By Glenn Ellis
It saddens me (as I grow older) how many people are struggling with accepting old age. Much of our society is filled with folks, young and old, who see aging as a negative aspect of life. Our society discards those who have reached old age, and we are inundated with promises and potions that have us fixated on staying young.
We are programmed to die; aging is the outcome of this programming, and it is no secret that the human body changes over time. Both genetics and lifestyle play a huge role in how we age.
We all age (if we live long enough), but seldom do we think about the process that takes place that takes us from the vibrant, youthful, and energetic creatures we used to be, to the sedentary and limited beings we become in old age.
There are those in the scientific and medical community who are advocating that aging should be treated as a disease. Aging is defined as the progressive accumulation of damage to your cells, tissues and organs, leading to disease and death. According to one study, this dreadful process starts at 24 years of age, at least for the brain; it could be a bit later.
Aging is nothing more than the natural wear and tear of the body’s component parts. It’s inevitable, and endlessly intriguing. While many age-related changes cannot be prevented, a lifestyle that includes exercise and a well-balanced diet will slow or minimize many problems related to aging.
As we age, our body’s organs and other systems make changes. These changes alter our susceptibility to various diseases. Researchers are just beginning to understand the processes that cause changes over time in our body systems. Understanding these processes is important because many of the effects of aging are first noticed in our body systems.
No single process can explain all the changes of aging. Aging is a complex process that varies as to how it affects different people and even different organs. Most gerontologists (people who study aging) feel that aging is due to the interaction of many lifelong influences. These influences include heredity, environment, culture, diet, exercise and leisure, past illnesses, and many other factors.
Since 1900, average U.S. life expectancy has risen from 47 to 79. A lot of those gains come from a lower infant-mortality rate: A century ago, 1-in-10 babies born in the U.S. died before age 1, while today that figure is 1-in-170. But longevity gains in later years have also been substantial.
Most people are scared, indeed, terrified of old age because they feel that aging is characterized by a progressive loss of essential body functions that they have learned to take for granted over the years; for instance, loss of vision, hearing, teeth, memory, intelligence, sexual drive, muscle strength and vigor. However, it needs to be emphasized that you can become old healthier; remember that old age does not necessarily mean progressive deterioration or susceptibility to a plethora of ailments!
Fortunately, aging doesn’t have to be a downhill slide. Older people have the reputation of being more mature, experienced and thoughtful. Whether you become wiser as you grow older, you are likely to become farsighted for sure! Farsightedness, one example of aging, is a change in vision that’s a normal part of aging. It is caused by a gradual hardening of the eye’s lens, which impairs your ability to see up close. Your optometrist may recommend a pair of non-prescription reading glasses or prescribe bifocals for you.
Never think of age as being anything but just a number. There are some things in life we have no control over, such as when we were born. Age is no more than a circumstantial detail, like the color of your eyes, or the names of your parents; it does not define who you are. Aging is inevitable, growing old is avoidable. Expressed differently, one is never too young to be old or die, but one is never so aged as to become old.
If we live long enough, we will age. Just like the flowers, trees, bees, and all other living species on earth. It is up to us to accept aging as another stage of the life cycle – nothing more. Too many of us become despondent, depressed, and feel worthless. Just make the best of whatever you have to work with in old age. Remember, healthy aging is not just about preventing problems. It’s also about spotting them and addressing them before they get worse or drag down the rest of your health and independence.
Dying is not just an event that happens to us at the close of our lives. It is our purpose for being. We begin to die the very day we are born and live all our life towards death. Sure, we may get sick as we age, but we can get sick at any stage of life. Illness and aging need not go hand in hand. If you take good care of your body in the “morning”, it will take good care of you in the “evening” of your life.
Glenn Ellis, is Research Bioethics Fellow at Harvard Medical School and author of Which Doctor?, and Information is the Best Medicine. For more good health information visit: www.glennellis.com.