In his book Successful Aging Dr. John W. Rowe claims that eighty percent of how well we age is the result of lifestyle choices made over time and twenty percent is the result of genetics or environmental influences beyond our control. More recently, Dr. David Perlmuitter, author of Brain Maker maintains it is possible to influence genetic predispositions with diet. Assuming he is right, how many would consistently follow his plan? As just one example of the difficulty involved in following his advice regarding food, skillfully crafted TV ads promoting nearly worthless “cereal” or toaster pastries for breakfast will assure that nutritionally bankrupt edibles will remain as the norm in most homes.
Let’s look at another critical element in the aging process: Managing what goes on in the head — how we think about aging, what we believe about aging, what we allow ourselves to believe or not believe about aging and most important of all — how we decide to deal with aging, and the cultural cancer called ” traditional retirement”. You can eat the best diet in the world and it won’t matter if you fall for the retirement con.
Wait a second — traditional retirement a “cultural cancer”? Absolutely. By its very nature traditional leisure oriented retirement exacerbates mental and physical decline and eventual decay. When it comes to aging, the cliché “Use it or lose it” applies. It’s difficult to ignore that truism because not only does human nature prefer leisure over effort, the retirement culture message is constantly assuring you that “you worked hard all your life so you deserve to take it easy.”
Prior to creation of Social Security in the 1930s, the notion of “retirement” did not exist, nor did the “retirement industry” that exists today. Back then, how people lived in the later years was not influenced or shaped by cultural influences and government policies. People worked as long as they could, needed to, or wanted to. Most didn’t live longer than age 68 which motivated social engineers to decide everyone should stop working at age 65 and enjoy the rest of their years in “do nothing” retirement. What a concept! The assumption was, I guess, that death at age 68 or thereabouts would remain static.
Now we know what was happening at the time but didn’t realize it then: The lifespan was rapidly increasing. Those retiring today at age 65 or sooner can expect to live another thirty years. Unfortunately, cultural beliefs and attitudes about aging have not caught up with reality. In spite of the longer lifespan, the culture continues to label those at age 65 as elderly.
The old traditional assumptions and expectations about aging are alive and well and pretty much still control how people age. It takes a lot of guts and gumption to ignore cultural pressures to conform to long standing notions about how to be at a given age. When we see evidence of those who have broken the mold we exclaim, “Aren’t they wonderful for their age!”
If you watch “America’s Got Talent” you recently saw a 96 year-old woman (with two hip replacements) energetically dance with a 26 year old man. Her mindset was that nothing gets in her way or holds her back — a mindset unusual for “her age”. The enthusiastic audience and judges were in disbelief at what they were seeing. Judge Howard Stern said he hoped it might inspire his parents to get up off the couch.
Increasing numbers of inspiring ageless “anomalies” are coming to light. When we hear about them or see them we don’t realize they probably are no different than you or I; they simply decided early on to be different. They decided they wanted to live as they chose, not as the culture and tradition and social pressure dictated.
Can anyone be an ageless anomaly? Given reasonably good mental and physical health, why not? The key is — you have to want to be an ageless anomaly and make the effort, (and make no mistake — the amount of effort needed is often considerable) to get to where and what you want to be. The rewards are great if you can muster the determination and staying power necessary to make it happen.