Never have so many Americans aged at once---1 in 3 are now over 50 years of age. Though headlines discuss whether or not Boomers are ready for retirement and how we're shaping consumer products and services little is written about the developmental value of aging. Articles challenge us to live younger longer but say nothing about the changes or insights we may encounter on our way to advanced ages. Is aging a state of decline or the last rich phase of human development? New interviews and research reveal some interesting clues.

Media often tells us that we find meaning and satisfaction by living better longer. 54 year old Joe Jimenez, CEO of Novartis, a research and development pharmaceutical company, reflects that view by promoting ways for people to stay vital and productive past today's retirement age. That perspective bases one's value on independence, health, and productivity. It casts old age and the troubles of an aging body as the enemy of that value. Health and productivity may enable us to take roles in society that support a sense of purpose yet finding personal meaning holds deeper rewards with the power to sustain us when health or productivity collapse.

Studies of today's centenarians show us that personal meaning is embedded in a holistic process supported by 9 factors including a sense of belonging in community and cultural respect for health and old age. In fact possessing a strong sense of personal meaning seems to be fundamental to reaching an advanced age. Through the Blue Zones project, a spinoff from a National Geographic expedition that identified and analyzed areas with high proportions of centenarians, we're understanding that meaning and aging are related by a principle so simple it's profound: what we do influences how we feel about life. As a recent Forbes online Blue Zones profile summarizes, "When we do the things that give us energy and make us feel good, we then are more likely to undertake activities that contribute to further health and happiness." That formula, evident in all Blue Zones, facilitates not only long lives but lives full of late life meaning as spokesperson, Dan Buettner explains, in his TED talk.


Knowing your sense of purpose and activating that in life "is worth about seven years of extra life expectancy," Buettner reports. How does that sense of purpose and meaning evolve in later years? How do losses and life adjustments inform meaning? How do years of experience strengthen our spirit and inspire us to pursue the work of living?

Social Gerontologist Lars Tornstam conducted interviews with people between 52 and 97 years of age and concluded that aging is a final stage in a natural progression towards maturation and wisdom. That contemplative stage, termed Gerotranscendence, results in what Tornstam terms a "shift in meta perspective from a materialistic and rational view of the world to a more cosmic and transcendent one, normally accompanied by an increase in life satisfaction." People of faith have framework for this path and others encounter it when faced with changes in their concept of self, new circumstances, or shifting social relations prompted by aging experiences...others never reach for this final stage. The process of gerotranscendence may lead to:

  • Greater acceptance of all aspects of our personality--the good and the bad.
  • Re-defining our self and/or relationships with others.
  • Reaching greater understanding of our spiritual or existential questions.
  • Sliding more easily between past and present. Not needing the hard divisions in time and/or living more in moments.
  • Overcoming any fear of death and/or redefining it.
  • Enjoying contemplative solitude and needing more time to withdraw from socialization.

Writing about Gerotranscendence last year, Loretta Brewer from the Arkansas Geriatric Education Center notes that the concept isn't about wisdom derived from looking back on life so much as it's describing a breakthrough in understanding of self and world that facilitates new meaning. "Finding meaning," she concludes, "allows the spirit to transcend the limitations of present circumstances and tap spiritual resources that often are incomprehensible from a rational perspective." 

Cultures and subcultures can "facilitate or impede the gerotranscendental process," Tornstam writes, echoing findings in the Blue Zones project. Blue Zone centenarians with purpose were surrounded by cultures that support healthy aging and the cultivation of meaning.  AARP's Vitality project 2010 partnered with Blue Zones to help one American community create a more supportive aging culture. More recently Fort Worth, Texas, enlisted Blue Zones research to transform their community into one that's more supportive of long, healthy lifestyles. On the strength of Tornstam's concept some nursing programs and facilities have explored adjusting their cultures to support gerotranscendence. Overall, America is slow to adopt the concepts we now know to be supporting advanced aging.

“We develop and change; we mature,” Dr. Torstam explained to The New York Times in 2010. “It’s a process that goes on all our lives, and it doesn’t ever end. The mistake we make in middle age is thinking that good aging means continuing to be the way we were at 50. Maybe it’s not.” His findings suggest that popular focus on keeping our oldest citizens socially engaged and active or, as Joe Jimenez advocates, productive and vital, may be a projection of what we want at 50 and not necessarily what is best for us in advanced age or supportive of our final stage of human development. However, culture also develops, changes, and matures. As that process unfolds we may see more programs and civic support for the ongoing growth in meaning that some seek and experience with age.

Views of age as a state of decline are slowly changing. Blue Zones points the way to a range of lifelong practices and environments that support meaningful healthful aging into advanced years while Tornstam's groundbreaking concepts shine a light on the potential of late life transcendence. Supportive cultures are key in improving aging outcomes but both Blue Zones and Tornstam's research show us that meaning and increased satisfaction later in life are set in motion by how we choose to live each day. To quote author Annie Dillard, from her bestselling book, The Writing Life, "How we spend our days, of course, is how we spend our lives." How do your habits and social connections support your aging? Are you seeking a sense of purpose? Have you incorporated any of the 9 factors for long life in your routines? Are you following the principal of centenarians? How does what you do influence how you feel about life?

 Update March 2016: From George Lorenzo's blog on finding a gerotranscendent lifestyle: "Being gerotranscendent brings peace to what was once chaos, and I believe I am coming to grips with it as being a new dominant way, in general, for dealing with the aging at this stage of my life."  Read more of this thoughtful, easy, blog to see how one man shifted his perspective to find meaning in aging.