I read an article in The New Yorker called Why We Can’t Tell the Truth About Aging by Arthur Krystal. The writer is a 71-year-old New York culture critic, who seems to want to put the worst face on aging that he possibly can. Or more precisely, what Krystal does is disparage a group of recent books that try to put the best face on aging.
If an author believes that older people can have good sex, like Ashton Applewhite does in her book This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, then Krystal grumbles that if it’s so, he’s “never heard anyone testify to this.”
What about reports showing that people actually grow happier in old age, such as Jonathan Rauch’s The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50? Krystal’s response: Bah humbug! Unhappy people just don’t bother to respond to surveys.
Do most people, as some writers claim, experience less social anxiety and find themselves more comfortable in their own skins as they get older? Maybe, maybe not, says Krystal. But one thing he’s sure of: You’re going to suffer chronic inflammation, weaker bones, strained eyes, flagging hearts, less brain function, and more pain. In other words, “You’re going to feel much worse.”
His article goes on from there, as most New Yorker articles do, but suffice it to say that while Krystal may find some philosophical wisdom in old age, he can’t help but end on the desperate note that with wisdom comes grief, with knowledge much sorrow.
The topic of aging is near and dear to my heart, for the obvious reason that I’m getting older. But I’m not nearly so negative as our New York intellectual. And anyway, as the saying goes, getting old is better than the alternative.
As an antidote to Krystal, let me point out a few things that aren’t so bad — especially if we don’t just lie down and accept the worst, but make an effort to keep ourselves active, involved and engaged.
For one thing, our bodies do not inevitably get frail and fall apart, except maybe at the very end. Everyone who has been on earth the same amount of time has the same chronological age, but they don’t all have the same biological age. Your biological age is based on how well your body functions, including blood pressure and weight, bone density and cholesterol levels. A healthy 70 year old who takes care of herself may be biologically no older than a 50 year old who does not. We can lower our biological age with exercise and good nutrition. One simple example: Harvard Magazine reported that subjects who walked an average of just ten minutes a day lived almost two years longer than those who didn’t exercise at all.
And that means we can still have plenty of energy and keep doing most of the things we like to do. Our energy levels depend more on our lifestyle and our attitude than they do on chronological age. Meditation, restful sleep and exercise are effective ways to pump up energy levels. If you have trouble sleeping, the advice is to go to bed at a set time every night; get up the same time every morning; avoid caffeine-laden drinks such as coffee, tea and colas; exercise for 20 or 30 minutes a day. And do not try to induce sleep with alcohol. Read a book or magazine instead.
And so what about our sex lives? Testosterone is the hormone associated with the male sex drive, and it’s true that testosterone levels diminish with age. (Testosterone levels are higher in the morning, lower at night.) But the reality is, for men as well as women, sex drive is mainly generated in the head. More problematic than aging, for both men and women, are factors such as stress, fatigue, medical conditions, and tensions within a relationship. So as long as you can think sexually and communicate your needs and desires, you can remain sexually active – which may not always involve intercourse but can include plenty of other intimate activities.
But what about our deteriorating memory and those so-called “senior moments”? It’s true that older people often suffer some short-term memory loss. But consider this: Researchers from the University of California and Columbia University tested a group of 20-somethings against people in their 60s and 70s, in various subjects, and found that despite a general loss of mental acuity, the older group did better than the younger test-takers in almost every category. How is that? Younger people were better able to manipulate information and process it quickly. But older subjects benefited from knowledge acquired through culture, education and a lifetime of experience. They had more focus, a better perspective and more patience. And for most practical applications – whether buying a house, driving a car, or playing cards – the wisdom that comes with age trumps the quick-mindedness of youth.
And Krystal’s view of happiness is just downright curmudgeonly. Studies have consistently confirmed the happiness curve, showing that people get happier after age 50. The happiness U-curve, as it’s called, shows that happiness declines with age for the first couple of decades of adulthood – even for people who are successful, as many high achievers never seem to fully appreciate their success. People’s levels of life satisfaction typically bottoms out in their 40s, then begins to increase as they age through their 60s. A 2011 study from Stanford University found that “the peak of emotional life may not occur until well into the seventh decade.”
None of this is to minimize the very real health problems that can come with age . . . or at any age. Many of us live with chronic pain, whether it’s garden-variety back or knee pain, or something more serious. But a defeatist attitude doesn’t help anybody. We don’t have to simply succumb to old age, as Krystal suggests, and it is somewhat of a myth that we can’t do anything about how aging affects us, that it’s all determined by our genes.
Of course, we can’t pick our parents, and we are stuck with the genes we were born with. But how those genes are expressed depends a lot on how we live our lives. Our thoughts, emotions, our lifestyle, and how we cope with stress all go a long way in determining whether certain genes are turned on or off. This means that we have the power to nurture the good genes and prune back the bad ones. For example, you probably won’t get lung cancer if you don’t smoke, even if you do have a cancer gene. And while you may be genetically disposed toward Alzheimer’s disease, whether you actually get Alzheimer’s depends largely on your lifestyle, including sleep, diet, stress levels.
So the inevitable question is: Am I whistling past the graveyard? I guess my answer is: Is there any better way to go past the graveyard?