(USA TODAY) -- Voices tinged with regret are echoing in the minds of many aging Americans today who know that getting older offers fewer opportunities for "do-overs" to course-correct their lives.
And now, findings from a new nationally representative survey, exclusive to USA TODAY, suggest that while some do have regrets, many older adults also have some lessons to offer those who are younger — and aging, as well.
When asked about a preselected list of steps they wish they had taken "to plan and prepare for your senior years," the most-cited responses illustrate just how regret also plays a role in getting older.
Among them are saving more money and making better investments, taking better care of health and staying closer with family. Of the respondents, 17% said "none of the above."
"When we get older, people do a life review. They begin to think 'I shoulda done this or saved more money or spent more time with the kids.' At some point, you get to the realization that we're not going to live forever," says Louis Primavera, a psychologist at the private, New York City-based Touro College.
The survey, a joint effort by the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, the National Council on Aging, UnitedHealthcare and USA TODAY, included responses from 1,000 adults 60 and older and a comparison group of 1,027, ages 18-59. Of the older group, two-thirds were 60-74.
The legions of older Americans are growing across the USA, according to a report from the U.S Census Bureau released in May, which shows the 65-and-older population is projected to reach 83.7 million by 2050 — almost double the 2012 level of 43.1 million. With such numbers, regrets about "saving more" or "staying closer with my family" can shape the quality of life in later years. So, for those now in their 20s, 30s, 40s and even 50s, they can get a glimpse of what lies ahead.
"The No. 1 thing people are looking for today is really peace of mind," says financial adviser Susan Acker of Merrill Lynch in Pittsford, N.Y. "The goal of saving more money is to reach peace of mind."
Carsten Wrosch, a psychology professor at Concordia University in Montreal who has been collecting life regret data since 2003 among those ages 20-40 and 60-plus, has found that life regrets center around work, education and relationships. But what's really surprising, he says, is that most regrets were from decades past, often occurring when people were in their 30s and 40s.
"We often hear one of the biggest regrets they have is that they weren't closer with their family," says Donna Butts, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based non-profit Generations United, but now "we're seeing that change as the generations change."
Wrosch says regret can become a health problem if people have no chance to repair the harm or right a wrong.
"People start ruminating. They become depressed. They experience associated biological problems," he says. "Ultimately, it makes them more vulnerable to disease."
"Letting go actually really helps," Wrosch says. "Let go of those regrets and find something else in life that is meaningful and can provide purposeful living."