By Coach John Hughes Aging involves not just physical changes but also cognitive and attitudinal changes, over which we have some control.
Robin Saltonstall, Ph.D. is my long-time friend, former swim coach and sometimes tandem partner. We both live in Boulder, CO where she directs the 40plus Integrative Health Program. She works with people on the specific physical and mental issues of traversing midlife and beyond. She calls this process “Wising up.” Your brain changes around age 50 in ways that allow you to synthesize information better and make complex decisions. The midlife brain is better than the younger brain at deriving the gist of situations.
My short-term memory isn’t as good as it used to be. Often I can’t remember where I put my cell phone, for example. I’m not developing dementia. If I were, then when I see my cell phone I wouldn’t know what to do with it. Part of wising up is developing ways of coping. My wife and I can’t always remember each other’s appointments in the week ahead. We write them on a white board on the refrigerator.
However, I’m better now than 10 years ago at reading a client’s complicated weekly training report, grasping what’s important and giving thoughtful recommendations.
How we think about aging affects how we age.
Our culture has negative stereotypes about aging that growing older involves deterioration and decline, stereotypes that are reinforced in the media. These expectations can become self-fulfilling as people experience the changes associated with growing older such as aching joints or poorer vision or hearing. These symptoms may reinforce a person’s negative thought about aging. As a result he or she may feel less confident and less motivated and think that because he or she is getting older it’s too late to make positive changes. The person may feel like he or she is less able to do things. Older adults who hold negative stereotypes tend to walk slowly, experience more memory problems and recover less fully from a fall or fracture. Seniors whose view of aging as primarily positive live 7.5 years longer than other seniors. (“Getting rid of the negative stereotypes — and biases — about aging”, Judith Graham, Washington Post, November 4, 2017)
William Chopik, an assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University, surveyed more than half a million Americans via the internet. He found that as people got older they nevertheless continued to feel younger than their chronological age. He says, “Sixty-year-olds felt like they were 46, seventy-year-olds felt like they were 53, eighty-year-olds felt like they were 65. People know that they are aging, but they are evaluating themselves and their lives and reporting feeling about 20 percent younger than their current age.” (“Clichés about only being as old as you feel are starting to have scientific backing” Marlene Cimons, Washington Post, April 17, 2018)
I just turned 69 but I feel like I’m in my 50s. When I look in the mirror I’m surprised at how old I look — I don’t think of myself that way!
Becca Levy, a professor of psychology at Yale, studied dementia. She assessed 4,765 older people (average age 72) who were free of dementia at the start of the study. The participants answered questions about their beliefs about aging. She followed them for four years. She said, “We found [that] those who expressed more-positive age beliefs at baseline were less likely to develop dementia . . . than those who expressed more-negative age beliefs.” (Marlene Cimons, Washington Post, April 17, 2018)
Part of wising up is accepting aging as an inevitable part of life, while not accepting that aging means uncontrollable physical decline. Aging involves new and interesting challenges, not more problems.
Dan McGrath Ph.D. interviewed 50 athletes over the age of 50, athletes who had been strong competitors in sports including cycling, triathlon, skiing and running as well as rock climbing, track and field and martial arts. His most important finding is that “to continue to reap the benefits of an active life as we age, we must transition from having a performance focus to having a lifestyle focus.” The athletes “goals changed from performance to wanting to be active for a long time. They want to have good health, enjoy their sport, and have fun with their athletic friends. They see physical activity as play rather than work.” (50 Athletes Over 50, Don McGrath, Ph.D., Wise Media Group, Denver, CO, 2010)
Part of wising up is changing my goals as I get older. Although my physical capacity to compete in ultradistance cycling events is gone, my life is much richer. I used to “train” for 20 or more hours a week. Now I don’t “work out.” I have fun riding on the road, mountain biking, hiking, swimming, snowshoeing, XC skiing, lifting weights and practicing tai chi. This week my wife and I are going on the annual campout with our friends in the Grand County Wilderness Group. In our 60s we are among the younger members. We’ll hike and kayak with friends in their 70s and 80s. When I was competing I didn’t have time for adventures like this — now I’m looking forward to four days off the grid!
My new eBook Anti-Aging: 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process includes interviews with 12 roadies ages 54 to 82. They talk about changing goals over time. They emphasize the value of intrinsically enjoying an activity rather than doing it because it’s good for you. They describe many ways to adapt positively to the aging process. The 106-page eBook is available for $14.99.
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