If you are over the age of 50 it’s likely that you’ve been told the following; “Age is just a state of mind.” I certainly was told that by my daughter when she was in her early 30s – like anyone in their 30s is an expert on age?
The truth about this assertion is a mixed bag of “yes” and “no.” The state of one’s mind certainly does affect how we feel. There are measurable differences in the health and well-being of people who have positive vs. negative attitudes – at any age. When people are laughing, happy, energetic and optimistic the release of endorphins in the body increases. According to a paper presented to the American Physiological Society last year, stress hormones such as cortisol, epinephrine and dopac are reduced by as much as 70 percent under the influence of laughter. When these stressors are diminished, the immune system appears to benefit – leading to improved health.
It’s important to note that regular aerobic exercise offers similar benefits. Clearly, being active, upbeat and involved with life offers benefits that support the “state of mind” theory. On the other hand, aging is also a purely physical state. Undeniable things happen with the passing years. After the age of 60 we get shorter – women lose more height than men. We gain weight in midlife and lose it in later years. Without compensating exercise, muscle strength diminishes, and both men and women can experience bone loss in the form of osteoporosis.
We also lose aerobic capacity over the decades. A 2005 study by a coalition of university researchers showed accelerated decline after the age of 40 – more profound in men than in women. However, according to U.C. geriatrician Michael McCloud, MD, physically active older people can actually have “greater aerobic capacity than young sedentary ones.” That’s good news because this is an area over which we have some control.
A bodily state that accompanies aging becomes most apparent in the skin. We get those wrinkles that are often more disturbing to females of the species than to men (who generally think they’re gorgeous no matter what). I, for one, certainly never look down at myself in a reflective surface because I see a Shar Pei staring back. Interestingly, if we cared about the effect of time upon the epidermis and dermis while we were young, this is yet another aspect of aging which we may control. About 90 percent of damage to skin comes from the sun and not from the biological clock. It’s time to tell our granddaughters about this!
There is a growing body of information about the real dynamics of aging and much of it comes from a study launched in 1958. The Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging followed more than 1,400 volunteers and examined multiple aspects of aging. The study continues to this day – providing valuable information never before available. Among the findings are some general conclusions that provide us with encouragement and a measure of hope for a healthy future: There is no master clock; chronological age isn’t a good predictor of performance; there is significant individual variation, and lifestyle decisions (such as smoking, drinking alcohol in excess, a sedentary lifestyle and diet choices) have an observable influence on occurrence of disease, among other conclusions. According to Dr. McCloud, with normal aging, we should be able to live independently at least until the age of 100! That’s because, outside of serious diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s, there is a lot that’s within our control. The good doctor is fond of say ‘hardly anyone dies of old age.’
To foster that state of mind that sets our aging clock back 10 year and more, I like the very practical suggestions Dr. McCloud gave to my recent class at UCD Mini-Medical School:
Maintain your own health records; Have a healthy distrust of medications; Eat a highly varied diet and ignore food supplement crazes; Allow only one doctor to prescribe medications; Have a social network outside the home; Be an avid walker; Be a lifelong learner, and Avoid hospitalizations.
Many of us are surprised to observe the signs of aging. We’re fond of saying that, inside, we feel exactly as we did when we were a sexy 40! But, truth is, after a certain age we are wise to embrace some cautionary limitations on how we treat our bodies. At the same time, it’s just as important to embrace a state of mind that keeps us active, vital and positively thinking about life after 50.
Darby Patterson is a veteran journalist and writer. Her work is extensively published in print and in electronic media. She creates affordable Websites and other Web content. See more of her writing at http://darbysbooks.blogspot.com