by John D. Clague, Christian Science Committee on Publication for Oregon
When I was a young boy my grandparents seemed really old. I laugh at that because even though I’m now their age, I still think of myself as young. I’m sure there are a lot more like me, and the number is growing.
But can the fact that I think of myself as young actually affect the aging process? Recent research on aging points in this direction, and considering the demographics it’s no wonder why the conversation has begun.
The Congressional Research Service estimates that the percentage of US citizens 65 and older will swell from 12.4 to 20.2 percent of the total U.S. population in the next 40 years. How we deal with aging boomers has become the question of the decade.
Potentially this could present a significant challenge to the health delivery system — one that already seems to be maxed out. And pharmaceutical companies already see this as an opportunity to develop new markets for their products. Pfizer started its “GetOld” initiative to promote “what role the company and its partners can play to help people live longer and better lives.”
Each of us, as the years go by, will need to confront our own thoughts and attitudes about aging. Research shows that how we think about getting older is as important as the fact itself.
Just last week a septuagenarian friend of mine was lamenting his view that he isn’t as mentally ‘on top of things’… like memory, as he used to be. But should we accept the notion that as we age we lose our mental capacities? Columbia University assistant professor Jennifer Mangels, PhD, might have some food for thought for my friend.
“Those who believe that intelligence is something that can be acquired through dedication and hard work demonstrate more vibrant memories of things past… such flexible thinkers have better memories because they are less concerned about forgetting.”
And Ellen Langer found in her research project that expectations played a significant role in how elderly people felt and behaved. In her book Counter- Clockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility she tells us that “It is not primarily our physical selves that limit us but rather our mindset about our physical limits.”
In other words, our attitudes appear to play a decisive role in determining our physical and mental well-being. But could it also be a factor in how long we live? Becca Levy found that to be the case in her research. She tells us that “older individuals with more positive self-perceptions of aging… lived 7.5 years longer than those with less positive self-perceptions of aging.” These perceptions were measured up to 23 years earlier.
It’s interesting to me that this contemporary research is affirming what was described more than a century ago by Mary Baker Eddy in her medical experiments and research.
Eddy’s view throughout her work, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, is that spiritual and mental beliefs influence physical health, and that thought and expectations are the force behind our experience, including how we respond to aging. It’s noteworthy that Eddy, at the age of 86, founded the Christian Science Monitor at a time when living past 70, let alone accomplishing something significant, was noteworthy.
Another friend of mine, a centenarian seemed to understand this point. She lived alone in an upstairs apartment with no elevator until she was 100. She even commented that she didn’t like to spend much time with her 60 year old nephew because “he was so old”.
To be honest, from time to time I have to challenge my own thinking about getting older. Hardly a day goes by without someone suggesting that there are predictable and unavoidable outcomes to this process. I’m learning to question assumptions behind many drug ads for seniors, and society’s stereotype of what is appropriate for me ‘at my age’.
Being a baby boomer, being of the generation that didn’t typically accept the status quo, has served me well when confronted with these suggestions. It has helped me to think and feel younger than my ‘age’.
First published on OregonLive