Are “Positive Aging” and “Healthy Aging” the Same?

September 24, 2021

It’s that time of the year again: September, also known as Healthy Aging Month. It’s an opportunity to bring greater awareness to how we can collectively and individually work toward, and achieve, better health as we grow older.

Much of the advice for staying healthy as we age is the same whether we’re in our thirties or our seventies:

  • Eat a nutritious, balanced diet.
  • Stay physically and mentally active.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Regularly schedule health screenings and physical examinations to keep on top of any medical issues that might occur.
  • Keep your weight within a healthy range.
  • Limit your intake of alcohol.
  • Find ways to cope with/reduce stress.
  • Build and maintain supportive relationships.

Following these common-sense steps will take you a long way toward feeling good, no matter what age you are.

They can help you build physical resilience, which can reduce your risk for chronic and serious illnesses.

Dr. Paul Reed talks about the role resilience plays in healthy aging in the September blog post he wrote as director of the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.

Several of the steps we listed above may also be helpful in building mental and emotional resilience — which leads us into a couple of related concepts: positive aging and successful aging.

Defining Healthy Aging vs. Positive Aging vs. Successful Aging

The terms “healthy aging” and “positive aging” are sometimes used interchangeably, but do they mean the same thing? If you search the internet, you’ll find a lot of information on both, and you may also come across the term “successful aging.”

There’s so much information, in fact, that it’s hard to find a universally agreed-upon definition for any of these terms. For our purposes, we’re going to set aside the clinical definitions used in the medical literature and stick with some that are more accessible to the average person.

Let’s start with successful aging.

An early model of this concept defined successful aging as:

  • Being free from disease and disability
  • Having high cognitive and physical functioning
  • Being actively engaged with life

Subsequent researchers raised the point that many older adults won’t be able to meet all three criteria as they continue to age. But that doesn’t have to mean that they have “failed” in the aging process. A newer model expands the population of “successful” agers to include those who’ve found ways to cope with or adapt to common age-related challenges, such as illness or the loss of a spouse and/or people in their social circles. They’ve called upon their resilience to meet these challenges, and they continue to find ways of experiencing satisfaction and contentment. 

Next, let’s move on to positive aging.

In a Forbes article published June 11, 2020, David Lereah, who wrote The Power of Positive Aging, said positive aging is having “the right attitude about growing old.” According to him, it’s about having a positive mindset.

In a blog post on positive aging, Brad Breeding, co-founder of myLifeSite, describes two perspectives on aging. The first sees aging as “a positive rite of passage.” The other sees aging as “a negative phenomenon that must simply be endured.”

Positive aging isn’t about denying or ignoring the likelihood of challenges that commonly come with age. Instead, it’s about adopting the attitude that aging is a part of life, and being optimistic that challenges and setbacks can be overcome.

Breeding suggests that “by reframing your thoughts on growing older … you can improve your mindset.” Lereah noted that positive aging is “incredibly good for our health.” He pointed to research by Nobel laureate Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, who found that certain positive aging behaviors protect and lengthen telomeres. (Telomeres are sections of DNA that “cap” the ends of chromosomes and play a key role in cell aging.)

Now, what about healthy aging?

Well, the World Health Organization defines healthy aging as “the process of developing and maintaining the functional ability that enables well-being in older age.”

The National Institute on Aging gets more specific, listing several steps to healthy aging that can “contribute to a productive and meaningful life”:

  • Adopting healthy habits and behaviors
  • Staying involved in your community
  • Using preventive services
  • Managing health conditions
  • Understanding your medications

As we see it, there are nuances that differentiate healthy aging, positive aging and successful aging, but it’s not hard to see the overlap among them.

Part Of Positive Aging: Finding A Sense of Purpose

Since 1900, life expectancy in the U.S. has increased at least two to three decades, depending on race and gender, according to SeniorLiving.org. Those increases are largely the result of medical and technological advances. 

Dr. Linda Fried, dean and the DeLamar Professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, raised a thought-provoking question in an article she wrote for The Atlantic: What do we want to do with an extra 30 years?

In the article, Dr. Fried, a geriatrician, elaborated on the need we humans have “to feel needed, respected and purposeful.” She noted that the lack of those qualities in our life is harmful to our health.  

She referred to research showing that “our attitudes toward aging affect our health, our resilience in the face of adversity and our very survival.” Other research, she added, suggests that “a key need for successful aging is to feel that you have contributed to leaving the world better than you found it.”

But our society, she pointed out, hasn’t found adequate ways to value the extra years we’re now living.

“The truth is that we have created a new stage of life but have not yet envisioned its purpose, meaning and opportunities,” she wrote.

Dr. Fried described a program for senior volunteering that she and Marc Freedman, CEO and founder of Encore.org, created, which eventually became the Experience Corps. Older adults who volunteered through the program experienced positive outcomes such as:

  • Improved strength
  • Less arthritis pain
  • Fewer diabetes medications needed to control blood sugar
  • Improvements in complex problem-solving abilities

In Okinawa, one of the five “Blue Zones” identified throughout the world in which people live longer than anywhere else, a sense of purpose is called “Ikigai.” It’s your reason for getting up in the morning. Research has shown that having a sense of purpose can add years to your life!

Holistic Wellness: Our Approach To Positive Aging

Spend a little time in our community and it soon becomes evident that we do positive aging well at Emerald Heights. That’s in large part because of our wellness program.

healthy aging month activities for seniors

Naturally, we offer fitness classes and activities to support physical health and longevity. But to us, wellness goes far beyond the body. Our expertly planned recreational activities, along with the deep sense of community Emerald Heights residents share, keep us connected. This enhances emotional health and prevents feelings of loneliness and isolation — another key aspect of positive aging.

Those who wish to explore their spiritual and intellectual development will find that our wellness program offers plenty of opportunities to expand the mind and spirit, too. Volunteerism is also tremendously popular here at Emerald Heights, from maintaining our scenic hiking trail to making toys for children’s charities.

When you’re a resident of our community, there are always plenty of reasons to greet the day!

Seriously, Come Spend Some Time With Us!

We hope that we’ve piqued your interest and you’re ready to learn more about how living at Emerald Heights contributes to positive aging. The best way to see what our community is all about is to come spend some time with us.

Plus, we have a “discover and learn” presentation coming up on October 19. It’s the perfect chance to check us out. If that doesn’t work with your schedule, we encourage you to visit our events page often to see what’s on the calendar or schedule an in-person or virtual visit by filling out the form below.