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 license.

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 stereotypes 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:

Much of how we age has to do with the personal choices we make—day after day.

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 aging can be positive and purposeful and can be slowed down.

Growing older is not the end of things. Doing nothing is.

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 a myth that you lose skeletal muscle due to aging.

It is due to non-use.

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 they 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.

Exercise sculpts muscle. Exercise also sculpts the brain. JOHN J. RATEY

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 towards 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.

© 2016 DanieBotha.com. All rights reserved.

Image courtesy of picjumbo.com

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