The Rewards of Aging
The passing years can result in more time for favorite
pursuits—and a wiser outlook.
By Linda Melone
Don’t tell Sherman London that aging means slowing down and failing health.
After 20 years as the editor of a daily Waterbury, Connecticut, newspaper, London retired but quickly decided that lounging and taking it easy wasn’t for him. “I tried golf but was never a golfer,” he says.
Instead, London went to work as a spokesperson for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and covered major disasters including Hurricane Andrew and the Northridge earthquake in California. “That kept me going for three to four years, but I stopped taking assignments when I realized I was away from home too much,” he recalls.
London was then appointed to the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission, which, as he puts it, “fights for transparency in government.” He served 17 years, noting that “working on the commission was a great position for a retired newspaper man.”
After London’s wife died two years ago he entered an assisted living facility. There he quickly joined the residents council, a six-member group that fields complaints from the residents. Now 91, London has done more in his retirement years than many much-younger people accomplish in a working lifetime. “I’m happiest when I’m doing things,” he explains.
A Happier Old Age
Clearly, the adage “age is a state of mind” holds true for London, and he’s not alone. The physical and mental decline stereotypically associated with aging is being pushed back, often by decades. About 40 million Americans are older than 65, and those over age 80 comprise the fastest-growing segment of the population. Many remain active well after retirement.
In a recent New York Times essay, neurologist and best-selling author Oliver Sacks tells of his feelings on turning 80. He expresses gratitude for having had so many diverse experiences—“some wonderful, some horrible”—and expresses sorrow at having wasted so much time and not traveling as much as he believes he should have. Sacks views his old age as a time of leisure and freedom, with the ability to explore. Studies show that’s a perspective shared by many others his age.
In fact, several studies show people become happier as they grow older. In a 2012 Journals of Gerontology study, more than 340,000 Americans ages 18 to 85 answered questions about health and other issues, including happiness. In general, people felt good about themselves at about age 18, before things went downhill. They typically felt worse and worse until they reached 50. At that age, people began getting happier until at 85, people were more satisfied with themselves than they were at 18.
Reyes and George Perez, both 77, of Cliffside Park, New Jersey, couldn’t agree more. They say taking care of their five children took up most of their younger years, so now they fully embrace the ability to travel and enjoy life. “I feel better at 77 than I did when I was in my 60s,” says George. They credit their good health to regular workouts, including swimming, as well as reading voraciously and eating right. “We drink green smoothies, eat a lot of fish and lean meat maybe every two weeks,” Reyes says. Medications are not a part of their regular routine, either. “I take one pill for cholesterol,” says George.
The Perezes also credit their young-at-heart attitude to younger friends. “Most of our friends are our kids’ age, in their early 50s,” says George.
Is staying younger simply a matter of choice? Largely yes, says psychologist Dennis Kravetz, PhD, longevity and aging researcher, and author of A Sound Mind in a Sound Body: Live Long, Live Healthy (KAP). “Many of the states that contribute to death—cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, etc.—are under an individual’s control. They involve lifestyle choices. It’s not about luck or chance. If you’re sedentary or eat a diet high in saturated fat you’re not going to live as long as someone living with more positive conditions.”
Fewer opportunities to engage in mentally-stimulating activities while still on the job plus a less-challenging environment after retirement are believed to contribute to a decline in cognitive function, according to a study in The Journal of Economic Perspectives (Winter 2010). What’s more, conditions such as depression in seniors are often “written off” and not addressed by the average family doctor, says Kravetz. “People are labeled negative or cranky, but depression can be treated and resolved.”
Exercising the mind throughout one’s lifetime can reduce the risk of cognitive decline. Taking up a hobby, reading, crossword puzzles and online games can help, says Kravetz. “Passively watching TV can bring about cognitive decline. Instead, read newspapers, or watch educational shows. Dementia is not inevitable.”
Stages of Aging
The average lifespan is now 78 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “It was 49 only a hundred years ago,” says Michael Gurian, marriage and family counselor and author of The Wonder of Aging: A New Approach to Embracing Life After Fifty (Atria). “We now have another 30 to 40 years where we can accomplish this ‘freedom’ that people often talk about with aging. This involves living lives in which our identity is developed.”
Gurian believes that between the ages of 50 and 65 people transform from adult to elder—and he’s not referring to simply getting older. “It’s when we develop a sense of freedom and a sense of clear identity,” he says. He defines an elder as someone who passes on specific work and wisdom, models a life of purpose and maturity, and remains physically and mentally active. An elder also connects young people, as well as society in general, to the mysteries of success, compassion, freedom and faith.
In his book, Gurian designates “age stages” to those over 50, which he developed from an integration of science and spirituality. These stages include the age of transformation (50 to 65), the age of distinction (65 to the late 70s) and the age of completion (age 80 and beyond).
“At approximately the age of 50, for example, the age of transformation is directed internally and involves hormonal and biochemical changes,” says Gurian. This includes menopause in women and andropause in men, the latter of which is not widely recognized but refers to the natural drop in hormones when a man reaches his late 40s and 50s. “Looking at these stages as spiritual quests enables us to better embrace the changes and develop a more realistic optimism,” he says. People of this age who do not connect biomechanical changes with spiritual and emotional ones can become angry and resentful.
Men in particular may look back at their younger years and feel sad and depressed. “They get angry because they haven’t embraced these changes yet,” says Gurian. “During this stage we have a 15-year period to feel the anger and then consciously work towards realistic optimism and de-stressing. This anger can go on and on if we don’t learn to de-stress.”
An Inner Quest
Stress-fighting practices, such as yoga or meditation, often include a spiritual component and many studies show a link between well-being and religion, regardless of faith. A University of Missouri study showed that across five faiths—Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Catholicism and Protestantism—a greater degree of spirituality links to better mental health. Researchers believe spirituality works by reducing self-centeredness and helping individuals develop a greater sense of belonging to a larger whole.
“Positive aging includes your capacity to perceive your life as having benefit and meaning,” says James W. Ellor, PhD, DMin, professor of social work at Baylor University and editor of the Journal of Religion, Spirituality and Aging, a Routledge Press Journal. “Positive aging involves three things: avoiding disease, maintaining high cognitive involvement and engagement with life. Each is important on its own but they’re also related to the other.”
Avoiding disease includes keeping blood pressure in check, eating a healthy diet and taking a proactive approach to health in general. Staying mentally occupied and keeping active socially have been shown to slow the aging process. According to a study in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health (8/12), having a wide circle of friends in midlife links to better psychological well-being for both men and women. The lowest levels of psychological wellness was found among thosewith no relative or friends versus those with a regular circle of 10 or more social contacts.
Ellor suggests finding connection through volunteer work or the start of an encore career. “Aging well is a matter of understanding that life is full of bumps in the road,” he says, “but reaching out and caring about others or simply sharing ourselves with others enables us to find fulfillment and meaning.”