Activity Portfolios: Engagement and Health in Later Life

Nancy Morrow-Howell, Ph.D. 

Project Overview: 
Studies by gerontology scholars focusing on well-being in later years have advanced the perspective that successful aging has three components: low probability of disease, high functioning, and active engagement with life. This project will focus on the active engagement component by pursuing the concept of activity portfolios to profile an individual’s investment in the activities of life. A multidisciplinary approach is necessary to develop knowledge around the activity portfolio. Determinants of activity are multifaceted, including individual, social, and environmental factors. Similarly, differential health and longevity outcomes may not only differ by types and balances of activities, but individual, social and environmental factors most likely condition the effect of activity engagement on older adults. Thus, the development of our conceptual model requires the perspective of the many disciplines represented on our team. Further, interventions to influence activity portfolios of older adults will aim at individuals and communities through program and policy developments. The aims of the multidisciplinary team of scholars are to 1) identify optimum activity portfolios in terms of positive health outcomes for the individual and for society, 2) understand life course factors that affect activity portfolios of older adults, and 3) influence programs and policies that shape late life activity.

Final Report Project Goals:
This project brought together Washington University scholars from several disciplines to advance a new idea: the activity portfolio. The ultimate goal was to develop multidisciplinary work around this topic. At a meeting on productive aging at Washington University several years ago, noted psychologist Jim Birren discussed the concept of the life portfolio, a profile of an individual’s investment in the activities of life. He stated that “presumably one’s life portfolio is somewhat modifiable to maximize productivity, successful aging, or the elements of some other concepts of the output of individuals," (Morrow-Howell, Hinterlong, & Sherraden, 2000, p. 107). Through funding from the Longer Life Foundation, a team of Washington University faculty members came together to develop the idea of the activity portfolio and produce knowledge that is especially timely as we strive to understand 'What to do with our extended years of life?' Read the full Final Report.