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updated 12/7/2012 11:50:56 AM ET 2012-12-07T16:50:56

A resilient attitude may be the secret to successful aging, perhaps even trumping good physical health, finds a new study.

Researchers surveyed 1,006 randomly selected adults in San Diego, Calif., between the ages of 50 and 99 (with a mean age of about 77) through a 25-minute phone interview, followed by a mail-in survey. In addition to evaluating the participants' physical health conditions, such as chronic disease and disability, the survey looked at more subjective factors like adults' social engagement and self-assessments of their overall health and degree of successful aging.

The team found that older adults with low physical functioning but high resilience — the ability to bounce back from negative events or setbacks — had comparable self-ratings of their degree of successful aging to those of physically healthy people who were less resilient. Meanwhile, people who were less physically able but had no or low levels of depression reported self-ratings similar to those of physically healthy people with moderate to severe depression, the study indicated.

"Perfect physical health is neither necessary nor sufficient," said the study's lead investigator Dilip V. Jeste, a geriatric psychiatrist of the University of California at San Diego. "There is potential for enhancing successful aging by fostering resilience and treating or preventing depression."

Overall, the researchers found that a higher self-rating of successful aging was more likely among those with higher education, better cognitive function, better perceived physical and mental health, less depression and greater optimism and resilience.

Previous studies have shown seniors tend to have quite positive outlooks — especially compared with younger adult generations — despite the physical and cognitive decline associated with old age. A 2008 analysis of data from the General Social Survey of the National Opinion Research Center indicated that about half of U.S. residents in their late 80s report being very happy, while the figure for younger adult age groups sinks to a third or less. And study of almost 45,000 German adults from 1984 to 2007 found that happiness levels dip during middle age but rebound by about age 60.

Jeste led another study in 2005 that surveyed Americans ages 60 to 98 who had struggled with cancer, heart disease, diabetes, mental health conditions or a range of other problems. Even in the face of their ills, the participants rated their degree of successful aging quite high, which Jeste said at the time could be attributed to optimism and effective coping styles.

Jeste, who is the current president of the American Psychiatric Association, said the results of the new study suggest aging doesn't have to be negatively viewed as a public health problem in the United States, where there are about 40 million adults over the age of 65.

"There is considerable discussion in public forums about the financial drain on the society due to rising costs of health care for older adults — what some people disparagingly label the 'silver tsunami,'" Jeste said. "But, successfully aging older adults can be a great resource for younger generations."

The research was detailed online today (Dec. 7) in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

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