Ageing is something that we are confronted with at seemingly every turn in life. For example, so many of us will have noticed that 2016 has been a year in which a lot of respected celebrities have passed away. That these have been celebrities who were in any case gravely ill doesn’t register. What does register with us is that these were the big stars when we were growing up. That we are seeing them pass reinforces that we are all getting older.
It’s not only that, of course. There are plenty of reminders for us in our everyday lives. It can come home to you in the most prosaic of ways. Standing in front of the mirror and noticing grey hairs, getting tired sooner, napping in front of the TV. None of it, in isolation, really bothers us that much. But sooner or later, we all have that thought: “I’m not getting any younger.”
Of course, the truth is that none of us are getting any younger. And the way that we think about ageing is, in its way, reinforcing the idea that old age is something to fear. That the decay we associate with it is inevitable. The truth of the matter is that for a lot of us, retirement isn’t an unattractive idea. So when we start to find things hard that used to be easy, we accept that a decline is starting. Although the way we talk about it may be rueful, that may be for the benefit of others.
This attitude, as much as we may feel it’s an acceptance of the inevitable, is more defeatist than we realise. Yes, you’re getting older. We all are. Yes, there’s some wear and tear. But the idea that, because we pass a certain point on the calendar, we’re no longer capable of A, B and C is just that – an idea. And it is one that increasingly doesn’t stand up to any thorough analysis.
Are You Declining Physically?
Let’s take as an example the idea that you get to a certain age and don’t have the energy you did before. It’s one that makes us look at, say, a skiing holiday and think: “When I was 25, absolutely I would have done that. Now? Well, I’d just look stupid. I’m not the same person I was then.” Newsflash: You are the same person. You may look different, but someone who hasn’t seen you for 20 years would probably recognise you.
As high-impact as professional football is, it’s far from unheard of for people to play in the NFL into their forties. Here’s a list – some of them are quarterbacks: http://www.profootballhof.com/football-history/40-and-over-club/. And there is some argument to say that sports pros only retire at 40 because they have been playing at high impact, high intensity for two decades. Now, have you been running at top speed and getting hit daily for that long?
It’s not just that, though. We often use our age as an excuse for things that it doesn’t affect. “I’m not going to work out because at my age, what good will it do?”. “I’m not going to take a dance class because I’m in my fifties. I can’t move like I could in my thirties”. We have begun to see our age as a bar to things that it just doesn’t affect. The number of things we could go ahead and do if we put our minds to it, would surprise you.
Isn’t That Harsh? Haven’t We Earned Some Rest?
By all means, we are entitled to some relaxation in life. And don’t take any of this the wrong way, it doesn’t apply to people with a health condition that does make physical activity dangerous. But for the rest of us, the moments of repose shouldn’t be the prize. We shouldn’t just rush through the exertions of life so we can spend the rest of the time on the couch. We shouldn’t do them grudgingly. The longer you stay active, the easier it is to be active.
We are living in an era where, love them or hate them, both main candidates in a Presidential election are around 70 years old. Although it’s been commented on as an anomaly, it’s not seriously seen as a bar to them taking high office. Astronauts who were part of the Apollo program – which ended over 40 years ago – are still making decisions at NASA. And, in general, these guys were in their late thirties during the program.
We have to get the idea of being “too old” out of our minds. Even if you began to wind down over a decade ago, your body and mind are still capable of leading an active life. And it’s better to get active now than to wait any longer. Yes, deterioration of our physical and mental condition is – eventually – inevitable. But you can push that point further into the future.
Study after study has shown that mental decline and the loss of brain function is less likely the more you use your brain. And you use your brain doing some very simple things. Reading on a regular basis – not just picking up the newspaper and tutting at the headlines – helps. But make it something challenging. Do you like the idea of traveling? Learn another language – the brain power required to do so hasn’t left you. You just need to work a bit harder at it than you did at school.
You’ll also stave off that inevitable mental decline for longer if you keep your body active. It has been shown that moderate exercise for just thirty minutes each day boosts oxygen flow to the brain. This has enormous benefits for cognitive function. It also vastly reduces the likelihood of conditions that pose a risk to brain function. You might not love the idea, initially, but if you can ally a healthy body and mind to years of life experience, you can get a lot done.
But Decline Is Inevitable Eventually, Right?
Let’s look at it this way: none of us is immortal. We will, eventually, lose the ability to operate at a high physical level. Mentally, that moment may not come until our final hours. If you feel that there is no point to staving off the physical and mental decline for as long as possible, why ever do anything? You’ll get more enjoyment from the things you do like to do the longer you stay healthy.
Even with issues that are chronic, there will still be things you can do. We need to move away from the idea that residential care is simply “God’s Waiting Room.” Assisted living facilities such as www.McKnightPlace.com/ are showing a way forward. The best way to manage age-related physical and mental decline is to ensure that you keep doing the things you can still do. No-one’s saying you have to take up skateboarding. The whole point is that you’re still you.
Old Age Comes To Us All
You’re not getting any younger. Neither is anyone. And yes, the longer you live, the older you get. All that that means is that the number you say when someone asks how old you are gets higher. People don’t die of “old age.” The longer you stay alive, the more likely you are to have something happen to you that brings about your death. And, admittedly, the strains of living for a long time make it harder to recover from some illnesses and injuries.
That’s a world away from saying that as soon as you hit 70, you’re on a terminal decline towards the end. Or that as soon as you turn 50, you’re into the slow lane. As medical science improves, people are living much longer than would have been expected in, say, the 1860s. Time was, if someone got pneumonia at any age, they would be unlikely to recover. Now it’s something that many people just get over with a course of antibiotics.
So “old age” is no more than just a term for being alive for a certain amount of time. It doesn’t mean that our bodies start giving up on us when we get to a certain distance from our birth. And while we used to say that people died of old age, it’s becoming clear that that’s not the case. Look: http://www.medicaldaily.com/can-people-really-die-old-age-318528. It certainly doesn’t mean that when you get to what you consider “old age” it’s just a matter of time.
Contrary to the idea that you should steer clear of exertion and activity as you age, it’s exactly when you should be active. The idea that we will somehow be putting ourselves in danger by exercising is the opposite of the truth. So it’s time to change the way we think about ageing. Ask the happiest 80-year-old you know. They’ll tell you that their secret is taking joy from life and having things to look forward to.
In short, if all of this sounds like a judgemental rant telling you to stop complaining about the advancing years, it’s not. It’s an indication that you should cease to be scared of them. They can be your very best years if you let them.