In thousands of conversations over many years, Dr. Eric B. Larson has heard his patients and study participants express the same wish for old age: “They want to live independently in good health, postponing serious illness and disability until the very end,” he says.
Now, thanks to decades of scientific research into healthy aging, we have a greater chance than ever to do just that. This know-how is the subject of Dr. Larson’s new book, Enlightened Aging: Building Resilience for a Long, Healthy Life.
The book is based largely on Dr. Larson’s work as leader of one of the world’s largest and longest-running studies of healthy aging, the Adult Changes in Thought (ACT) study. ACT is a joint project of Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute (KPWHRI) and the University of Washington (UW). The study explores how the body (and especially the brain) ages, and how knowledge of this process can be used to help people grow old with greater resilience.
In Enlightened Aging, Dr. Larson invites readers to combine scientific knowledge of aging with the foresight to use it. Stories of his experiences with study participants, patients, friends, and relatives bring the evidence to life as he illustrates three interrelated steps on a PATH to resilience:
- Pro-activity, which means taking charge of your own health and happiness by preventing illness and managing chronic conditions that may develop. It means learning to be a partner with your health care providers, sharing important decisions, and getting care that’s right for you—not too little and not too much.
- Acceptance, which means recognizing that change will come with age. This approach allows you to anticipate the future with equanimity and mindfulness—in large part by understanding your own values. Research has shown that we generally seek more meaning, fulfillment, and purpose in our lives as we grow older. We want stronger relationships with friends and family. Many of us want to keep contributing to the world through work, volunteerism, and hobbies. And most of us want to stay as independent as possible. “Being open and realistic about the changes that aging brings will help you to keep such values in mind as you plan for the times ahead,” says Dr. Larson.
- Three reservoirs, which is about building reserves of well-being—mental, physical, and social—for the long, fulfilling road ahead.
Enlightened Aging also explores how activation and acceptance can change the way we approach not only aging, but death itself. By taking an enlightened approach, we may come to a place where we can relax and grow very old knowing we are safe, comfortable, and well cared for — an ideal Dr. Larson has seen many of his patients, research subjects, family, and friends experience near the end of life.
Dr. Larson is executive director of Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute (KPWHRI) and professor of medicine and health services at the University of Washington. He is a primary care physician specializing in internal medicine and a member of the National Academy of Medicine. Joan DeClaire is a journalist and director of communications at KPWHRI. Dr. H. Gilbert Welch, director of the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, provides the foreword.