Researchers from Portland State University, the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research, Oregon Health and Science University, and Statistics Canada surveyed 2,432 older Canadians about their quality of life.
The few who maintained excellent health over an entire decade were considered "thrivers".
"Important predictors of 'thriving' were the absence of chronic illness, income over 30,000 dollars, having never smoked, and drinking alcohol in moderation," said Mark Kaplan, DrPH, lead author and professor of community health at Portland State University.
"We also found that people who had a positive outlook and lower stress levels were more likely to thrive in old age," the researcher added.
Dr. David Feeny, co-author and senior investigator at the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research, said: "Many of these factors can be modified when you are young or middle-aged. While these findings may seem like common sense, now we have evidence about which factors contribute to exceptional health during retirement years."
During the study, the participants filled out an extensive health survey every other year, starting in 1994 and continuing through 2004.
One measure, called the Health Utilities Index, asked people to rate their abilities in eight categories, including vision, hearing, speech, ambulation, dexterity, emotion, cognition, and pain.
The researchers observed that "thrivers" were those who rated themselves as having no or only mild disability in all eight categories on at least five of the six surveys.
Respondents who reported moderate or severe disability on any of the six surveys were classified as "non-thrivers".
Just over half of the respondents started out as "thrivers", but by the end of the 10 years, only 8 percent of the respondents were considered thrivers.
At the end of the study period, 47 percent of the respondents were classified as non-thrivers. Thirty-six percent had died and 9 percent were institutionalised.
"Even though the study was conducted in Canada, the findings are certainly applicable to the United States and other industrialized nations. Our population here in the United States is similar demographically to Canada's, and both health care systems rely on the same underlying technologies," says Bentson McFarland, MD, PhD, co-author and professor of psychiatry, public health and preventive medicine at at Oregon Health and Science University.
The study has been reported in The Journal of Gerontology: Medical Sciences.