Your birth certificate gives your date of birth, but does it really say anything significant about you other than when to send a birthday card? Does it indicate how old you feel? Does it tell people you swim for an hour every morning or that you play at a local jazz club once a week? Chronological age is based on a number, and there’s nothing you can do to change that. Behavioral age, however, is measured in things you absolutely can control: attitude and activity.
“Behavioral age is about how you decide to play out life,” says Gary Frost, Ph.D., adjunct professor in the College of Public Health at the University of Arizona in Tucson, and an expert on aging. “There are people who simply accept their date of birth and abdicate their behavior to that age. But it’s a choice.”
Those choices will help set the parameters for your life moving forward. In fact, lifestyle choices account for about 75 percent of how we age. For instance, you can choose to work around your physical limitations or you can limit your level of activity because of them. You can expand your social network or allow it to shrink. You can make plans to experience new things, or stick with the status quo. In the same way that physical activity boosts your energy levels and lifts your spirits, so do mental and social activities—from going back to school to volunteering to working part time.
Here are some choices you can make to stay vibrant at any age.
Live with optimism. Being optimistic doesn’t mean thinking the glass is full when it’s practically empty. It means feeling confident that you can fill it back up. For many aging people, that confidence comes naturally. As time passes, we undergo a developmental process that gives us a more positive outlook. We have a perspective on life that we couldn’t have had decades earlier, and that perspective often allows us to take stock of what has worked in our lives and what hasn’t. Age has a way of making us realize, I should spend my time and energies in productive ways.
Dream for the future. When you’re young, life is all about making plans and looking forward to the next adventure. In order to stay vibrant, you need to continue dreaming about what lies ahead and taking steps to make it happen. Live in the present and stay fully engaged in those people and projects in your life. Keep your calendar full. Explore new places, or rediscover your own city. Sign up for those guitar lessons or art classes. Involve yourself in whatever you find stimulating to keep the body and brain vital. “When I ask aging people what they’ve always wanted to do and haven’t done, I’ve never gotten a blank stare or anything short of a long list,” says Frost. “Having dreams can turn into a daily purpose: How do I get better at that, how can I learn.”
Build social connections. There was probably a time when you had too many people in your life to keep up with. But little by little, those relationships drift away, as marriages end, people move and friends get sick or die. Aging without a vibrant social life can be lonely and depressing—not to mention boring—so it’s important to replace the relationships that start to disappear and strengthen the ones that remain. This takes initiative on your part, but it makes getting older worthwhile. Knock on a neighbor's door, join a club, sign up for a charity event, go on a guided group walk.
Find spirituality. Whether you are moved by faith, or by an outside force such as music or nature, making a spiritual connection is a source of joy and inspiration. This could mean strengthening your relationship with organized religion, but it certainly doesn't have to. Spirituality is very personal and can take many forms, all of which have a common bond—connecting with something greater than yourself. Determining your spiritual personality may help guide you toward a spiritual practice that suits you best and gives you the gifts of ritual and tradition—powerful elements of aging successfully.
Strive for purpose. Regardless of age, everyone needs a reason to get out of bed every day. Ask yourself what you hope to accomplish today, this week, this month. What drives you to get up, get working, get active and get involved? This may change with time (for example, when you retire), but it's important to have answers to these questions that are meaningful to you. Research says that people who have a purpose live longer and are much less likely to be afflicted with dementia and Alzheimer's disease.
Change your perception of aging (and of yourself). This view affects how you behave in later life and how you actually age. If you think aging people are lousy drivers, you may start to limit your own driving (and other activities), even if you’re still a good driver. To combat the negative perceptions or self-doubts about getting older, write down your story—the way it is now, and then the way you’d like the story to play out. “It’s a powerful tool to have a positive story about your own aging. There’s not a part of the story that says you don’t do things at a certain age,” says Frost.
Staying positive, active and engaged can make later life as joyful and productive as any other stage. It will also keep you more vital, no matter what the date on your driver’s license says.