Have you ever seen an 80-year old who is still so full of life and wondered, what’s the secret? What makes one person live productively into his or her later years, while another disengages and withdraws? You might assume that physical health is the most important factor in determining how vibrant we are as we get older, but in most cases, it’s not. Even if you face physical challenges, your life can be as full as it ever was—if not more so. Gary Frost, Ph.D., adjunct professor in the College of Public Health at the University of Arizona in Tucson, and an expert on aging, shares his insights into what makes people grow old with happiness, health and vitality.
Q: What is the definition of old?
A: There are three ways we typically measure age. There’s chronological age, which everyone focuses on, which we cannot control and which, for the most part, doesn’t mean anything. It is least linked to quality of life. There’s biological age, which is about your physical health and revolves around lifestyle choices and things you can control, such as diet, exercise, stress. And then there’s behavioral age, which is how you decide to play out your life. Both biological and behavioral age really determine when you become old.
Q: How so?
A: Behavioral age is about approaches and attitudes in life, and it’s a choice. We all know young 78-year-olds and old 38-year-olds. There are three things that are critical to staying young, in addition to maintaining a certain level of movement and fitness: learning, having social networks and living with purpose.
Q: So chronological age really is meaningless?
A: It’s only your date of birth. Unfortunately, it has been the measurement by which most people make judgments about you—and how you judge yourself. There’s nothing you can do about it, except lie [he laughs].
Q: From what you’ve seen, do most people age gracefully?
A: Some folks fight it; others ease into it and even embrace it. That’s the big question: How are you going to do it? For me, at 73, this is the best time of my life, bar none. There are things I want to see, do and experience with friends and family. I still know that at the end of it all, I’m going to die. But I want to stack the deck, so it’s quality of life…and perhaps some additional years.
Q: If there were a key attribute of successful, happy older people, what would it be?
A: I think it would probably be optimism. To me, optimism is looking at life realistically. Optimistic people live longer and are healthier and happier.
Q: Why is that?
A: They encounter the world positively, which causes less wear and tear on the body and soul. They’re the opposite of cynical. People who are cynical are always geared up for an attack. Optimistic people don’t go into an encounter that way. As I said, they have a realistic view of life, however; they’re not Pollyannaish or naive. They have perspective—a view of the world based on years of living and learning.
Q: Where does your emotional life come into play?
A: At this point in life—your sixties, seventies, eighties, even nineties—you are emotionally in a much, much better place. I’m speaking in general terms, of course. In terms of wisdom, I’m much sharper now than I was a decade or two ago, and I’m less judgmental. While my eyesight isn’t as good, I “see” life more clearly and I don’t get caught up in unimportant things. I finally get to put into play all the successes and failures I’ve experienced, and my perspective is more balanced, broad and thoughtful.
Q: What made you interested in the topic of happiness and aging?
A: I’ve been around old people all my life. My dad was the youngest of nine children, so family gatherings consisted of all these old people—and me. My youthful arrogance was that I felt bad for them. Then, when I would meet a vital 85-year-old, I’d wonder why they are in that situation, while a lot of other old people, like my father’s family, aren’t.
Q: And that that led to your professional interest?
A: Gerontology and studies of aging have always interested me. But going back to graduate school, it was an intellectual experience. As I’ve gotten older, it’s gotten less intellectual and more personal. Seeing me get up in front of an audience can often ignite the passions of aging person who might think to themselves, I can age that way. Or it might give adult children of aging parents a better understanding of what it means to add quality years to a loved one’s life.
Q: Did you have a particular role model for aging?
A: My mother lived to 96 and was independent until she died. At 91, she was getting a little shaky, and we suggested she move to a new assisted living facility. Two days before the moving van was coming, I went to have dinner with her and she told me she wasn’t going because her coffee table wouldn’t fit in the new apartment.
At first, I got frustrated and thought, So, we’ll get a new coffee table. But then I realized that what she was really saying was she didn’t want to move. And why did I care if she moved or not? So I brought in someone to be with her everyday, and she died having lived in her apartment the whole time. She taught me a lot.