So you never thought it would happen to
you: you're watching yourself grow old. All of a sudden, 25-year-olds,
once your peers, look like kids. Then, 25-year-olds are your kids. It
seems like a few more wrinkles permanently visit your face each year,
and that collection of gray hairs you've tallied up is just about worthy
of an award. Then, to top it all off, you hear people 10 years younger
than you complaining that they're getting old.
Sure, no matter what you do, your body
is going to age, but there's no doubt that the mindset you hold towards
aging has a tremendous influence on how well you will age. The most recent
studies on longevity to come out of Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York
show that genetics have only a 30% influence on the length of our lives;
the remaining 70% depends on one's lifestyle. The bottom line is: if you
have the right attitude, stay active and continue doing the things you
love, you can not only live a higher quality of life as an elder, but
you will most likely live a longer one as well.
Kelly Ferrin, gerontologist and author of What's Age Got to Do with It?
(ALTI Publishing, 1999), points out that although 65 is the marker of
old in our country, that marker was established in the late 1800s when
the life expectancy was only 47. "If you talk to most people, especially
people over the age of 55, they don't think 65 is old," states Ferrin.
"And when life expectancy is pushing 80 today, how can we possibly
call 65 old?" She is also quick to point out that 50% of the functional
losses that occur in individuals after the age of 50 are attributable
to lack of exercise and non-activity. "So don't you dare blame it
on age," she scolds. "I'm tired of people doing that."
Of 127 medical schools in this country, only one has a geriatric medicine
division, and only 13 even offer a course or rotation in geriatrics. There
are probably fewer than 500 trained geriatricians, as opposed to around
65,000 trained pediatricians. Ferrin feels that this shortage reflects
our general negative attitude towards old people in general, and hopes
that soon it will begin to change. When one considers that older adults
comprise the largest group of healthcare consumers, the lack of trained
geriatricians is frightening, she says.
Ferrin adamantly believes that we've got to start taking a look at what's
right with age, instead of just focusing on what's wrong with it. "Not
only are people living longer lives, but they're living better, much healthier,
longer lives," she says. "Unfortunately, because we've never
had this healthy older adult population before, and all the studies on
elders have been on the sick and the frail, we have a real attitude problem
[towards age] that we need to overcome. If people believe that their later
years can be a time of good health and vitality and productivity, then
they are going to incorporate the lifestyle behaviors that will make that
As we see more and more old people living healthy, fully enjoyable lives
well into their 80s, 90s and even 100s, it will become easier for us to
discard those automatic, negative associations we have toward being old.
For her book, Ferrin gathered 103 people between the ages of 67 and 122
with inspiring stories of what they have accomplished, or are accomplishing,
in their later years of life. The stories demonstrate elderly people enjoying
the full range of individual successes, including 90-year-olds (or older)
performing amazing physical achievements, running their own businesses,
or doing volunteer work with children.
Take Ben Levinson, who will turn 105 in March. He noticed he was starting
to have trouble getting up out of a chair, so he started strength training
at the age of 100, and has been doing so ever since. One woman decided
she wanted a new adventure for her 90th birthday, so she went sky diving.
Many of the people in the book, particularly the ones who have done physical
feats, were never health-conscious or even involved in physical activities
at all when they were younger.
"It's never too late," says Ferrin. "I saw consistently,
in all the people's stories, a sense of spirituality and faith of some
type. That was a key element as well."
Researchers tell us that of the 10 leading health problems of people over
65, 80% of those conditions are lifestyle-related. Once we realize this,
we can start taking a more active role in coloring the quality of our
health, and in keeping those "age-related" health problems at
bay. "That's when you come into diet and exercise and volunteerism,
staying involved in being healthy and social, and having a positive attitude,"
says Ferrin. "I think we all know that exercise is good for us, but
what we don't know is how bad it is if we don't do it. When we get older,
two things happen to our bodies physiologically: one, we lose bone density,
and two, we lose muscle mass. These are the only two things that can be
reversed or stopped, not by medication, not by surgery, but by people
moving their bodies."
Of course, when we're older, we do need to identify the best types of
exercise for our bodies, as every body at any given age is at a different
level and has different needs. Exercise need not be limited to structured,
planned exercise routines-it can mean simply being in motion as much as
possible. For instance, Bert Morrow, 87 years old and five-time record
breaker in the Senior Olympics in track and field, says that whenever
he has the option, he'll take the stairs instead of the elevator in order
to reach floors of five stories or less.
Over 61,000 people in this country are over the age of 100. "Just
like we're seeing more and more millionaires, we'll be seeing more and
more centenarians," says Ferrin. When centenarians are asked about
how they've achieved such longevity, they generally mention the same four
key elements in their lives. The first is being optimistic and having
a positive attitude. The second is engagement; this is the degree of passion
one feels for life, how connected one feels to it, and retaining, or discovering,
a sense of purpose. Engagement can be achieved by continuing to do the
things in life one loves and feels strongly about. The third element is
being active and mobile: being able to move, function, and maintain independence
by exercising and staying active. And fourth, but not least, is adaptability
to loss, and resilience. The better one learns how to deal with and adapt
to the difficulties of life, the happier and stronger he or she will be.
"We stress about certain things. Centenarians will tell you to deal
with it initially, but then let it go."
If you're one of the many age-fearers, it might be a good idea to take
to heart that old, tired-but-true adage-life is what you make of it. The
same applies to age. If you think age will hold you back, then your negative
beliefs about it will prevent you from experiencing it as a positive thing.
It's important to keep the focus off, "How much longer we have left
to live?" and to instead divert it to, "What we can do to make
the best of today ?" After all, now that we have longer life expectancies
than ever before, doesn't it make sense to expect more out of those later
years of life as well?
For more information or copies of the
book, What's Age Got to Do with It?, contact Kelly Ferrin at email@example.com
or visit www.ageangel.com
-Amy Sorkin is a freelance writer living