July 23, 2024
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How Old Do You Feel?

      Research has shown that subjective age — how old we feel — and not our actual age is a better predictor of our overall health, memory, physical strength and longevity. So instead of asking someone how old they are, you should ask: How old do you feel?

     Cues about age can influence how old we feel. So one way to feel younger is to socialize with people who are younger. An older person married to a younger person may have a younger subjective age — they feel younger, act younger. Spouses who are significantly younger actually tend to live shorter lives, older spouses live longer lives.

     Women who have children later in life are often surrounded by younger age-related cues in the form of younger mothers. The relatively older mothers have a longer life expectancy than women who bear children earlier in life.

     Women feel younger after having their hair colored and show a healthy decrease in blood pressure. Bald men see an older self in the mirror which may speed up the aging process. There is some evidence that bald men have higher risk of prostate cancer and coronary heart disease. So cosmetic changes — coloring our hair, wearing a toupee — could actually have some health-related benefits.

     As a corollary, when asked what age they would like to be, most people say 10 years younger than they actually are, according to a study from the Stanford Center on Longevity. So 70-year-olds say they want to be 60, and 60-year-olds say they’d like to be 50. Nobody says they want to be 20 again — maybe because they remember they had a lot of uncertainty about their lives at age 20, and they don’t want to relive all that anxiety again.

     What age would you like to be . . . you know, if you had a magic genie to grant you a wish? Me? I’d want to be 50 again. Which is 20 years younger than my actual age . . . but 10 years younger than how I feel.

     How do I know all this? I picked up a book called Better with Age: The Psychology of Successful Aging by Alan Castel. He offers plenty of good advice and interesting insights, some familiar, some new, at least to me.

     Castel refers to an old study from the 1980s that concluded there are three main factors to successful aging. 1) Being free of disability or disease; 2) having high cognitive and physical abilities; and 3) interacting with others in meaningful ways.

     He doesn’t argue with this definition. But another definition of successful aging may involve the simple fact of reaching old age . . . because a lot of people, sometimes very successful people, don’t get there, due to bad habits, bad luck, bad genes. So I guess those of us who have made it to 70 can congratulate ourselves. By one measure anyway, we are successful agers!

     Research has found that older adults do lose their ability to remember things. We cannot remember random numbers as easily as younger people. However, older adults are better at focusing on crucial information, and we do better remembering the important things. He quotes Cicero who said, “I’ve never heard of an old man who forgot where he buried his treasure.”

     Castel does not believe in eating any specific foods to improve our health. Chocolate, blueberries, red wine, have all been promoted as miracle foods. The problem is, in order to gain any benefits, you’d have to eat or drink so much that the negative effects would far outweigh any benefits. He just recommends a standard healthy diet with lots of fruits and vegetables, not too much fat or sugar or salt.

     Physical exercise is also an important factor in staying healthy and living a long life . . . and to ward off dementia. But you don’t have to do anything extraordinary. Castel says walking is the perfect exercise for older people. 

     In terms of keeping our minds sharp, it’s not so much what we do as learning something new. If you’ve been doing crossword puzzles all your life, doing more crossword puzzles will not improve your mental facility. The secret is to learn something new — how to paint, how to play the piano, how to speak a foreign language. On the other hand, if you already play the piano, but don’t do crossword puzzles, then starting to do crossword puzzles could be helpful.

     The exception is reading. Reading keeps our minds sharp, regardless of how much we’ve been reading before. And curiously, even though reading is a solitary activity, somehow it also improves our social skills. And we all know that having an active social life helps us stay healthy and alert. So maybe joining a book club is the answer.

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