I’ve long believed there must be some kernel of truth in any saying or aphorisms that we use to punctuate our conversations and read from authors and others. In an aging society, I’m particularly conscious of the sayings we use to describe old age. Some of those sayings take a bit of examination to find the truth within.
In discovering the nugget of truth within the aphorisms of old age, I hope to uncover lessons for aging well. Discovery might require turning these sayings about being old upside down. But then, I think we all need to twist and turn our thinking about growing old a bit to learn the truth about aging.
Here’s the first saying about old age that comes to my mind: “You’re only as young as you feel.” The same sentiment was said more elegantly by author Gabriel Garcia Marquez who put it as “Age isn’t how old you are but how old you feel.”
Truth? Research done at Yale University by Levy and colleagues suggests that people who think of themselves as too old might have poorer health, particularly cardiovascular health.
Conversely, those who think of themselves – or those who are coached to think of themselves as was done in one study – in positive and capable terms instead of considering themselves old or even too old may actually enjoy better health.
Lesson learned: Think of yourself as a capable and active person not as being defined by your birth date.
Author and social critic Mark Twain once said ““Wrinkles should merely indicate where the smiles have been.”
Truth? Twain was, as ever, markedly eloquent and truthful. Most of the changes that we associate with old age in our skin are sun damage. Normal aging changes have little to do with the oft subject of wrinkly skin.
We do lose volume – mostly from normal aging changes in the tissues that are underneath our skin – and gain expression lines – from smiling often, as Twain says. But the maze of wrinkles and appearance of discolored or dark patches is more often a factor of how much time we have spent in the sun without protection from its ultraviolet rays.
Lesson learned: Protect yourself from the sun with appropriate clothing and sunscreen every day, no matter what your age. And smile.
Another saying I love is “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks…” I’ve got no one to whom to attribute this ancient vernacular sentiment – it goes back to the 16th century – but I do have a lot to say about it.
Truth? Just turn this one around. “You CAN teach an old dog new tricks” and you’ve got a truth to live by…
Research done at the University of Texas by Park and colleagues shows that learning new – and, even better, complex – things are not only possible in later life, it’s actually good for us. Older people who are taught new skills – in this study they used complex skills like quilting and digital photography – perform better mentally after learning these new pursuits.
Lesson learned: Keep learning new things throughout your life. Challenge yourself by learning about things and learning complex skills. Life-long learning is enjoyable, productive, and connects you with others who share your interests.
The physician Martin H. Fischer is quoted as saying “Youth disserves; middle age conserves; old age preserves.”
Truth? Conservation is key to aging well and preserving function. Aging doesn’t start on your 65th birthday – or any other birthday for that matter. Consequently, aging well starts early. Activity is the means to conservation and consequent preservation.
An ever-growing body of research shows that consistent, daily activity that engages mind and body conserves function and capacity as we age. Activities like walking on a daily basis pay big benefits in physical and mental function. Mental activities like doing puzzles or working at another stimulating task also help maintain function.
We conserve function with regular activity as we age. In later life, we’re better able to enjoy preserved levels of function by continuing long time habits of consistent activity.
Lesson learned: Keep doing what you are doing and add new activities as you go along. You’ll see better physical and mental performance as you age.
Poet Robert Browning’s line is so iconic that many of us know it is he who wrote “Grow old with me, the best is yet to be.”
Truth? We know this imagining of old age as a romantic invitation. But its true meaning is much larger than the future promise in a youthful romance.
Increasingly, we know that connections to other people – romantic and platonic, intimate and workaday – are valuable in every aspect of our lives. When it comes to aging, relationships help us be physically, mentally, and spiritually healthy.
Varied social and emotional relationships support our aims to age well. There is a downside, though, to aging well and living a very long life. Achieving very old age risks unintended isolation, as we may live so long that we outlast most, if not all, peers.
Lesson learned: We should all treasure relationships of all sorts, not just the great romance of our lives. Make an effort, too, to cross-generational divides and make friends with people of varied ages.