Fountain of Youth
Hope I change my mind about age before I get old
Argue for your limitations, and sure enough,
Richard Bach, Illusions: the Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah
"What a draaaaag it is getting old," sang Mick Jagger, back
when he was but a boy. Despite the great graying of the boomers, it doesn’t seem that we’re changing our minds
much about aging. The only guaranteed pluses of old age seem to be that it beats the alternative—being dead—and
that you get to retire. To most of those who aren’t there yet, getting old looks like a long, boring downhill slide
through a whole lot of nothing.
It’s a paradox: we lust after long life and loathe old
age. The main reason we’re so obsessed with health is that we want to live longer—or not die, as the case may
be. Longevity research tantalizes us with information that promises to help us live longer and "better," which seems to mean
that in our dotage we’ll be able to totter about more or less under our own steam.
We worry about dying "before our time," but most of us still
hope we die before we get old—that is, before we’ve completely fallen apart. Physical disability has been promoted
by modern science as an almost inevitable part of aging, and of course, no one wants to end up dragging around an oxygen tank,
shuffling behind a walker, or, heaven forbid, being confined to quarters because you simply can’t get around much anymore.
But what we fear most is losing our minds to Alzheimer’s—going senile, as they used to say.
The quest to find the cause of Alzheimer’s has ranged
through many theories. At one point these symptoms were thought to be the result of an infectious agent, a virus, perhaps.
Then there was the idea that your cerebral circuits fried as a result of accumulating too much aluminum, a theory long disproved,
but still fresh in the minds of a skittish public no longer cooking in aluminum pans. Since genetic theory is all the rage,
there has of course been a gene found—APOE4—that seems to be connected with dementia. And there have been questions
about the role of "silent strokes," mini-bleeds in the brain that cut off oxygen here and there to cumulative bad effect.
Demographics are not destiny
The most interesting Alzheimer’s study is being conducted
by demographer David Snowden, Ph.D. The study, which analyzes the lives and brains of hundreds of nuns, is reported in his
book, Aging with Grace: What the Nun Study Teaches Us about Leading Longer, Healthier, and More Meaningful Lives. Nuns
are considered excellent research subjects because they lead such similar lives. With many variables eliminated, researchers
believe it's easier to pinpoint what might be implicated in the women’s mental and physical conditions in later life.
In the quest to find the factors that lead to healthy aging,
researchers looked at everything from nutrition to amount of education in the lives of over 600 nuns. Writing samples done
by the nuns at their time of entry into the convent were analyzed for "idea density" and positive emotion. The study participants
are given mental and physical tests every year to track their functioning. Their blood is tested for signs of genetic links
to Alzheimer’s. And when the women in the study die, their brains are sent to a laboratory to be extensively examined
and graded according to Braak stages—stages I-II showing little to no sign of disease and stages V-VI showing extensive
signs of Alzheimer’s.
For the student of mind-body health, the most revealing aspects
of this study are how little the findings support what science thinks it knows about Alzheimer’s. A pair of the "bad"
genes—which would theoretically mark you for the disease—does not mean impairment is inevitable. Nor does having
a typically "Alzheimer’s" brain. There was a nun with a Braak stage VI brain—extensive signs of damage—and
a double dose of the Alzheimer’s gene, who died mentally intact in her mid-80s. There was another with a stage II brain—meaning
it showed very little damage—who was demented. And, much to the researchers’ surprise, it is possible to live
to 100 with no brain damage or mental impairment.
Most of the nuns were quite well educated, but, although it
was theorized that education would protect the brain from Alzheimer’s, those with more education were not exempt from
signs of the disease in later life. The clearest indicator of who would get Alzheimer’s was found in a surprising area.
Nuns who used a complex writing style, labeled "high idea density" by the researchers, usually stayed mentally intact. In
fact, independent analysis of the writing samples allowed researchers to predict with 85 to 90 percent accuracy who would
develop signs of Alzheimer’s.
Infected by negative beliefs about aging
Mind-body theory says, "You get what you concentrate upon."
From this perspective, in order to get Alzheimer’s your beliefs about aging would concentrate your attention on the
inevitability of mental disability in old age. The metaphysical teacher, Seth, says, "Senility is a mental and physical epidemic—a
needless one. You ‘catch’ it because when you are young you believe that old people cannot perform. There are
no inoculations against beliefs, so when young people with such beliefs grow old they become ‘victims.’" This
idea is supported by evidence from a study of 887 brains from individuals aged 20 to 104. This research revealed that what
science sees as signs of Alzheimer’s can show up as early as your twenties.
Perhaps the nuns who used complex thoughts in their writing
samples reveal themselves to be independent thinkers from a young age, women uninfected by limiting beliefs about aging. If
you aren’t naturally focused on beneficial attitudes about aging, it’s not too late to change your mind. In order
to stop concentrating on what you don’t want, though, it is useful to shift your attention to what you do want. This
is challenging in a society that is convinced that aging is only better than dying. After you lose all the sheen and bounce
of youth, what have you got that’s worth noticing?
A list of the hypothetical benefits of aging might look something
like this: the older we get, the more we can increase in kindness, compassion, perspective, steadiness, wisdom, flexibility,
humor, strength, warmth, wisdom, patience, experience, generosity, openness, balance, and acceptance of ourselves and others.
However, you will notice that these are all inner traits, and this is not a culture that places much value on the development
of the inner person. Inner beauty doesn’t raise the ratings on television, or show up well on a billboard, and it is
definitely not our picture of what looks hot driving a new sports car or prancing down the beach.
But another benefit of age is that the inner person becomes
more important than the outer. With so many of us aging, we will definitely have the numbers to launch a new fashion trend
favoring the assets of the inner self. And since the "culture" is us, it’s the boomers’ chance to shift everyone
in the direction of valuing those characteristics that money can’t buy and only age can improve.
What has to change for us to look forward to age as an opportunity
for our fullest flowering instead of fearing it as the beginning of the end of everything fun, potent, and interesting? Our
minds, as always. In order to age with grace, we must steer between the beliefs that youth is where the action is and that
aging gradually erases everything vital, functional, important, and attractive about us.
We will most readily reap the benefits of age if we anticipate
the coming phase of life as a time of freedom to grow as individuals. Those who want a head start on the next new thing could
begin grooming themselves for enhanced inner beauty now. If we’re smart, we’ll make reordering our expectations
about aging a priority. After all, we’re not getting any younger.