"Believe what ya like. Think what ya like. You'll be judged for what you do."
-- Tim Minton, Eyrie

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Aging ... It's Not So Bad

     I read an article in The New Yorker back in November called Why We Can't Tell the Truth About Aging by Arthur Krystal. The writer is a 71-year-old New York culture critic, who seems to want to put the worst face on aging that he possibly can. Or more precisely, what Krystal does is disparage a group of recent books that try to put the best face on aging.

     If an author believes that older people can have good sex, like Ashton Applewhite does in her book This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, then Krystal grumbles that if it's so, he's "never heard anyone testify to this."

    What about reports showing that people actually grow happier in old age, such as Jonathan Rauch's The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50?  Krystal's response: Bah humbug! Unhappy people just don't bother to respond to surveys.

     Do seniors, as some writers claim, experience less social anxiety and find themselves more comfortable in their own skins as they get older? Maybe, maybe not, says Krystal. But one thing he's sure of: You're going to suffer chronic inflammation, weaker bones, strained eyes, flagging hearts, less brain function, and more pain. In other words, "You're going to feel much worse."

     His article goes on from there, as most New Yorker articles do, but suffice it to say that while Krystal may find some philosophical wisdom in old age, he can't help but end on the desperate note that with wisdom comes grief, with knowledge much sorrow.

     The topic of aging is near and dear to my heart, for the obvious reason that I'm getting older. But I'm not nearly so negative as our New York intellectual. And anyway, as the saying goes, getting old is better than the alternative.

     As an antidote to Krystal, let me point out a few things that aren't so bad -- especially if we don't just lie down and accept the worst, but make an effort to keep ourselves active, involved and engaged.

     For one thing, our bodies do not inevitably get frail and fall apart, except maybe at the very end. Everyone who has been on earth the same amount of time has the same chronological age, but they don't all have the same biological age. Your biological age is based on how well your body functions, including blood pressure and weight, bone density and cholesterol levels. A healthy 70 year old who takes care of herself may be biologically no older than a 50 year old who does not. We can lower our biological age with exercise and good nutrition. One simple example: Harvard Magazine reported that subjects who walked an average of just ten minutes a day lived almost two years longer than those who didn't exercise at all.

     And that means we can still have plenty of energy and keep doing most of the things we like to do. Our energy levels depend more on our lifestyle and our attitude than they do on chronological age. Meditation, restful sleep and exercise are effective ways to pump up energy levels. If you have trouble sleeping, the advice is to go to bed at a set time every night; get up the same time every morning; avoid caffeine-laden drinks such as coffee, tea and colas; exercise for 20 or 30 minutes a day. And do not try to induce sleep with alcohol. Read a book or magazine instead.

     And so what about our sex lives? Testosterone is the hormone associated with male sex drive, and it's true that testosterone levels diminish with age. (Testosterone levels are higher in the morning, lower at night.) But the reality is, for men as well as women, sex drive is mainly generated in the head. More problematic than aging, for both men and women, are factors such as stress, fatigue, medical conditions and tensions within a relationship. So as long as you can think sexually and communicate your needs and desires, you can remain sexually active – which may not always involve intercourse but can include plenty of other intimate activities.

     But what about our deteriorating memory and those so-called "senior moments"? It's true that older people often suffer some short-term memory loss. But consider this: Researchers from the University of California and Columbia University tested a group of 20-somethings against people in their 60s and 70s, in various subjects, and found that despite a general loss of mental acuity, the older group did better than the younger test-takers in almost every category. How is that? Younger people were better able to manipulate information and process it quickly. But older subjects benefited from knowledge acquired through culture, education and a lifetime of experience. They had more focus, a better perspective and more patience. And for most practical applications – whether buying a house, driving a car, or playing cards – the wisdom that comes with age trumps the quick-mindedness of youth.

     And Krystal's view of happiness is just downright curmudgeonly. Studies have consistently confirmed the happiness curve, showing that people get happier after age 50. The happiness U-curve, as it's called, shows that happiness declines with age for the first couple of decades of adulthood – even for people who are successful, as many high achievers never seem to fully appreciate their success. People's levels of life satisfaction typically bottom out in their 40s, then begin to increase as they age through their 60s. A 2011 study from Stanford University found thatthe peak of emotional life may not occur until well into the seventh decade.

     None of this is to minimize the very real health problems that can come with age . . . or at any age. Many of us live with chronic pain, whether it's garden-variety back or knee pain, or something more serious. But a defeatist attitude doesn't help anybody. We don't have to simply succumb to old age, as Krystal suggests, and it is somewhat of a myth that we can't do anything about how aging affects us, that it's all determined by our genes.

     Of course, we can't pick our parents, and we are stuck with the genes we were born with. But how those genes are expressed depends a lot on how we live our lives. Our thoughts, emotions, our lifestyle, and how we cope with stress all go a long way in determining whether certain genes are turned on or off. This means that we have the power to  nurture the good genes and prune back the bad ones. For example, you probably won't get lung cancer if you don't smoke, even if you do have a cancer gene. And while you may be genetically disposed toward Alzheimer's disease, whether you actually get Alzheimer's depends largely on your lifestyle, including sleep, diet, stress levels. 

     So the inevitable question is: Am I whistling past the graveyard? I guess my answer is: Is there any better way to go past the graveyard?


Juhli said...

Great post! Recently two people have said to me that aging is all about loss. Well one could make a argument for that conclusion but what a lousy attitude to wake up with each day. My Dad who had lots of health problems and surgeries woke up each day eager to see what it would bring and I am using him as my role model. When people would ask how he was his response was "I woke up and that sure beats the alternative!" Your practical suggestions are on target too.

gigi-hawaii said...

All I know is, I keep getting up in the morning to go to the bathroom and start my day. Then, the usual question is "What should I eat for breakfast?" Then, I check my email and blog stats and blog comments.

Janette said...

My mom and two of her sisters are still alive (93 middle sized gardener, 91 light as a feather tennis player and 89 heavy weight committee person). I (62) had better just get happy and stay there. It is going to be a long haul! No reason to sit in the mud while I am traveling :).
My husband (69) is determined to live to 100- not in his genes. Still, he is happy and staying there. He just doesn't permit stress to be a part of his life anymore.

Barb said...

I have many health problems, some of which are due to my own lifestyle choices and at least one of them causes serious chronic pain. I have also experienced widowhood. But my enjoyment of life is pretty darned high and I look forward to almost every day and my life satisfaction has gotten higher in retirement as life has become all about the mainly doing what I want to do rather than what I have to do. Life is meant to be enjoyed already. I haven't read the article but I suspect I would have little to agree with.

Arkansas Patti said...

Totally agree with you Tom and this makes me very happy I am not Mrs. Krystal. Gotta feel badly for her.
Some things have been taken from my by age but I love the basic contentment that it has brought and retirement is the berries.

DJan said...

I am happier now than when I was working. But I sometimes really miss my avocation, skydiving, which I grew too old to do safely. Now I read, blog, exercise, and enjoy companionship with my partner and like-minded friends. I'm going to go read that article now. Thanks, Tom. :-)

DJan said...

Grumble. I read the article and cannot find a decent copy of Helen Small's book. Although it's on Kindle, it costs more than $30! Thanks for the great article anyway. :-)

Kathy @ SMART Living 365.com said...

Hi Tom! You KNOW this is a topic very near and dear to my heart. In 2020 I will turn 65 and I intend to make the most of the coming years. While I've read a few Curmudgeons myself, I have actually read far more who are optimistic and positive about the future. Of course, as you say, it isn't always peaches and cream and aches and pains to show up out of nowhere--for example, my husband's teeth seem to be taking a drastic turn for the worse--but for the vast majority of time we are both doing very well, staying active, tons of friends, lots to keep us busy, happy and involved. Life is good. So even though stuff happens at this age and older, it happens when you're younger too...the ability to bounce back...or bounce forward is essential. Let's have this conversation again in 1- years okay? That will be a good test! ~Kathy

Tom said...

I think, like Gigi, we all get up in the morning and greet the day, and then just keep going, and as long as we're going, we're doing okay. Yes, I like your idea, Kathy, to revisit the topic this time next year -- but I'm pretty sure despite some possible setbacks, we'll all feel about the same.

David @iretiredyoung said...

I'm not arguing it's old, but turning 50 earlier this year was something I wasn't too happy about. As the years pass, some of the things that I want to do will get more difficult and some of the things that I do now I probably won't do as well. I'd rather this wasn't the case but there's no point in fretting - my life is much better lived with a positive attitude and thinking of the things that I will do rather than dwelling on those that I won't or might be more difficult.

Laurie Stone said...

No, you're not whistling past the graveyard. You're keeping a positive, upbeat attitude. As long as we're feeling well (and bad health and disease can happen at any age) why not be grateful about life? Why not appreciate the small moments and all the intrinsic beauty of the world? That writer sounded like a downer.

Wisewebwoman said...

My own father, who lived to 84, had just the one tiny piece of philosophy on aging and it was: "Always have something to look forward to."

Wise words and it gets me out of bed all the time :)


Marcial said...

Like anything else, old age is as old is perceived. Even back in my twenties, the King Lear line- "Men must endure their going hence, even as the coming hither: Ripeness is all"- resonated, and does so more with the decades. In a follow up, after reading this post, this writer has a great take on Shakespeare on old age:

DUTA said...

Despite the ageing process, life after retirement can definitely be pain-free, meds-free, worry-free, provided we focus on ourselves to better understand and treat the needs of our body and spirit.
What I find very important to concentrate on, is nutrition, sleep, walking as opposed to driving.

People, however, seem to be looking for almost the same style of life they had before retirement and ageing ("get engaged", "get involved", "get active"..). Well, one has to flow with one's body, not force it to do things.

Rebecca Olkowski said...

I was thinking curmudgeon and then you said it. I'm much more with you. It's mostly in your head. We are as old as we allow ourselves to be. I plan to stay young as long as possible.

Bob Lowry said...

Mr. Krystal needs to lighten up. Just because he only sees clouds doesn't mean the rest of us don't see sunshine. Thank you for alerting me to an article I don't need to read.

Rian said...

Tom, neither my sister nor my brother made it past their fifties... so I feel terribly blessed to have gotten this far (74). And yes, I'm just beginning to realize that I can't do all that I used to do, but hey, so what? I can still do a lot of the things I love. DH and I are retired, relatively healthy, happy, and really do enjoy owning our own time. While we may not be able to travel the world, we have our friends (who are very dear to us), our family (kids and grandkids), and activities that we both love and enjoy. Life is good - or possibly as good as we make it.

Linda Myers said...

I can't remember a time when I was more content than I am now, even though the usual aches and pains remind me I'm not so young any more. I choose the contentment and the freedom to choose how I spend each day.

Klaus Labuttis said...

Aging is two-fold. There is a fascinating aspect of more understanding of less being annoyed about the ways of life, and then there is pain. Diseases and pain are challenging aspects of growing older. Find out how you can be pain-free with the healing power of mineral waters and carbon-rich gases at www.healthtourseurope.com

Kay said...

Wow! This is an excellent post, Tom. I agree with you completely. My husband is 75 and in better shape than many couch potato 50 year olds I’m sure. He’s also in far better condition than me even though his parents didn’t live as long as mine. I imagine all this is because he walks every morning and is careful about what he eats. As for happiness, there are ups and downs as we cope with what life throws us. I like what blogger Christine posted on her blog: “Happiness is not the absence of problems, it’s the ability to deal with them.” All that said, we do have to deal with our aging bodies. So we do the best we can. Thank you for this post, Tom.

Full Disclosure said...

I feel so refreshed reading this blog! Thank you so much for showing the lighter and inspiring side of ageing.