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Prolongevity: Successful Ageing?

What is it? And what does it mean to you?

Dr. Gwen Bingle
December 19, 2023

Missed the last Prolongevity episode on Happy Centenarians? Here goes....

Your philosophy of successful ageing

Ever heard of or thought about “successful ageing”?

What could it mean: ageing with all your teeth so you can bite into crispy apples without second thoughts? Learning to kitesurf, or run a marathon? Reading books without glasses? Travelling the world independently? Working till you drop and/or partying all night?

But maybe it means something loftier to you, like having achieved all your goals and dreams… or still having the vision and stamina to pursue them.

Unless… you should you settle for less? For instance: the resilience needed to move beyond defeats and lost dreams to just hang in there and enjoy whatever comes your way… Or are you resigned to expect much, much less, with the hope of just being as (pain-)free as possible?

From paradox to subjective interpretation

In late modern societies in which economic success seems to be the gauge of all endeavours, you may wonder if it is even possible to “age successfully”, since ageing seems implicitly linked to loss: loss of health, loss of autonomy, loss of performance or participation…

But maybe we’re getting it all wrong with our commodified view of even the most existential questions. What if “successful ageing” were more of a subjective value that cannot be accurately measured and evaluated from the outside? Perhaps successful ageing is what I decide it is for me.  

potrait of a self-assured elderly woman

Successful ageing through the scientific lens

Whether you have personally pondered the matter or not, the concept of “successful ageing” is probably the most popular (and controversially debated) concept in the field of gerontology and associated disciplines – from psychology to sociology over public health. While it was originally perceived as the “absence of physical and cognitive disabilities”, it was prominently popularised from the 1980s by American researchers John W. Rowe and Robert L. Khan, who headed the MacArthur Foundation Study of Aging in America.

Rowe and Khan initially defined successful ageing as the absence of disease, disability, and risk factors. So, for the first time, disease was not perceived as inevitably linked to old age. While their model took the gerontological scene by storm, it also gave rise to a lot of criticism for its stringency, since total absence of disease, disability and risk factors seemed unrealistic. Moreover, it overlooked environmental and lifestyle factors. This encouraged the authors to soften and expand their model over the years by including aspects such as the maintenance of physical and mental functioning, as well as active engagement with life.

Successful ageing: discrimination vs. interpretation

More contemporary appraisals of Rowe and Khan’s work have raised the question of discrimination, i.e. what about individuals who do face health challenges: are they “unsuccessfully ageing”? And what does it say about individuals facing additional challenges, such as issues of ethnicity, poverty, or lack of education? But beyond terminological implications that also affect alternative expressions such as “productive ageing” or “healthy ageing”, as opposed to the vaguer “ageing well”, research has also tackled the comparison between subjective and objective “successful ageing”.

A fascinating 2002 study was able to uncover a stark discrepancy between the two perspectives: “When asked to classify their own status, 50.3% of the participants rated themselves as aging successfully compared with 18.8% obtained by applying Rowe and Kahn's three rather stringent criteria […] This large difference is interesting in itself, because it indicates that a much higher proportion of older persons consider themselves to be aging successfully than is indicated by the most popular definition proposed by health professionals.”

This is a particularly arresting finding because, beyond all biomedical models of ageing (which are also valuable!), it hints at the huge significance of subjective well-being for a sense of successful ageing.

colourful portrait of an elderly Asian couple

A model for resilient ageing

In their 1990 book “Successful Aging: Perspectives from the Behavioral Sciences”, German psychologists Paul and Margret Baltes focused on a much broader perspective on ageing by examining the evolution of human development in adult and old age. On this basis, they designed the very influential SOC-model that stands for Selection, Optimization and Compensation. This model describes a process of adaptive competence valid for the entire life span but that is particularly suited to ageing.

The Dorsch, a German psychology lexicon, provides a convincing nutshell definition of the SOC process: Selection refers to the tendency of older people to concentrate on a few important target areas that are compatible with the resources still available. In a process of optimisation, people then try to improve their remaining skills (pragmatics of intelligence) or to pursue the acquisition of new skills as well as increase efforts to pursue the desired goals. In the case of losses or limitations, compensation, i.e. the use of support or aids or the development of previously unused resources, is a way for older people to maintain the goals and priorities they have set.”

The SOC-model thus demonstrates a concrete implementation of resilience that is both realistic for successful ageing and a lot more inclusive. It also implicitly restores agency to the individual beyond the official appraisal of biomedical institutions.

So, we hope to have broadened your perspective on “successful ageing” so that you can age well – on your own terms!


Selected Sources

(last retrieved on 19.12.2023; emphasis epiAge, translation from German: epiAge and DeepL)

Rowe JW, Kahn RL. “Successful aging”. Gerontologist. 1997 Aug;37(4):433-40. doi:10.1093/geront/37.4.433. Online:

Kahn,Robert L., Rowe, John W. Successful Ageing, New York: Pantheon Books, 1998.

John W. Rowe, Robert L. Kahn, Successful Aging 2.0: Conceptual Expansions for the 21st Century, The Journals of Gerontology: Series B,Volume 70, Issue 4, July 2015, Pages 593–596, Online:

William J. Strawbridge, Margaret I. Wallhagen, Richard D. Cohen, Successful Aging and Well-Being: Self-Rated Compared with Rowe and Kahn, The Gerontologist, Volume 42, Issue 6, 1 December 2002, Pages 727–733, Online:

Successful Aging: Perspectives from the Behavioral Sciences. Eds Margret M. Baltes and Paul B. Baltes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Urtamo A, Jyväkorpi SK, Strandberg TE. Definitions of successful ageing: a brief review of a multidimensional concept. Acta Biomed. 2019 May23;90(2):359-363. doi: 10.23750/abm.v90i2.8376. Online:

„Altern, erfolgreiches [engl. successful aging]“, Dorsch, Lexikon der Psychologie, Online:


Andrea Piacquadio / pexels & epiAge

RF Studio /pexels

RDNE StockProject / pexels

Dr. Gwen Bingle
epiAge Deutschland Content & Customer Relations
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