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Aging: Mind Over Matter

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Get a Lift With Weights

Worrying Can Make You Sick

Aging: Mind Over Matter

Dorothy L. Tengler

Not long ago, while dining in a local restaurant, I overheard two women talking. They were each exchanging accounts of their aches and pains, most recent treks to the doctor, and grueling laboratory test experiences. The details continued through dinner until my chocolate cheesecake when the one woman finally summed it up: “That’s what happens when you get old. I guess I can’t expect much at 65. I’m just thankful to be alive and breathing.”

No matter what our individual definition of old, it is obvious that we are in an era of increasing longevity. Since 1900, the percentage of Americans 65 and older has more than tripled from 4.1% in 1900 to 12.8% in 1996. The number has increased nearly 11 times (from 3.1 million to nearly 34 million). By the year 2030, there will be 70 million older persons–twice that of 1996. People 65 and older are projected to represent 13% of the population during 2000 and 20% by 2030.

So just how old is old? Young children paint pictures of their families with grandparents, gray-haired and stooped in their rocking chairs. At one time, pretty much everyone agreed that age 65 was a certain kind of dividing line: When you retired, you were old. But with age-based retirement prohibited by law and talk of raising the Social Security age, the concept is definitely changing. And oddly enough, given the influence of advertising on our perception of youth and beauty, old age really doesn’t seem to be about gray hair and wrinkles as much as about attitude.

Certainly, like the two women in the restaurant, we probably all know at least one 65-year-old who feels tired all the time, has nothing physically wrong, but says that “at my age” it’s time to take things easy. But we are also hearing more and more about the 70-year-old who commutes to a demanding job every day, or the retired couples who are raising their grandchildren and “doing it all over again.” And we read about people like Rachel Rosenthal, well-known and still active performance artist, who is taking up painting for the first time at age 73. Is an 80-year-old, who travels all over the world and has just started a new marriage old? Or is old that 35-year-old who is resigned to the couch every evening, bereft of any sparkle and joy in living?

Perhaps the secret to healthy aging lies not in face-lifts and liposuction as much as in our deep-seated spirits. If we stop growing intellectually and become unwilling to learn or try new things and think old, then we are old. In that respect, if old age has more to do with attitude than birthdays, we can be infantile or wise at almost any age. Healthy aging may be the sum total of physical and mental fitness, positive thoughts, and a never-ending curiosity about life. In other words, it just may be that we don’t grow old–we become old by not growing.



References:
Statistics based on data from the U.S. Bureau of Census
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