“Aging is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength.”
– Betty Friedan
By Oliver Kammeyer
I live on a bike path, and just a half-mile east of my place there’s a coffee shop that’s always packed. It seems every day the customers compete to see who can wake up earliest to be first in line. I never win at that.
While I wait in line to order my highly caffeinated drink, I enjoy people-watching those ahead of me and those that got there before them. On a recent morning, as I stood in line for my own jolt of sunshine, I noticed a table full of retirees in colorful cyclists’ jerseys, five or six friends talking news over coffees, teas and matcha lattes, all of them with graying or completely silver hair. I took a bigger look around the cafe and realized there were three tables full of elders, most of them bicyclists, and there may even have been more gray-haired folks out of sight in the restroom.
I live in Tucson, AZ which due to its mild weather is home to many “snowbirds”, an affectionate term for retirees who migrate from colder climates. It suddenly occurred to me that at no other time in human history has there been as many senior citizens living at the same time, and living such active and vibrant lives in bike clubs, pickleball courts, volunteering, or helping out with the grandchildren.
As more of our population has grown older, health and wellbeing have taken center stage in the public consciousness. This has become even more important in these last few years of Covid-19, where having lots of candles on your birthday cake was a serious risk factor. Despite recent news that average lifespans in the US have declined in the last few years, we are still enjoying an incredible period of successful aging.
Seeking the fountain of youth
It’s our very nature to want to live as long as possible, to use all of our wits and industry to procreate, proliferate, and improve our lot in life. And while the search for the Fountain of Youth supposedly animated certain explorations in both the old and new worlds, getting old used to be considered a wondrous happening. Cultures and mythos throughout the world are full of immortal creatures and beings, speaking to our own secret desires to live on forever.
In recent decades however, it is not just longevity that drives the ethos, but rather an idealization of youth and youthfulness. The caché of an aged appearance has faded away and gray beards, wrinkled faces and bony hands are circumvented with hair dye, botox and cortisone. Are we ready to embrace aging in a new way?
I must pause here to acknowledge the pandemic. These last few years have disproportionately affected senior populations, and the acute cases of mortality have changed the most recent census figures. Also, as is often the case, people of privilege and generally whiter populations are increasingly more likely to live longer, live better, and to accumulate enough wealth to retire. (I would love to see more attention to this, but that’s a different article.) That said, over the last 100 years general life expectancy has been on a steady upward incline, even if it’s not evenly distributed.
Advances made in medical technology, improvements in societal safety, and our general efforts at preserving life in the last century have increased the US life expectancy by 20 years, and until the last couple years we were on a continuous upward trend. According to the US Census Bureau, the senior citizen (over 65 years old) percentage of the US population has been on a steady increase since 1900.
There is in fact a whole field of medical science dedicated to reversing the aging process, which we’ve written about a lot. Professor Shinya Yamanaka won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his discovery of what are now called the Yamanaka Factors. These are molecular compounds whose effects on stem cells can actually enable the cells to rejuvenate. This effect was tested on mice, and the anti-aging researchers found that the mice’s skin and kidneys rejuvenated with the treatment at an age when they should normally be deteriorating.
As our knowledge grows, so does our ability to preserve our vitality and mobility throughout the lifespan. Research from the University of Copenhagen found that exercising over a lifetime trains your fat to better regulate and dispose of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) which are responsible for the degradation of cells and aging. And as to staying active, chronic pain advancements like an injectable hydrogel for knees are helping keep us bendy. Serious conditions such as Parkinson’s are even getting cracked by modern neurological research.
Who knows what magical advancements are yet to be uncovered. The trick will be in granting more equal access to these medical wonders.
Investing in life
Advances in treatments for chronic ailments that accumulate with age are wonderful, but as the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. This is where knowledge of lifestyle hacks come in. Nutritionists and physicians have discovered numerous ways to maintain and improve brain health, such as resting well, hydrating, and staying active. And of course eating blueberries…
The goal is to age well, not stop it altogether! Longevity can be a blessing as long as it is paired with vitality, mobility and meaning.
As we age, our happiness and life satisfaction tends to bottom out in middle age but on average starts to trend up again thereafter. However, as Arthur Brooks observes in the Atlantic, after the mid-sixties, people split into two groups, those whose happiness increases exponentially, and those who become increasingly worse off. He likens successful aging to an investment strategy for thriving into our final decades.
Here are the seven best investments, according to Brooks, to happify your later years:
- Quit Smoking (better yet don’t start) — even if you smoke now, it’s not too late to quit. Medical professionals universally agree that this is one of the most harmful things you could do to your body, and if you want to stay active in your later years, it pays to have healthy lungs.
- Watch your wine (or beer, or spirits) — alcohol may be a social lubricant, but this can easily be taken too far. Excessive drinking can lead to serious health concerns and higher rates of sadness. Drinking too much can really burn the candle at both ends when you want to keep your flame burning bright, steady, and for a long time.
- Stay trim and eat veggies — growing a taste for vegetables now and moderating how much you eat can accrue interest over time. It is a good idea to avoid intense diets that you can’t maintain, as this can lead to an unhealthy yo-yo cycle.
- Keep moving — even if it’s just a little walk or a turn in the garden every day, staying fit and active is one of the biggest contributors to longevity and living well in your later years.
- Make a habit of managing stress — it’s never too early to start developing good coping strategies and learning to deal with the stress life throws at you. As you build your mindful methods, you’ll better fine tune your stress reduction over time, and by the time you’ve reached old age worries will slide off you like water on a duck’s back.
- Stay curious — some of the happiest people are those who never stopped looking at the world with childlike wonder and curiosity. Staying a student of life will give you more interests to pursue, questions to answer, and it will keep your mind sharp well into an age where people will be coming to you for your wisdom.
- Keep good people in your life — your support system can last with you, and it’s important to put effort into your relationships as these mature with time. Work on your marriage, your friendships, and your relationships with family members. Support and comfort those in your life, and they’ll do the same for you in the future.
Life in Balance
We often write about the exciting innovations and inspirational activism of our younger peers – from Olivia Selzer’s take on the news, to Dyson award winner Gabe Tavas who invented a method for turning kombucha waste into a sustainable wood alternative, to youth climate activist Scarlett Westbrook who recently penned the UK’s first climate education bill, and many many others. However, we also can’t overlook the incredible resource embodied in our elder generations. Talk about a human library!
“Talking to the Past”, a 60 Minutes special that aired on March 27, featured a story about the development of an AI program that uses detailed and lengthy recorded interviews from deceased individuals to create a simulation accurate enough to create the uncanny experience of holding a conversation with the dead. The Shoah Foundation and AI developer Heather Mayo originally developed the program to preserve the experiences and personalities of Holocaust survivors, whose experiences offer invaluable wisdom that ought not be lost to the annals of history.
Those entering their third act, so to speak, are a vibrant part of various activist movements. In the UK, “climate crusties” are bringing their decades of experience in building movements from the anti-war protests to massive labor strikes into climate activism. Organizations like The Elders founded by Nelson Mandela, Bill McKibben’s Third Act and Elders Climate Action seek to inspire youth and enact critical changes as stewards of our world. Mary Robinson (77), who was the first female president of Ireland serves as Chair for the Elders and still has much to say (watch this message on how every generation has a role to play). Jane Fonda (83) is still willing to get arrested standing up for the climate. There are countless other examples in every social movement, from civil rights to the Peace Corps where age is appreciated as an asset.
Indigenous communities often hold their elders in great respect, for the store of community history, technological know-how, and deep wisdom is invaluable. Being a treasured elder leads to longer lives as well, which perhaps explains the Bolivian tribe that has the lowest dementia rates in the world and areas where life is just a bit simpler, such as in the Blue Zone regions where people commonly live happy lives into their 100s. An active and meaningful social life is perhaps the most important trait we can seek to emulate.
So, while I’m waiting in line tomorrow for my coffee, I will see my elders with new eyes. Instead of bafflement and curiosity as to how there are so many seniors per capita here, I will greet them with smiles and strike up a conversation. My own experiment tapping into the riches of the human library in my own neighborhood. Here is a population of people living well and socially, finding comfort and health in company, and living full lives who have much to teach me.
“Aging is an extraordinary process where you become the person you always should have been.” — David Bowie
About the Author(s): Oliver Kammeyer joined the team at The Optimist Daily in February 2022. He holds a Masters in Fine Arts from Emerson College. He loves the arts and normally writes fiction, but he now prefers to write about our environment and sustainable global development. He lives in Tucson, Arizona.
Note: Thanks to Kristy Jansen, who also contributed to this article. (O.K.)