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Perceptions of Healthy Aging Among Different Groups

When we think of aging well, we might have different opinions, as the definition of happiness and well-being can vary from person to person. Some people envision retirement as sipping an umbrella drink on a beach and wasting away in Margaritaville. Others think of endless hours playing with grandchildren and watching Little League games. Still, some people might want to work as long as possible and enjoy the social connection that a job offers.

The McKinsey Health Institute (MHI) recently released the results of a survey of over 21,000 adults ages 55 and older. The survey covered 21 countries, including high, middle, and lower-income economies. Regardless of socio-economic group and country, the responses were quite similar concerning the association of having a purpose, managing stress, having social connections, and maintaining independence to the overall perception of health.

The MHI survey looked at the answers to questions on perceived health and well-being across the key dimensions of mental, physical, social, and spiritual health. Not surprisingly, the majority of respondents, regardless of country or wealth, mentioned financial stability as a major factor in their ability to maintain a healthy lifestyle and cognitive health. A surprise in the survey results, however, was that older adults have adapted quite well to technology, specifically the use of smartphones.

In addition, some answers varied depending on the state of their economy, and some did not. For example, people in high-income economies did not report perceiving better overall health than people in middle-income and low-income economies. Yet, people in high-income economies did report being less socially involved in their senior years than those in lower-income economies. The cause of this might be due in part to the dependency of seniors living in lower-income economies upon family members and the higher rate of multi-generational households. Both of these have been shown to improve the health of seniors.

Based on previous work, the researchers at MHI believe that there are six key shifts that societies need for healthy aging. The shifts include:
– Invest in the promotion of healthy aging
– Improve measurements of health and get better data
– Scale interventions proven to promote healthy aging
– Accelerate innovation across the healthy aging ecosystem
– Unleash the potential of all industries to enable healthy aging, and
– Empower and motivate older adults to live to their full potential.

They also believe that it is necessary to change the perceptions surrounding chronological age and that age sometimes really is just a number.

As part of the survey, MHI asked participants about 53 factors ranging from societal interaction to exercise to determine what matters most to them as older adults and in what way those factors affect well-being. The survey revealed that having purpose, managing stress, being physically active, continued learning, social connections, financial security, exercise, and sleep were the most strongly connected to perceived health.

While some answers varied by country and/or income level, overall, the people in high-income and upper-middle-income economies valued stress management and financial stability, while people in low-income economies found exercise and sleep to be the most important factors of overall health. Regardless of how each of these groups responded, all of their answers were tied to their perception of their own mental, physical, social, and spiritual well-being.