Experience Life Magazine

The Older, the Better

Wise advice on how to get healthier, happier and more attractive with age.

The Older the Better

In our culture, everything happens at the speed of youth. Whether it’s cell phones, computers, songs, movies, books or opinions, it seems that only the newest models and latest releases matter. Whatever it is, if it’s been around for a while, it’s probably lost some value along with its straight-out-of-the-package luster.

And that might be inevitable when it comes to the latest iPad. But it makes no sense when it comes to people. Because while our culture is inclined to associate aging with a downgrade in beauty, vitality and appeal, aging done well has the potential to be something else entirely: an enjoyable and inspiring upgrade of self.

Unlike the boundless energy of youth, the treasures of aging don’t just arrive at our doorsteps, though. While it is entirely possible to become more interesting, attractive and dynamic as you age, it rarely happens without some conscious striving.

That said, it’s well worth the effort. Done right, living brings wisdom, emotional maturity and insight. With age comes experience, skill, discernment and perspective. We become more empathetic. We develop the compassion to fully know and love others, and the confidence to relax into our best attributes. We gain the ability to know — and even strut — our own stuff.

Seen in this light, getting older can be downright sexy. But how does one go about engaging in artful aging? One of the best ways is to start early.

Knowing at 20, 30 or 40 that you can, and fully intend to, become cooler, smarter and potentially hotter as you age gives you an important advantage, because it can help you keep your goals and priorities in line over the long haul. It also helps you focus on the end game, so you don’t get stuck thinking that midlife achievements are the highest markers of a life well lived.

But at whatever age you suddenly realize that you are, in fact, getting older, it is still possible to age gracefully from there on out. All it takes is smart choices, well-directed energy and a desire for self-renewal. As best-selling author and journalist Gail Sheehy puts it, we need to “remain open to new vistas of learning and imagination and anticipate experiences yet to be conquered and savored.”

Connect With Others

One of the most important things you can do to enrich your life at any age is to connect with other people. Meeting, talking, collaborating, sharing — none of these personal-growth essentials happens when an individual is isolated. The people around us (friends, lovers, family, mentors and even enemies) can all provide important insights and become catalysts that aid us in our quest to evolve.

Developing relationships with older folks whom you admire and perceive as good role models, whether for their enduring physical fitness, their perspective and experience, or simply their joie de vivre, can be especially inspiring. So can connecting with younger people. Older men and women gain a deeper appreciation of their accumulated knowledge by sharing it. And feeling gratitude for one’s wisdom and previous life experiences is itself a powerful factor in remaining happy and inspired as we age.

Linking with others has huge health benefits as well. Edward M. Hallowell, MD, an adult and child psychiatrist based in Boston, cites landmark research from Harvard University School of Public Health, that showed people with no close ties to friends, relations or other community were three times more likely to die over a nine-year period than those with at least one source of social support. “Social isolation is as much a risk factor [for early death] as smoking,” he says.

The value of connection increases with years and experience. As lives and relationships deepen, there’s more to share.

A Minneapolis resident, Scotty Gillette was in her early 40s when she and a group of four other childhood friends decided to meet for dinner once a month. Nearly 40 years later, they’re still doing it. “We’ve supported each other through divorces, widowhood, and issues with our children and grandchildren,” she says. “We’ve nursed each other through operations, helped out when husbands have gotten sick, and celebrated at the weddings of our children and the births of our grandchildren.” Each woman is a crucial beam in her friends’ emotional architecture.

Community can be as simple as three or four people getting together for focused conversation once a week, says Parker Palmer, an educator, community activist and author of Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (Jossey-Bass, 1999). “It requires, more than anything else, intentionality.” The form matters less than the function; joining a bowling league, volunteering to tutor at the local high school, starting a band, taking an acting class — all will connect you with something you love, as well as a vital group of friends.

Look and Learn

To recognize life’s continuing possibilities, you must constantly survey the world with an open, inquisitive mind. “Lifelong learning expands our horizons and helps us see a life beyond our current roles,” says Pamela McLean, PhD, a clinical psychologist and coauthor of Life Launch: A Passionate Guide to the Rest of Your Life (Hudson Press, 2000).

The Harvard Study of Adult Development found that pursuing education throughout your adult years is a key factor to a rich life and healthy aging. Research has also found that learning can make your brain function better.

For many years, neuroscientists thought that the body stopped building new neural connections after childhood. But landmark studies in the early 21st century showed that the adult brain continues to grow new cells and create new neural connections. And learning helps trigger the growth of those new cells.

“Long-held assumptions that our brains are in a state of gradual decline from a youthful peak have been proven untrue,” notes Barbara Strauch in The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind (Penguin, 2011).

If you maintain only one interest in your life — whether it’s work, children, athletics or a hobby — you risk losing your source of identity and satisfaction when change comes. Conversely, if you polish many facets of yourself, you will shine no matter what.

“The demands of the 30s and 40s are so pressing that it’s almost impossible to imagine how you can diversify your interests,” says McLean. “But it’s important not to become a one-string guitar. Don’t give all your life to work. Allow yourself to try adventures you normally wouldn’t.”

The opportunities to learn are endless. You can choose a structured activity, like taking a class or starting a book club. Or you can take a more free-form approach: Learn about local history or sports teams; listen to public radio while going to work and books on tape during the commute home; commit to visiting a new place every year, even if it’s on the way to your annual vacation spot.

As your life path proceeds, keep an eye out for life’s teachers. McLean suggests seeking out role models who are living in a way that inspires you. Then learn about their lives by asking questions about how they got there.

One person who has made a career out of interviewing his mentors is Bill Moyers, the host of the public-television news program Moyers & Company. “All the septuagenarians I’ve interviewed through the years have taught me something,” he says. “They lived long enough to turn their experience into wisdom, and to share it.”

Explore Within

Perhaps the best way to integrate valuable life experiences into your aging process is to regularly evaluate where you are and what’s calling next. “It’s a challenge for anyone, regardless of their age, to know where they want to go,” says McLean. “It’s easy to wander or, in our media-oriented society, to be led. But satisfaction only comes with a direction that is truly your own.”

Palmer agrees, and points out that instead of becoming more set in their ways, aging adults need to remain nimble. “One of the keys to aging gracefully is to acknowledge that you have as much need for discernment now about the best next steps in life as you did at 32 or 45 or 56. There’s a mythology that by 72 you’re pretty well settled, but we have wiggle room as long as we’re drawing breath.”

Developing and following your own evolving sense of purpose takes mindfulness, says McLean, which requires regular doses of reflective thinking. “Look for opportunities to think outside the moment and ask what you want to be,” she advises.

There are opportunities everywhere. Take a vacation, journal, meditate, try yoga, get a coach. Resist the invented busyness that keeps most of us distracted from our feelings: Stop compulsively checking your email or your phone; go on a weeklong media fast; sit still on your couch for five full minutes and don’t write a “to-do” list or schedule a dentist’s appointment or rearrange your sock drawer. If you feel uncomfortable, that’s the point. You’re starting to listen to your inner self.

Allowing our internal compass to guide us toward meaningful pursuits brings its own set of benefits. The Longevity Project, a long-term study launched by a Stanford psychologist at the turn of the last century, followed 1,500 people born around 1910 and found that passionate people who believed they were living up to their potential and engaged in meaningful work lived longer, healthier lives than their less reflective and less engaged peers.

The inner journey itself can be a wellspring of energy and inspiration for daily life. “I’ve found that if a person has a way of being introspective while aging, it creates an acceptance of life,” says Stephan Rechtschaffen, MD, a cofounder of the Omega Institute, a holistic learning center based in Rhinebeck, N.Y. “Maintaining vitality can be aided by spiritual processes. They allow us to access our inner landscapes and to see life with wonder.”

Play Creatively

Embracing the pleasures of uninhibited expression — whether we find that in art, music, dance, woodworking, Scrabble or poker — enriches and regenerates our souls no matter how old we are. “Any healthy activity where your brain lights up helps plant the seeds of happiness,” says Hallowell.

Those bits of happiness enrich our brains now and can continue to pay off in the decades to come, bringing satisfaction and continual self-renewal. In fact, time often enhances the end results of creative endeavors. In her book The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life (Simon & Schuster, 2005), choreographer Twyla Tharp explains that she didn’t feel like a “master” of her craft until she had completed 128 works and was 58 years old.

“Why did it take 128 pieces until I felt this way?” Tharp asks rhetorically. “A better question would be, why not? What’s wrong with getting better as you get more work under your belt?” She cites Verdi, Beethoven, Dostoyevsky, Kurosawa and Balanchine as a few of her personal role models. All had stunning early triumphs, to be sure. Yet what interests Tharp is that all of these artists kept raising the bar for their achievements throughout their middle and later years.

How, in the face of deteriorating memories and aching backs, did they do it? In Tharp’s view, they were able to integrate what they had learned and put it into perspective.

“As we age, it’s hard to recapture the recklessness of youth, when new ideas sparked off us like light from a pinwheel sparkler,” she writes. “But we more than compensate for this with the ideas we do generate, and with our hard-earned wisdom about how to capture, and, more importantly, connect those ideas.” The results of this mature brand of ideation and creative expression, Tharp asserts, can be richer, deeper and just as satisfying as the spontaneity of youth.

Mind Your Body

Whether you’re 18 or 88, you feel better when you maintain a healthy weight, a high level of physical vitality, and a commitment to daily movement. As the years pass, though, it becomes increasingly important to examine specific aspects of your daily routine and environment.

For instance, according to Mark Hyman, MD, recent research shows that balancing blood sugar is one of the best ways to inoculate against certain age-related diseases, such as dementia, cancer and adult-onset diabetes.

Besides reducing our sugar intake, Hyman, author of The Blood Sugar Solution (Little, Brown and Company, 2012), advises people to take a few key steps: (1) Avoid flours and starches (“They act just like sugar in the bloodstream,” he explains); (2) include healthy proteins (such as fish, beans, nuts, lean animal protein) with every meal to fuel metabolism and maintain muscle; (3) liberally consume high-fiber foods (nuts, berries, beans, non-starchy vegetables and seeds); (4) enjoy healthy fats, including omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to activate a critical cell-signaling system related to blood-sugar control.

Hyman also wants us to mind our mitochondria, which are the microscopic components of each of our cells that turn food and 90 percent of the oxygen we breathe into energy. We have more than 100,000 trillion of these little energy factories in our bodies, and according to recent lab tests, rats with the healthiest and most plentiful mitochondria had greater endurance and aerobic capacity, experienced increased fat burning, didn’t develop prediabetes, and lived to be the equivalent of 120 human years old.

The trouble is that, over time, mitochondria are sensitive to poor diet, sedentary habits, toxins, allergens, and high levels of stress. This is why Hyman urges us to emphasize whole foods, limit our overall exposure to pollutants, find time to relax and rejuvenate, and enjoy plenty of physical activity. Interval training is especially helpful, he notes, since high-intensity activity interspersed with periods of rest increases the efficiency and function of mitochondria. Strength training also increases the amount of mitochondria in muscle cells.

Beyond all these practical recommendations for healthy, graceful aging, though, success is ultimately rooted in self-honesty — the ability to see yourself clearly and then take action on the parts of your life that are asking for investment and attention.

For example, the Harvard Study on Aging tells us that having a healthy marriage before age 50 is an indicator of successful aging. Do you have a strong partnership? If you do, what sorts of steps can you take to fortify that bond? If not, what can you do to change your situation?

If you are severely overweight, chain smoking, or abusing alcohol or drugs, what resources are available to help you face down the demons? What role do you play in the dysfunction?

Ignoring problems not only leads to physical and mental deterioration, but also leads to avoiding solutions that have the potential to connect you to the larger community and your better self.

In other words, you’re never too old to leave behind old habits, to embrace new rituals, or to discover new vistas in the search of happier, healthier and higher terrain.

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Elizabeth Foy Larsen is a Minneapolis-based freelancer who writes for a variety of publications, including the New York Times, Slate.com, and Parents.

Web Extra

A Positive Approach to Aging

A conversation with ‘elderhood’ advocate Lewis Richmond

Growing old is not something that most Americans relish. Indeed, there are entire sections of bookstores featuring the latest thinking on retaining or restoring your youth. But Lewis Richmond argues in his new book, Aging as a Spiritual Practice: A Contemplative Guide to Growing Older and Wiser (Gotham Books, 2012), that aging can be a joyful, fulfilling experience if we embrace our loss and pursue the many opportunities that “elderhood” offers. The San Francisco–based Zen Buddhist priest and teacher spoke with Experience Life contributing writer Joseph Hart about this approach to aging and how it can help us live a more satisfying life — no matter how old we are.

EL | Your new book offers people a guide to aging well. Tell me a little about how you approach this in the book.

LR | What I’ve tried to do in this book is balance two things: I tried to be realistic about the fact that aging means loss. Loss of youth, loss of opportunity, loss of friends, loss of vigor and stamina, and so on. But I tried to balance that with a sense of opportunity, new beginnings, suggestions for how to tune in and evoke and experience the very positive side of aging, which I describe with the term “elderhood.”

So, part of the focus of the book is about ways to build and evoke your own elderhood. It’s a workbook in the sense that at the end of every chapter there is an exercise or a meditation or a reflection on some topic related to aging that is practical, that people can actually do. That’s really the overarching theme and purpose of the book.

EL | How do you define aging? Are we talking elderly? Are we talking 60s? Or is it from 20 to 30?

LR | Well, I have a term I invented in the book called “lightning strikes” — the first time it really hits you that you’re getting old. Typically that would be in your late 40s, early 50s, possibly early 60s. Let’s put it this way: It depends on how healthy you are and how distracted you are and how much in denial you are. But I also find that lightning can strike for younger people often with their parents. When their parents become ill or their parents begin to really age, you begin to feel your own aging too. So, lightning can strike at any time.

EL | When did lightning strike for you?

LR | I had cancer when I was 35, so it was very unusual for somebody that young. For many people, an illness they or a loved one suffers is when it really hits you. From that point of view, it can be at any age.

EL | Sounds pretty scary.

LR | It’s sobering. I wouldn’t say it’s always scary, but it’s sobering. The first thing that hits you is a sense of loss. Loss tends to come before opportunity. In my case, for example, a doctor telling me I had cancer was like my whole life dropped through the floor. I had an enormous sense of loss. I had to rebuild my life. This is 30 years ago now, so obviously I did. But I had to rebuild my life out of that sense of loss. So, you might say I’m particularly well equipped, aside from my Buddhist background, to talk about this, to talk about these two aspects, loss and opportunity.

EL | Can you talk a little about the opportunities aging presents?

LR | First of all, opportunity becomes more visible when you acknowledge loss. A lot of books on aging are really about postponing aging. My book is about accepting aging and celebrating aging. As far as opportunity is concerned, the phrase that came up most often when I interviewed people for the book is “giving back.” In other words, what they really mean by that is realizing that they had been given a gift. They’re realizing as they get older that life itself is a gift. All the years that they’ve lived are a gift. That’s one of the real positive realizations and opportunities that come with aging. When you’re young you’re just trying to build your career and do things and have a life and have your success. When you’re older, you look back, and from a positive point of view it’s not about loss — it’s about gratitude. Thank you for the gift of life. Gratitude and giving back can create a different sense of how to conduct your life.

EL | That’s interesting. Talk a little bit more about that awareness you get after lightning strikes and maybe the lack of awareness in youth. You know, that you’re more reactive to the surroundings and maybe don’t have the bigger picture. Is that what you’re driving at?

LR | Yes, that’s part of it. But let me talk a little bit about identity, which is one of the themes in my book. Loss occurs throughout life. When you leave your friends in elementary school and go to junior high school there’s a loss there. When you break up with your first girlfriend or boyfriend there’s a loss. When you leave high school to go to college, you lose all your high school friends, you go to a strange town. But when you’re young, the world tends to bring you the opportunities just in the course of life. You know, you go to college, you get new friends, you get excited to pick your career.

Once lightning strikes or once you get older that isn’t so true. You have to work harder to create your own opportunities. I think it’s more that youth are oblivious and elders are aware. I don’t think that’s quite fair to youth. But the more losses you have in life, the more gratitude you have for what you still have. So, if you have an illness, you’re very grateful that you recover from it. I’ve had at least two very, very serious illnesses, which I talk about in the book. I’m glad to be alive, frankly. Every day I wake up and I think I could be dead. So, I think the sense of gratitude comes from having lived long enough to really see over and over again how loss and opportunity interweave in our life.

That sense of wanting to give back could be expressed as volunteer work, it could be expressed as spending more time with your children or grandchildren. I have a whole chapter in there and also some meditation exercises about generosity and gratitude.

I also want to talk about the science of happiness. Part of the book is about the current state of aging research. But there’s also a related, relatively new discipline called “happiness studies.” Happiness studies use a lot more hard science now because researchers can scan the brain while they have people do things. They can actually see certain parts of the brain associated with positive emotion light up.

There are three main qualities of life that definitively increase happiness — generosity, gratitude and reframing. They’re all related to aging, in my view. Generosity is about giving back. When you make somebody else happy, it makes you happy. Gratitude is the second one. When you feel thankful for something, you feel a rush of good feeling in your body. The third one, the researchers call it reframing, is a term from psychotherapy. Basically, it means looking at a situation differently and more positively than you’d been accustomed to.

EL | Let’s talk about death for a little bit. As you get older, it seems logical to me that you’re facing your death more imminently and having a closer relationship with the idea of mortality than you are in your 20s or 30s.

LR | That’s right.

EL | I’m wondering, how does that relationship with death have an impact on these other aspects that you’re talking about like generosity, gratitude and reframing?

LR| Well, the basic reframe on death is: “I’m not dead yet.” Really. I mean let’s put it this way, what’s much more immediate as people get older, it’s not their own death, per se, but the deaths of loved ones and friends. That hits you hard. At the same time, I learned in the course of talking to doctors the phrase “the extraordinary elderly.” These are people everybody knows who are in their 80s, 90s, or older. I have a woman who’s 105 in the book: Sarah. These people are undefeated. They have cancer, they lose a leg, all these things happen. They bounce back; they’re full of life. They know they’re going to die; it doesn’t matter.

EL | What sets them apart?

LR | Primarily it’s flexibility. They roll with the punches. They have the ability to adapt to whatever comes their way. Flexibility is one of the keys. We’re not talking about going to yoga classes and being able to touch your toes. We’re talking about emotional flexibility.

EL | So these people have really embraced their loss and continued to look for the opportunities life presents them?

LR | These things go together. They really do go together. I think that people keep their losses to themselves and their fears to themselves, even to their spouse or partner, to their closest friends. It’s a private thing. Or they talk about it in hushed voices. I just lay it out there. This is how it is. Maybe it’s partly my Buddhist background, which is to start by taking things as they are and deal with them. But by dealing with them, the opportunities and the pleasures and the joys can emerge from that.

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