a very old age is really a function of how you lived your earlier years.”

The researchers examined how factors early in life, as well as current behaviors, distinguished four groups of older individuals: those who age successfully according to objective criteria; those who age successfully according to subjective criteria; those who are successful according to both measures; and those who age successfully according to neither set of criteria.

“Education and incarceration were particularly strong factors,” Pruchno said. “The fact that we currently have a large number of people in prison serving relatively short sentences could herald a significant public health problem in the future. Interestingly, although marriage also coincided with successful aging, being childless did not appear to have a negative impact.”

The UMDNJ-School of Osteopathic Medicine is dedicated to providing excellence in medical education, research and health care for New Jersey and the nation. Working in cooperation with Kennedy University Hospital, its principal affiliate, the UMDNJ-School of Osteopathic
Medicine places an emphasis on primary health care and community health services that reflect its osteopathic philosophy, with centers of excellence that demonstrate its commitment to developing clinically skillful, compassionate and culturally competent physicians from diverse backgrounds, who are prepared to become leaders in their communities.

The University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) is the nation's largest free-standing public health sciences university with more than 6,000 students attending the state's three medical schools, its only dental school, a graduate school of biomedical sciences, a school of health related professions, a school of nursing and its only school of public health on five campuses. Annually, there are more than two million patient visits at UMDNJ facilities and faculty practices at campuses in Newark, New Brunswick/Piscataway, Scotch Plains, Camden and Stratford. UMDNJ operates University Hospital, a Level I Trauma Center in Newark, and University Behavioral HealthCare, which provides a continuum of healthcare services with multiple locations throughout the state.