Join Our Conversation

We want to start a conversation with anyone who is interested in healthy and successful aging. We are nine gerontologists, each with over 30 years of experience on aging research. We want to share our thoughts on healthy and successful aging. We want your critique, comments, feedback on our ideas, and we want you to share your ideas with us.

What is Successful Aging?

We all want to be successful, and no one wants to be not successful in our aging. But what does successful aging mean? Is healthy aging the same as successful aging? If we have some health problems, does it mean we are not aging successfully? How does one know one is aging successfully? How is aging (or successful aging) different for different people in different cultures or environments? How do we measure successful aging? What have we found in our quest for knowledge for successful aging? What are the necessary and sufficient conditions to attain successful aging? And finally, based on what we know, what can public health do to help older adults age successfully?

These are some questions most people would ask when confronted with the idea of successful aging. Healthy and successful aging is possibly the most important research outcome and policy decision related to aging and the aging population. In the last 30 years, scientists have made significant advances in the definitions, approaches, and research methodologies in answering some of the questions. Unfortunately, the implementation of findings to applications is still lagging behind. We propose the time is ripe to review what we know and don’t know, controversies, disagreements, and different ways in viewing and studying successful aging. Out of these reviews, we hope to recommend some research directions that may be fruitful to the next generations of research and application.

Who Are We?

We are a core of nine gerontologists, each with more than 30 years of experience in aging research and application. We intentionally keep the number of core members small in order to initiate this conversation. We are funded by the National Institute on Aging to conduct this project. More information about the team can be found here.

Leonard W. Poon, Ph.D., Principal Investigator, Psychology
Chris Fry, Ph.D., Anthropology
Eva Kahana, Ph.D., Sociology
Boaz Kahana, Ph.D., Psychology
Peter Martin, Ph.D., Psychology and Human Development
Rachel Pruchno, Ph.D., Psychology
Brad Willcox, M.D., M.S., Medicine, Geriatrics
D. Craig Willcox, Ph.D., Anthropology
May Wykle, Ph.D., R.N., Nursing

How To Proceed

  1. We have written five concept papers about various aspects of healthy and successful aging. These concept papers can be considered drafts as we want to add our peers’ perspectives on consensus, disagreement, or extension to include other ideas or areas.
  2. These papers are posted on this blog and our Facebook page. We welcome your comments, critique, and feedback on these papers in the comment areas of either websites so that we can have an open discussion. These conversations will serve to extend the four papers. You are encouraged to append papers or references to support or bolster contents and ideas, and we will be careful to give proper credit for your ideas.
  3. After we have gathered sufficient comments, we have planned a small workshop to discuss all of the ideas with the hope of defining and consolidating the current state-of-the-art on healthy and successful aging.
  4. We plan to have a webcast of this working conference, and/or produce an edited video documentary of the event.

The Next Steps

  • Summer, 2012: Consolidation of peer input on the five papers.
  • August 2012: Conduct first workshop to discuss current state-of-the-art. Current plan is to webcast the discussion and/or post and distribute edited video of the discussion.
  • November 2012: A symposium will be held at the Gerontological Society of America meeting in San Diego to discuss this project.
  • December 2012: Solicitation for ideas for next steps of research and application on facebook and blog.
  • April, 2013: Conduct second workshop on new directions.
  • November 2013: Conduct a mentoring workshop at the 2013 meeting of the Gerontological Society of America for emerging scholars.
  • December 2013: Publication of the discussion and consensus on successful aging.

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Project Description

Public Health Mandate in Healthy and Successful Aging

Grant Number

Grant 1R13AG041931-01 from National Institute On Aging


Healthy and successful aging is possibly the most important research outcome and policy decision related to aging and the aging population. It was 23 years ago that Jack Rowe and Robert Kahn (1987) revitalized research and discussion on the concept of usual and successful aging. This effort through the MacArthur Foundation and other research networks created one of the most sustained and energetic research enterprises in the history of aging and the National Institute on Aging.Owing to the overwhelming public health implications of healthy and successful aging, recent research has made significant advances on definitions, approaches, and methodologies. Unfortunately, the implementation of findings to applications is still lagging behind.

We propose that the time is ripe to examine, evaluate, and consolidate these findings toward new directions to focus on implementing the public health mandate to improve individual and population health and successful aging. We have assembled an eight-member interdisciplinary senior b-BSSR team who had collectively contributed to significant thinking in the field and capable of implementing new directions. This team will work together with gerontological peers to identify what we know and how to forge forward. We would share our thinking on the web and invite peer criticisms and input.

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Paper 1: Defining Successful Aging: A Tangible or Elusive Concept?

Peter Martin1, Norene Kelly1, Eva Kahana2, Boaz Kahana2, Leonard W. Poon3

1Iowa State University
2Case Western University
3University of Georgia


This is the first of five papers to review and define the notion of “successful aging” — a term that is commonly used in the gerontological literature as both a process and an outcome with significant amount of research in the last fifty years on its meanings, models, measurement, interpretations, and implications for applications.  If one ages successful, it implies that one has successfully “added years to life and life to years”  — a goal all of us would want to achieve.  Policy makers would want to instill programs that would lead its citizens to achieve some measurable benchmarks of successful aging.  Yet, after 50 years of research and discussion, there is still significant amount of ambiguity on the definition and application of the mechanisms of successful aging.

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Paper 2: Future Directions in Successful Aging — Realized or Remaining?

1Norene Kelly, 1Peter Martin, 2Leonard W. Poon, et al.

1Iowa State University
2University of Georgia

This paper is designed as a stand-alone review with the expressed goal of supplementing the initial “definition” paper (Martin et al.) by performing a literature search on historically key discussions on successful aging.  The paper systematically decomposes the key concepts to provide bases for discussion of new directions and next steps of research.

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Paper 3: Measuring Up Success

Christine L. Fry
Professor Emerita of Anthropology
Loyola University of Chicago

Operational definitions are always difficult.  We always fret over issues of validity and reliability. However, when variables involve an evaluation, the challenge becomes even greater.  One extreme of the variance is better than the other.  Not only do we have to answer the question of what makes for good and bad, but what empirically represents goodness and badness.  For human aging the matter would seem to be fairly straight forward.  Within the successful aging framework as proposed by Rowe and Kahn (1998), good aging is success and bad aging is failure.  But success and failure are not as they would seem.  In a world mediated by culture, seldom do we find simple black and white contrasts.  Culture both enables us to formulate our hypothesis, but it also can mystify our measurements.

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Paper 4: Social Structure and Successful Aging

Christine L. Fry
Professor Emerita of Anthropology
Loyola University of Chicago


The first two papers in this series provided a brief history of the conceptualization of successful aging followed by a summary of key papers in a historical sequence.  As noted in the first definition paper, an important criticism of the model produced by the McArthur successful aging project is the sociological and contextual impact is lacking (Riley, et. al, 1972).  The degree of departure from usual physical, psychological, and social aging in defining successful aging needs to be interpreted from the standpoint of the society in which the individual resides and ages.  Our environment also defines our levels of development, and different environments over one’s lifetime accentuate, limit, or circumscribe our potentials.  This paper outlines the complexity of our environment in terms of social structure and networks, as well as individual differences in exchanges, interdependency, kinship, and support systems over one’s lifetime.  The paper provides another level of complexity of aging in which successful aging is defined.

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Paper 5: Interventions to Promote Successful Aging

Eva Kahana, Ph.D.
Department of Sociology
Case Western Reserve University

Boaz, Kahana, Ph.D.
Department of Psychology
Cleveland State University

Funded by NIH Grant NINR 10271Assistance of the following colleagues and graduate students is appreciated: Jeffrey S. Kahana, Ph.D., Loren D. Lovegreen, Ph.D., Jane A. Brown, Ph.D., Julie Chaya, MA, Cory Cronin, MA, Relebohile Morojele, MA, and Sarah Schick, BA


Interventions to promote health and well-being among older adults are widely implemented and recommended in an effort to enhance quality of life in old age. Yet, the very idea that there is a need for interventions to achieve success is at variance with prevailing orientations about successful aging (Rowe & Kahn, 1998). To the extent that successful aging presupposes good health, financial and social resources, and adaptability, there should be little need for interventions to achieve success in late life. Such assumptions would be warranted if we define successful aging as an outcome rather than a process.  Interventions could only assist those individuals who are not aging successfully, as defined by poor physical health or cognitive limitations. In the context of outcome oriented models of healthy and successful aging, such interventions would be viewed as prosthetic measures to aid vulnerable, and by definition, unsuccessful elders.

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