You can’t wish away the aging process, but the right attitude helps
When I turned 40, my younger brother gave me a joke gift: adult diapers. A few years later, when he turned 40, I gave them back. Touché!
The message behind this joke was not subtle: You’re old, and your body is going to stop working. In fact, for practically every birthday after the 18th, there are hundreds of cards with the same corny jokes about your failing memory and your sagging body. They’re so ubiquitous they seem harmless.
At the time, I thought it was all in good fun. But lately I’ve been wondering if that is the case. Recently, I listened to a successful national radio commentator — a man in his 60s — bending over backward to avoid saying how old he was. I was struck by the strangeness of it. Why would he be ashamed of having lived so much life? Why did he want so desperately to seem younger than he was?
As I inch closer to 50 myself, I don’t feel particularly decrepit. I still travel, and I have plenty of energy and lots of things I want to do. A few years ago I even started running ultramarathons. Yet every time I have a birthday or shop for a birthday card, I’m struck by the mix of ridicule and despair with which we mark each passing year. It gets harder and harder to find a birthday card that is celebratory.
America has always been a country that celebrated youth. But according to one study, it was around 1880 that attitudes toward older people started to become significantly more negative. It was due partly to the increasing “medicalization” of old age, as well as the growing portion of the population over 65. And according to Robert Pogue Harrison, author of Juvenescence: A Cultural History of Our Age, our youth worship has only increased since the end of World War II.
Recently I picked up a copy of There Are No Grown-ups: A Midlife Coming-of-Age Story by Paris-based journalist Pamela Druckerman. Ostensibly, it’s a book about what it’s like to be in your 40s. The book has some funny and insightful essays about that — but mixed in is a steady stream of jokes about declining looks, declining memory, and declining relevance, which contributed to my declining enjoyment.
This is not because I’m afraid of getting old. I am not. But in the past, our love of youth was tempered by a respect for age. Now we think of aging as simply an inexorable decline that ends in death. And our fear of death has become pathological.
Emblematic of this is biomedical gerontologist and mathematician Aubrey de Grey, who assures us that soon people will live to be 1,000, if not forever. De Grey first put forward his ideas for eliminating aging in his 1999 book, The Mitochondrial Free Radical Theory of Aging, published when he was 36. He went on to found the SENS Research Foundation, with the goal of curing aging. De Grey is now 55, and we are no closer to that goal.
More acute than our fear of death, however, is our fear of decline — which can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. In a landmark 1979 “counterclockwise” study, Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer took a group of eight elderly men, measured their biomarkers of aging, then took them on a retreat to a location she had decorated to look and feel like 1959.
After living for a week in a world that looked and felt 20 years younger, Langer measured the participants’ biomarkers again. The men were found to have improved hearing, better memory, more grip strength, and increased joint flexibility and dexterity. They were taller and their fingers were longer. More than half of them were smarter. In photos taken after the study, the participants were judged, by impartial observers, to be younger than in photos taken beforehand.
Much of what we fear about aging — such as losing our hearing, eyesight, mobility, or memories — may actually be caused in part by our belief that we will lose those things. One study led by Yale School of Public Health psychologist Becca Levy found that people who hold a negative view of aging die an average of 7.5 years before those with a positive view of it. Another study found that women who believed they were at risk from heart disease were 3.6 times more likely to die of heart attacks than women with the same risk factors who believed they weren’t.
Levy has spent years investigating this question. It’s something that she started thinking about when she was on a fellowship in Japan. “I was really interested in how differently the culture acted toward older members of society, and the different views of aging that were expressed,” she says now. “At the time, Japan had the longest life span, and I thought that was really interesting.”
She wondered: Was there some relationship between these things? Or did the fact that people lived longer cause them to be more respected? Or was it simply random?
Levy has found that our personal perceptions about getting older have a major impact on how we age. “These views of aging do seem to have an impact on cognitive and physical health,” she says. “And in cultures that promote more positive views of aging, individuals who have taken in more of those beliefs have a health advantage over time.”
Negative stereotypes start at a very early age — as young as three years old — but don’t become harmful until they are “self-relevant.” At that point, they can cause us to lose mobility, balance, strength, eyesight, hearing, and memory, and can increase our odds of dementia, Alzheimer’s, and cardiovascular events. They may even accelerate our cellular decay.
The good news is that positive aging stereotypes can have the opposite effect. In a study that echoed Langer’s “counterclockwise” findings, Levy found that by subliminally giving older people positive aging stereotypes, after just four weeks, subjects showed improved strength, gait, and balance. Positive beliefs about aging can have a wide range of health benefits in addition to increased mobility: better hearing, memory, and cognitive function. Levy and her colleagues found that veterans who held positive aging stereotypes had significantly lower rates of suicidal thoughts, anxiety, and PTSD. She also found that among carriers of the APOE ε4 gene — one of the strongest predictors of dementia — people with positive age stereotypes were 50 percent less likely to develop the condition.
This does not, of course, mean that you can believe your way to eternal youth. But it does mean that a significant part of our old-age decline may be the direct result of our — and our culture’s — belief in it. According to Levy, the first step toward changing this “is to notice it, mark it, realize when it’s happening, and question it.”
Another step is to realize that the human body is not a car and that “curing” aging is not a matter of replacing parts. A car’s decline is a straight line down from the assembly line. A human body grows, evolves, matures, and changes over time, as does the person within it.
But even more important, I think, is that we need to question our assumption that youth is the best time in life and that everything after it is worse. We all know there are good and bad things about every stage in life. Getting older can mean getting better at what you do, being less foolish and self-absorbed than your younger self, and enjoying a richer perspective, more experience, and a store of good memories.
Constantly looking to the past is not only bad for your health, but it makes it harder to find the joy in the present. We can choose to see ourselves as rotting or as ripening with age. Ultimately, we know that life begins and life ends. It’s the finite amount in between that makes it sweet.
• Frank Bures is the author of The Geography of Madness and a frequent contributor to The Rotarian.