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Wisely Growing Older

“If I knew I was going to live this long, I would’ve taken better care of myself.”

-Eubie Blake, jazz pianist

One the whole, we human beings are living longer than ever before. But we’re not necessarily always living better.

Much of our increased longevity can be attributed to advances in science and technology.

Modern medicine focuses a great deal on helping us to live longer, in large part, by helping us to manage and reduce the types of morbidity (e.g., hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, cancers, etc.) that would have cut life short for a larger percentage of the adult population not too many years ago.

Living to be a hundred years old is not nearly as newsworthy now as it was when I was a boy.

But while we take advantages of these life-prolonging medical advances, shouldn’t we also be thinking more precisely about the actual quality of life in our advancing years?

Well, most gerontologists would answer this question with a resounding “Yes!” (Gerontology is the field of science that deals with aging, and the problems typically associated with aging)

In fact, back in 1987, two gerontologists, John W. Rowe, M.D. and Robert L. Kahn, PhD, carried out extensive scientific studies about this exact topic. They later published their findings and ideas in a groundbreaking book, entitled, Successful Aging.

Rowe and Kahn offered up a simple model, or set of guidelines, deemed necessary to age well, or as they put it, to age “successfully”. It essentially comes down to these three things:

1. Being free of disability and disease

2. Having high cognitive and physical skills

3. Interacting with others in meaningful ways

Defining “successful aging” is a still-evolving, and highly contentious topic. In fact, here’s a page from a gerontology website dedicated to the large variety of perspectives on this exact topic.

The current definitions (some including up to 50 guidelines!) are all over the place, with as few as one percent of older populations aging successfully, or as many as 90%, depending on the criteria.

Though some researchers don’t find it satisfactorily comprehensive, there seems to be a good deal of agreement on the validity of the three-point model put forth by Rowe and Kahn.

That is, most agree that these three things (at the very least) are essential.

I’m no gerontologist. But as a man in my 60s who hopes to age successfully, I think the simplicity of Rowe and Kahn’s three-component model is a good place to start.

Allow me to address and elaborate on each one here:

1. Being Free of Disability and Disease

Let’s change it to, preventing and/or managing disability and disease, as this more accurately reflects the reality of many older adults who are aging well. I myself have a genetic predisposition for having two chronic conditions (hypertension and high blood glucose) that I’m able to manage quite well through lifestyle habits. Doing so allows me to enjoy an active and vital life.

So the first thing you should probably do to get on top of this, is to make sure you’re seeing a well-trusted physician regularly. You can’t deal with a potentially debilitating or life-threatening condition if you don’t even know you have it. Hypertension and Type 2 Diabetes are just a couple of the many “silent killers” (sufferers typically feel no “obvious” symptoms) that older adults need to be aware of. (And then of course, too, it is important that you adhere to the advice of your doctor!)

But avoiding and managing these kinds of chronic conditions often involves more than just taking the meds. It’s also about implementing other lifestyle changes, like getting adequate and appropriate exercise, resting well, managing stress, and eating a satisfying and nutritious diet. Taking responsibility for these changes can do seemingly miraculous things in managing (or even eliminating) some of these chronic conditions. And if you’re challenged (as most people are) with letting go of old habits and developing new ones, a certified health coach can be a powerful ally in helping you define, implement and adhere to your new lifestyle choices.

2. High Cognitive Skills and Physical Skills

We can start with maintaining and improving upon your current skills. In the simplest sense, this comes down to learning and engaging in new things all the time. This can mean going deeper into the mastery of skills you already have (e.g., practicing challenging material on a musical instrument you’ve been playing your entire life), or taking on something completely new.

So study a foreign language, or learn woodworking for the first time, or finally learn to dance to salsa music. By taking yourself out of your familiar “comfort zone”, you feed your brain the most nourishing food possible: new experiences. Most importantly, engage in things you’re truly curious (and even passionate) about.

Also, take time for reflection, and to cultivate mindfulness. Aim at building for yourself a rich internal life. Consider starting a sitting meditation practice. Study Tai Chi. Try some lessons in the Alexander Technique. (Besides being good for your brain, movement meditation is also wonderful for your balance, mobility and overall physical health.)

3. Interacting with others in Meaningful Ways

This means being proactive in staying connected to friends, family and society as a whole. It involves always developing and improving upon your listening and communication skills, navigating discordance with others (particularly timely, given our current political climate), as well as becoming more socially conscious and active.

It can also entail embarking upon collaborative creative endeavors, like singing in a choir, or performing in a production at the local community theatre. Or perhaps even engaging in team sports, or other kinds of group recreational activities. Finding enjoyment while you cultivate connection with others will increase both your longevity, and the quality of those years in your long life.

So there you are! Three simple components to address that can help you to live, not only longer, but clearly better.

As I reflect upon myself, upon my habits, and tendencies, I come to see where I need to point my attention with respect to these guidelines. But I know as I do so, I can embrace the years ahead.

I’ll leave you with this thought:

“It’s not the years in your life, but the life in your years that counts.”

-Adlai Stevenson




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