Why we should rethink the belief that aging equals decline.

And how can we debunk this misconstrued view.

As children we yearned to be “old enough.” We were so desperate to be grown-up enough, in order to go do things. I can recall how I argued my case with Mother to be allowed to go buy bread and milk at the corner café for the first time.

Soon after that accomplishment, I pushed for permission to cycle to school on my own. This hankering did not diminish as a teenager, as I pestered my parents long before it was time for my driver’s licence.

courtesy picjumbo.com

And then, somewhere during our twenties, things changed. We experienced a change of heart. The urge to sidestep the aging process soon became a permanent preoccupation. As a twenty-something I was willing to do almost anything not to look or sound old. Until one day, when the truth hit me:

We all age—and none of us can escape this reality.

 

How exciting isn’t it when a baby says the first words, takes the first few hesitant steps, and soon afterwards starts running. Only to be told by the overwhelmed parents: “Keep quiet … sit still … and can you please not run?”

Many of us prefer never to use the word “old,” and phrase it more eloquent: we grow “more mature,” and will eventually enter our “sunset years.”

And, as we grow older, our perceptions keep changing.

Let’s do a simple test: Think of ‘an old person.’

  • Please close your eyes for three seconds.
  • What do you see?
  • Many of us might have recalled a beloved grandparent.
  • Someone who was often a place of refuge, someone who gave us extra hugs when we got into trouble with Mom. Someone who held us safe in their soft arms.
  • Some of us only see a bobbing grey head and a mouth filled with dentures, babbling incoherently. We see a figure bent over a cane or a lonely body shuffling down the nursing-home hallway with a walker.
  • Most of us shudder and prefer not to think about it.

We have come to believe the stereotype of aging:

 

  • You grow up, go to school, and train for an occupation.
  • Then you work for 35 – 40 years, while having a family, retire at 65 and enjoy your grandchildren for a couple of years.
  • By now, you have developed several chronic lifestyle illnesses and are rapidly aging and continue declining, to the point of being frail and decrepit.
  • You have lost most of your muscle mass and strength and your purpose in life. You ride so to speak into the sunset, and die. And that’s it.

Medical schools teach doctors-in-training as well as residents the processes of deterioration associated with aging: the physiological and cellular changes that take place throughout the body as it progressively looses function, shrink and atrophy. They teach that it is especially the central nervous system (CNS), which is vulnerable to this immutable degeneration with eventual decline in motor, sensory and cognitive functions.

In Gerontology it is common to use a frailty index to assess an old person, in order to better manage the individual’s situation, to better accommodate it. We prepare individuals and their families for the inevitable next steps: a walker, a scooter or a wheelchair and a nursing home, where they’ll eventually become bedridden and loose their cognitive facilities.

We do study after study, we assess, we manage and then accommodate. And, just before we dare change a health policy, which will enable us to reverse and slow those devastating processes down, we insist on yet another randomized controlled trial (RCT.) We stick to dogma. It’s a powerful point of view: the implication is we don’t have to change a thing.

We tend to forget:

 

Even King Solomon opined that aging was a period of decline: “In the days when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strongmen shall bow themselves … and the almond tree shall flourish …” (KJV. ECCLES 12: 3, 5)

We only have to look at society: older individuals surround us!

  • In the US, 14,5% of the population in 2014 was over the age of 65. (Only 4% in 1900)
  • In Canada it’s 16%
  • In Germany it’s 21%.
  • And, what’s even worse, we ourselves are fast in the process of becoming part of this older demographic!

The inevitability of aging scares us—believing we are powerless to do anything about it.

This is our reality, in part because we have allowed a stereotype, of what we believe an old person is, to sprout in our minds.

But, is this true—that we can do nothing about it? That the decline is inevitable?

How can we debunk this misconstrued view?

There is fortunately a growing awareness today that ageing can be positive and purposeful and can be slowed down

It is seldom too late to start, although it may be wiser to make it part of your lifestyle, early in life. But, if you’re already in your forties, fifties, sixties or seventies—just start, take the first step toward becoming younger and healthier.

The examples of people, who have discovered this, abound. Many people are effectively turning back the clock. Case reports are numerous, but more and more studies are supporting this growing cognizance that rejuvenation is possible and within reach for many. It is not something only celebrities, the affluent, or genetically gifted individuals can accomplish.

A study was published in late 2011 on muscle preservation in older athletes. They evaluated whether high levels of chronic exercise prevents the loss of lean muscle mass and strength, experienced in sedentary adults.

  • 40 high-level recreational athletes (master athletes) participated
  • age: 40–81 years
  • training: 4–5 times per week
  • MRI scans at mid-thigh level of both legs.

The study showed identical muscle mass over the whole range of the age group. The study confirmed:

It’s easy to dismiss these results with: “I’m no athlete, so it’s not for me.”

Even if you aren’t athletic, what can the average person do to not lose muscle as you age?

  1. Become fit. (No, it’s not only athletes and fanatics who become fit.) Doesn’t matter whether you’re 40 or 90 years old.
  2. Start with an aerobic activity. Walking is excellent. If you’re very unfit, start with 10 minutes. Every day. Get an exercise buddy. Add 5 minutes per week. Then walk faster. Walking up and down a hallway is also an option. Increase to 30 minutes at least 3 times per week. Swimming and cycling are other options.
  3. Become stronger.
  4. Do resistance and strength exercises. (No, it’s not only for bodybuilders.) If you don’t have any apparatus, invest $ 6.00 (yes, six dollars) in a resistance band. (You only need a 5-foot length.) Ladies start with red. Men start with green. Then blue, black & grey.
  5. If you’re very frail, these exercises can be safely done on and around a chair.
  6. Consider joining a gym. (Recommended, but not essential.)

The traditional view that the effects of aging are irreversible, specifically in so far as the loss of cognitive abilities and the loss of plasticity in the CNS are concerned, have been turned on its head in recent years.

Before, dogma had it that by adolescence, the brain was fully developed and we had all the neurons we were ever going to have.

Neurogenesis and neuroplasticity was a non-entity.

A study published by neuroscientists, Peter Eriksson and Fred Gage, changed this. They did extensive research on rodent models, demonstrating the reality of neurogenesis when subjects were exposed to exercise and environmental stimulation: the growth of new neurons with increased, complex connectivity with adjacent parts of the brain.

In 1998 they were able to demonstrate the concept of neuroplasticity in humans—new neurons were formed in the hippocampus and it retained this ability to generate neurons throughout life.

That was merely the beginning. Several studies since have raised the exciting probability of the malleability of the aging process, when the brain’s neuroplasticity is harnessed.

A study published early in 2015, by Jill Bouchard and Saul A. Villeda, pointed out that through extrinsic systemic manipulation, such as:

  • exercise
  • caloric restriction, and
  • changing blood composition,

it was possible to partially counteract this age-related loss of neuroplasticity.

They stated: “we can now consider reactivating latent plasticity, dormant in the aged CNS as a means to rejuvenate regenerative synaptic and cognitive functions late in life, with potential implications even for extending lifespan.”

This is not Science Fiction.

What can an average person do to rejuvenate the brain?

  1. Become fit. (Irrespective of your age: 20, or 40 or 90.)
  2. The more regular and complex the activity—the better (it increases the connectivity of new neurons) Try out dancing! (Tango/Salsa/Ballroom)
  3. Restrict calories. (Recommended: 20 – 40 % restriction.) Cut simple carbs and most saturated fats. Increase the intake of Omega-3s.
  4. Master a new skill. Never stop learning new things. Learn something you didn’t know, every day.
  5. Become and remain socially involved. Don’t neglect your friends. Make new ones. Give of your time, affection and care. Volunteer. Join a community group or a church group. Join a choir.

Do at least one thing, every day, to move you closer toward your goal.

We all age—none of us can escape this reality.

But it is invigorating to meet someone, shy of a hundred, who still works full-time, exercises for an hour a day, doesn’t use a walking aid, still drives a car, keeps reading in his field of expertise, daily, and is heavily involved in the community around him—he cares and he gives. And, for online connectivity, his device of choice is an iPad!

Let’s break down the stereotype of aging being one of loss, decline and decrepitude.

 

What is one thing, you can do today, which will put you on the path to rejuvenating your body and mind?

Please let me know in the comments section!

References:

  1. World bank. Population ages 65 and above (% of total)
  2. Chronic exercise preserves lean muscle mass in master athletes. 
  3. With muscles, ‘use it or lose it’ rings true. Alex Hutchinson. Globe and Mail.     Feb 19, 2012. 
  4. Neurogenesis in the adult hippocampus
  5. Aging and brain rejuvenation as systemic events. 

 

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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22 thoughts on “Why we should rethink the belief that aging equals decline.

  1. Hallelujah! Absolutely. There’s a whole bunch of us who believe what you’re saying so eloquently. Together, we can change the negative narrative that dominates our social perception of aging. Let’s keep at it, all of us from our different perspectives but all singing, as they say, from the same hymn sheet. Bravo!

    • Thank you, Alex!
      I was led to your website a couple months ago following your article in Positive News about master athletes in Europe. That was inspiring to see 70, 80 & 90 year olds enjoy competing! Your images so clearly show what we are able to achieve, when we put our minds to it. And, in the process have fun! So, we’ll all sing louder.

  2. Great read!
    I will continue to follow…even though I don’t quite meet your target audience;)

    Though I will be sending this link straight to Duarte as he is significantly older than I!!

    • Hi Tiffany,
      Sadly enough, some people are old when they’re 30. When you meet someone who’s over 95 and still working till 5 pm on a Friday afternoon, not because they need the money or have lost it, but because they “find it interesting,” and remain “intrigued” by life, you realize there is so much more we can do and learn.
      Thanks!

  3. I been waiting to read your blog for a while now. Exelente i may add, looking forward to read some more of that knowledge.
    Congrats. And thank you for the tips and reading material for my blog.

    • Thank you, Luis!
      It indeed took a while and a half. And then some more. We had several trial runs and kept fine-tuning.
      At a certain point its time to just take off.
      We’ll tackle the journey together.

  4. Thoroughly enjoyed reading what is so true. I myself in that category try to be as active as possible. Shall continue to follow and see what more I can learn.

    • Hi Tina,
      Glad you enjoyed it!
      I don’t have all the answers, but am aiming to learn something new every day.
      Best,
      Danie

  5. My brother Randy, whom you know, introduced me to your website. I am 66, about to be 67, and although I’ve read and heard before, much of the same comments you present, it is an excellent reinforcement of something I too agree is very true with respect to how we each have the ability to control our aging.
    It is fantastic that you are offering your insight on the aging process, physical, mental, challenges and purpose. Congratulations on getting this information out to many, and I’ll look forward to reading more in the future.
    Bill Waylett, Summerland BC.

    • Hi Bill,
      Thank you for the kind words.
      It’s true, we can’t change the number: 66.
      But much about the rest we can change, and, in the process find more joy and impact others.

  6. Nice, well written, positive blog! I read your comment on Mark’s Daily Apple. I so agree with you. I’m almost 56, out of shape, but still feel 14 in my head. There are so many things I still want to accomplish in life; hobbies to revisit. I know that I will achieve fitness again. This is a transition time in my life with a lot of family stress, but I know that I’ll get through to the other side. And it’s sites like yours that remind me there are kindred spirits who feel the same. My plan is to begin in earnest the Primal Blueprint program within the next couple of weeks. Thank you for your encouraging words.

    • Hi Laura,
      Thank you for the kind words!
      We cannot change the number: 55. Everything else (well almost), we can impact and change. Easy? No, but possible. Mark Sisson from Mark’s Daily Apple is in his early sixties, and living proof of possibility! We can all become part of the wave to break down stereotypes. Excellent idea, following his Primal Blueprint program! You’ve taken the important first step: made the decision. You have moved from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset! (Carol S. Dweck.) That’s fantastic!
      I had the privilege to meet two individuals recently, one 98 and the other 90, who both still work full time. They still have all their faculties and live full lives, impacting others, and are having a ball of a time! Their secret: age is a number, learn something new every day, exercise, think what you put in your mouth, don’t neglect your friends, and care deeply for your people and community.
      You may also enjoy these bloggers:http://www.boomerplaces.com/baby-boomer-blogs/
      Success with your plans to regain back your life!
      Take one (small) step every day, to get you closer to your goal(s).
      Best,
      Danie

  7. Thanks, Dr Botha, for your insightful articles, especially on “aging”!
    From now on I’m a fan!

    • Dear Mrs. le Grange,

      Thank you for the kind words!
      I will work hard to add value, inform, inspire and challenge.
      Best,

      Danie

  8. I met you last week in surgery. I so glad I told you that I am 56 you know,excercise was a part of my life for many years but not now. Thankyou for telling me that age is only a number and to consider get moving somehow. I could not wait to start reading your blog. I have given a lot of thought about what you shared with me with regards to the aging process. I have already contacted my friends back in saskatoon that I will be joining them for there regular walks. That’s my first step. Keep you informed of how is going. Will continue to read your blogs.

    • Hi Carole,
      I am glad we met!
      You have already taken several steps toward reaching your goal(s): you did some serious thinking, started reading, contacted your friends (accountability partners) and now you will find it easier to keep going: walk & walk & walk.
      Have a look also at these two sites:
      (i) http://www.healthyhappy50.com (Jo Moseley) – she interviews people our age. Discover what’s possible! (Remember, there’s no ceiling)
      (ii) http://www.alexrotasphotography.co.uk (Alex Rota – she has made a name for herself photographing master athletes.)
      Success on your journey!
      Realistic goals. Write them down. And go for it. (Oh, and don’t forget to have fun in the process.)
      Best,
      Danie

  9. A most inspiring blog AND the rest! Your latest book caught my eye on FB with Shelley Whitehead’s comment…she is a dear friend and related to my sister by marriage…such a small world! You are so inspiring Danie and I look forward to reading more and more! A breast cancer survivor, lover of yoga, creative walks and writing ( not specifically in that order!) and also a healthy lifestyle is always my aim. Gave up meat and chicken 3 years ago as my contribution to Mother Nature. How wonderful to “meet” you.

    Warm regards,

    Shelley

    • Hi, Shelley!
      Apologies for the delay on my side.
      It’s indeed the second “effervescent Shelley” I meet this year! (Seems to me all the Shelleys simply “bubble over!”)
      A small world indeed … and chance it’s not.
      Thank you for the kind words.
      So much good stems from the choices we make – every day. Not that it’s easy. Then again – life is not easy. And yet – filled with wonder.
      I’m shifting focus with my blogging/website – as the books become published it will make up a bigger part of what I do, focussing more on writing (fiction & nonfiction.)
      But, the blog posts will still appear.
      I explain it in more detail on my About-page.
      Thank you for reading!
      Best,
      Danie