“I will never be an old man. To me old age is always 15 years older than I am” – British Artist, Francis Bacon
There’s currently a popular series on Netflix titled Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones. If you’re not familiar with Blue Zones, they’re a number of geographic regions around the world where people live longer than average but also maintain their independence and quality of life. I’ve long admired the work of journalist and creator of Blue Zones, Dan Buettner. We share the same ancestral health principles and goals to improve the well-being of our communities and the quality of life of individuals as they age. However, aging well is not just about practicing healthy lifestyle habits such as exercising and eating more vegetables. A lot has to do with your attitude and how your society views aging. For instance, most centenarians in Blue Zones are born into families and communities that have a more positive outlook about aging. Perhaps the biggest contributor to their positive outlook is having a sense of purpose. It’s common for older people in Blue Zones to remain active and engaged with their families and in their communities: grandparents help raise their grandchildren; they work in local food markets or as longtime craftspeople in their towns; they also tend community gardens and are active members in their churches. If there’s a common thread in Blue Zone communities, it’s that old age is a time to enjoy, to be celebrated and to remain productive and useful, rather than a time to fear or resent, or to feel irrelevant in later years of life.
The biggest obstacles for aging well in the US are our long held beliefs about retirement and our ageist attitudes. The current narrative in our country is that we “settle” into retirement, or move into a retirement community to live out the rest of our lives, relaxing in comfort and doing leisurely activities. This sounds reasonable if you’ve worked hard most of your adult life, but this mindset ultimately leads to feeling bored, irrelevant and lonely, mainly due to being segregated from family, friends and the diversity of people in your wider community. The other problem is that our lifespan might be getting longer, but our health span is not. A lifetime of sedentary behavior eventually catches up to us, leading to debilitating and chronic health problems. Many Americans will spend the last 10 years of their lives in poor health, isolated in their homes and dependent on caregivers.
Ageist stereotypes are also associated with worse physical and mental health among adults 50 and older. Everywhere you look, from billboards to TV and magazine ads, as well as social media content, America’s ageist attitudes persist. Women are subjected to “age-defying” products to treat wrinkles, sagging skin and gray hair, while men are exposed to products to treat hair loss and erectile dysfunction. At the same time, older adults in the media are portrayed as being frail and incompetent, which “reinforces stereotypes and shapes individuals’ attitudes toward the aging process.” Stereotypical views of aging can be harmful, as research has shown that holding negative perceptions of aging can cut 7.5 years from one’s life.
When I’m out playing golf with my friends, I often hear the proverbial complaint of “it’s tough getting old”. My friends minimize their aches and pains or forgetfulness by accepting that this is what getting older is like, rather than believing there’s something they can do about it. Instead, they take Advil like a daily supplement or self-soothe with alcohol just to make it through their round. I’m sometimes guilty of these behaviors, but resorting to temporary solutions actually speeds up aging and can be detrimental to your health. Also, having negative beliefs about aging can develop into “learned helplessness” and cause depression, leading to being less motivated to take care of your health and less engaged in life.
I’m not suggesting that we try and turn back the clock of aging by willing ourselves to exercise more and eat healthier. Rather, to try and cultivate an acceptance of aging that includes a more positive outlook on life, instead of something that depicts forgetfulness, weakness, and decline. Numerous studies show that “older people with more positive perceptions of aging performed better physically and cognitively than those with more negative perceptions.” They were more likely to recover faster from an injury or illness, had better memory, walked faster and even lived longer.
To live to 100, genetics certainly plays a role, but longevity is also impacted by how you think about and approach the idea of aging. Maintaining close ties to family and your community and having a sense of purpose are strong predictors of longevity. Those who are grandparents have an opportunity to nurture their grandchildren, help that is sorely needed in this day and age of the busy lives of two working parents. For others, working or volunteering in various capacities can foster healthy relationships. Not only are such connections good for aging people themselves, they are beneficial for society as a whole. Instead of “sequestering our elders out to pasture”, we should try to utilize the experience, affection, and time they have to offer. Taking care of grandchildren and being involved in your community plays a large role in that.