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Live Young, Think Young, Be Young, ... at Any Age
By Donald Vickery, Larry Matson, Carol Vickery
Bull Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2012 Bull Publishing Company
All rights reserved.
Speaking of Aging — Don't
A New Way to Think about What Really Makes Us Old
How old would you be if you didn't know how old you are?
— Satchel Paige
Do you think about how you are aging? Are you concerned about getting old? What is your vision of "old"? Is it like that of most people — frail, shrunken, slow, unstable, declining vision and hearing, loss of abilities, and so on? More important, what is your vision of you "getting old"? Is it what you are experiencing right now — weight gain, lack of energy, loss of strength, stiffness, aches and pains, high blood pressure, medications, inability to do activities you used to enjoy?
Why does all of this happen? Most of us say "aging" without giving it a second thought. What do you believe about aging? Which of the following statements do you believe?
» Aging is our greatest adversary as we grow older.
» Aging determines how long we live.
» Aging steals our youth; it makes us old and feeble.
» Aging causes chronic diseases, like heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes.
» Aging is largely a matter of genes and luck.
» How we age is largely out of our control.
» Science will determine the cause of aging, and this will lead to the discovery of drugs that will keep us young.
How many of these statements do you think are true? Most of us believe they are all true, at least to some degree. Unfortunately, none of them is true for one simple reason: We honestly do not know what aging really is. Oh, we can define it, such as "everything that happens with the passage of time," but what is it really? Scientists have been studying aging for decades. They've come up with many theories, but there is no consensus and none of the theories can account for the changes that occur in our body and mind as we get older. And, with all of this research, we still have no way to measure the aging process. We don't know what to measure.
Why do we have so many distorted beliefs about aging? That part is simple: It's because we hear so much about aging and we see the ravages of old age all around us. You will probably hear more about aging than any other topic over your lifetime, and we're not in the habit of critically evaluating any of this information. We just assume it's true. "Aging" is such an easy explanation for problems we develop as we get older. When the doctor tells us that our high blood pressure or type 2 diabetes is due to aging, we accept it and start taking our pills. We have such undying faith in science and medicine. When we hear that scientists have made another discovery about aging, we believe that they really are closing in on a pill to keep us young. When we hear doctors tell us that hormone therapy is the answer or when "entrepreneurs" tell us that a new supplement is an anti-aging miracle, we want to try the treatments because they just may work. As we experience stiffness, aches and pains, or trouble sleeping, the drug industry tells us that it's all due to aging and that medication is the answer. We believe aging is the cause, so we buy over-the-counter drugs or ask the doctor for prescriptions to help us feel better, sleep better, perform better, and so on. All of this reinforces our mistaken assumptions about the mysterious process of aging that is going on in all of us. How could anyone develop a healthy mindset about aging amid such a sea of confusion and competing interests?
This mindset affects our attitude about aging and our expectations for the future. It shapes how we interpret events in our life and the information we read or hear about aging. When we have trouble doing something or when we get fat, feel weak, notice stiffness, or have aches and pains, we think we're getting old. We expect to slow down, get weaker, do less for ourselves, take more medications, and so on. We accept it and go on hoping for the best.
At this point you're probably thinking to yourself, "OK, I get the point about aging and anti-aging, but you're not trying to say that aging is not real, are you?" Of course not. We all know that aging happens. No one questions that there is an unchangeable, mysterious process going on in every living organism that ultimately limits its lifespan. We know aging exists, but that's about all we can count on. The fact that it is real, however, provides the thread of legitimacy that makes us buy into all of these unfounded assumptions. But — it's only a thread.
In this chapter, we present a new way of understanding how and why our body and mind get old. It's called the Aging Syndrome. Our current concept of aging as an unchangeable, negative march toward feebleness is part of it, but actually a surprisingly small part. There are many other factors that contribute, and when we evaluate their impact, we see that agingactually plays a very minor role in how our bodies and minds change over time. We call these other factors "root causes."
Our current mindset places the focus almost entirely on aging and distracts us from these root causes. Most important, these root causes are things we can control — as opposed to aging, which we cannot control. When we begin to think in terms of the Aging Syndrome, our focus changes to what we can control. This nurtures a new wisdom about aging that allows us to separate truth from fiction so that we know how to stay in the game right up to the end.
Even Science Confuses Beliefs and Knowledge
The term real or biological aging is used to distinguish the unchangeable process from other factors, such as disease and environmental, that can also weaken our body and make us old. But, what is real aging beyond an unchangeable, mysterious process? We turn to science for answers to such questions. Unfortunately, with aging, we're met with disappointment: a lot of theory but few answers — in other words, a lot of beliefs but little true knowledge. There is an enormous gap between what science believes about real aging and what has been proven about real aging.
There's a big difference between beliefs and knowledge. Beliefs are powerful whether they are true or not. They are true to the believer, and they lead to assumptions that become accepted as knowledge. With time, they become ingrained in our subconsciousness. A big part of this book is about questioning our long-held assumptions and beliefs about aging. These assumptions prevent us from taking a more active role in self-managing the process of growing older.
Those in the anti-aging industry depend on false assumptions to sell their anti-aging products. When we think about aging, it is usually in terms of the changes that occur — gray hair, thin skin, age spots, wrinkles, frailty, loss of height, slowing down, vision and hearing difficulties, urinary problems, and so on. We don't think about why these changes occur because we assume aging is the cause. We take aging for granted. We don't think about the process, just the results. That's why it's so important to understand the difference between what science merely believes and what it knows about aging. We can accept aging, but at the same time acknowledge that we know very little about it, especially the role it plays in the changes that we associate with getting old. Therefore, the first step in changing our mindset about growing old is letting go of aging as a cause of anything.
It's Not about Aging — It's about Old
Of the many definitions of aging, the simplest and most useful is: the process of growing old or maturing. This definition is useful because it gives us a new perspective. We see that understanding "old or maturing" is far more important than understanding any theory of aging.
The words old and maturing have very different connotations. Old is mostly negative — slow, weak, frail, wrinkles, and so on. It makes you think that nothing good happens with old age — a bad assumption. There are actually a number of positive things that happen with older age, including the benefits of more experience, better problem-solving skills, a greater sense of optimism, being less judgmental and less emotionally involved in things. Older folks often have a better understanding of the world around them and are not as bothered by little things. And, we hope, they have earned at least a little wisdom.
Maturing, on the other hand, is generally seen in a positive light, mainly in relation to growth and development. But, maturation doesn't stop when we reach adulthood. We mature throughout life as we grow in wisdom, experience, and serenity. We'll use maturing for the positive effects of increasing age and growing old for the negative aspects. Our goal thus becomes pretty simple — slow down, stop, or even reverse the "growing old" parts, while embracing the "maturing" parts.
The Great Mistake — Confusing Age for Aging
Because we use the number of years we have lived as the measure of how old we are, it's easy to let our subconscious substitute aging for age. This leads to another damaging assumption — that weakness and feebleness, or aging, progress in a straight line in concert with age. Unfortunately, the number of years we have lived is a poor indicator of how we feel and function — in other words, how "old" we are in terms of health and biology. Think of your last high school class reunion, especially if you've had at least a 30th reunion. With each reunion, you see more variation in how old classmates appear. By the 30th it becomes a challenge to recognize some folks, while others seem to have hardly changed. It's clear that people vary greatly in the rate at which they get old. Is this due to variations in the immutable aging process? Hardly. Remember that none of these changes has been conclusively linked to any particular theory of aging. We call this the "missing link" in aging research. Besides, it would be impossible to tell anyway because we have no way to measure aging. One thing we do know, however, is that the number of years we have lived, our numeric age, is not very useful as a measure of aging or biological age.
Another area of confusion between age and aging concerns the risk of chronic disease. Aging is consistently mentioned as a risk factor for most chronic diseases simply because they become more common with increasing age. It makes sense that older age is associated with a greater chance of developing a disease simply because there is more time for the disease to develop no matter what the cause. Age is a measure of time and is, in fact, a perfect risk factor (see box) — straightforward, easily measured, and on a continuum from low to high, or lower probability to higher probability. Aging, on the other hand, cannot be a risk factor because it has none of these characteristics. We'll come back to this in Part II when we talk about chronic disease, but for now the key point is that risk factors tell us nothing about why things happen. They only predict the likelihood that they will occur. Do you ever think of age as a cause of anything?
It's easy to assume that age and aging go hand in hand. But, when we exchange aging for age in our minds, it changes our thinking. We begin to believe that aging is a real cause of disease. This change has a dramatic effect on our mindset about getting older because we identify so strongly with our age. When we hear that most people are overweight at 40, have a chronic disease by 50, and take multiple prescriptions by 60, and then when we see it in real life, our mindset is confirmed — we're getting old. When we see people who seem older than they really are at our reunions, we attribute it to variation in the aging process — yet another flawed assumption.
We're going to change your thinking about what makes other people seem older than they really are, and what makes you older than you want to be. Satchel Paige pitched in the big leagues into his 50s. Most baseball players are "old" at 40. What was different about Paige? His mindset about aging, which led him to ask "How old would you be if you didn't know how old you are?" It's a good question. He really believed that he was younger than he was — and he performed that way too.
Old Is Not a Function of Age
The idea that our body and brain can be old at 40 or young at 70 reflects the central theme of this book — that each of us has a lot to say about how and when we get old. There is a long list of changes that occur in every structure and function of our body as we age (see Tables 2.1 and 2.2 in next chapter). These changes are so common that age is often used to predict them. They're accepted as "normal" aging. At middle age, the list includes overweight, stiffness, poor stamina, low back pain, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. At older ages, the list includes frailty, debilitation, dependency, and advanced disease. However, age alone does not dictate any of these changes.
Lab results and physical findings typical of older people can be seen in young folks, and vice versa — findings associated with a younger age can be observed at older ages. Some change is inevitable, but the time frame is far from inevitable. Age-related changes vary tremendously from person to person. Genes play a role, but so do many environmental and lifestyle factors (i.e., root causes). As we'll see in the coming chapters, there is a lot more to growing old than aging, or age. The key question shifts from What is aging? to What makes us old? This change in thinking takes us from debating a mysterious concept with no real application to addressing our universal challenge — slowing down the process of getting old.
Did your vision of "old" or "getting old" at the beginning of the chapter fit the usual picture? We can change this mindset if we begin to think differently about why we get this way. Think about people you know who are exceptions — vibrant, active, and energetic at older ages. They need to be our models for getting older. Most of these folks are unique in two ways: (1) how they view growing older, and (2) how they manage their lives. Most importantly, they show us what is possible. The rest, who are the norm, show us what is inevitable if we don't change our thinking and our expectations, and if we don't manage our behaviors and exposures in our everyday lives.
The Aging Syndrome Is What Makes Us Old
The most common changes that occur with increasing age involve shrinking, weakening, and stiffening. These problems often result from diminishing stimulation. When not used, the body begins to decay, to weaken, and to break down. The core concept of "old" is weakness, not only of the body but of the mind as well. The most important goal for anyone who wants to stay young is to be strong, physically and mentally.
So, what causes us to become mentally and physically weak? Not aging, at least not in the way we usually think of it. If only it was that simple. We'd like to believe the anti-aging folks — just take a collection of anti-aging supplements. Unfortunately, getting old — that is, mentally and physically weak — is a more complex process. The truth is that a lot of little things interact to cause our body to weaken and begin breaking down and to allow chronic disease to develop and progress. That's why we call this process the Aging Syndrome.
What Is the Aging Syndrome?
The Aging Syndrome can be defined as the signs and symptoms of being old, categorized by the processes that produced them. These processes are the result of ten primary underlying factors, the ones we call root causes. When you read about their individual effects in Part II, you will see that they cause most of the changes we commonly attribute to aging. Together their effects cause us to age faster than we should.
Excerpted from Live Young, Think Young, Be Young, ... at Any Age by Donald Vickery, Larry Matson, Carol Vickery. Copyright © 2012 Bull Publishing Company. Excerpted by permission of Bull Publishing Company.
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