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Some positive trends in the way we view aging offer hopeful signs

Author: ashubin

By HELEN DENNIS | helendenn@aol.com |PUBLISHED: November 29, 2020 at 7:28 a.m. | UPDATED: November 29, 2020 at 7:28 a.m.

Dear readers,

I recently was interviewed by geropsychologist and author Joseph Casciani on his radio show “Living to 100 Club,” heard on the Voice of America Network, Health and Wellness channel. The show is designed to help older adults live their best life and “turn aging on its head.”

Casciani sent me several questions to consider for the interview. As I reviewed the questions and the notes I had written in preparation, I realized my answers were a perspective on aging that I may not have readily expressed in my columns. For this week, I thought I would share some of my views. Here are the questions and my answers in an edited form for this column.

Joseph Casciani: From your vantage point, what have you seen take place in how older adults are viewed?

Helen Dennis: We have several positive indicators. Let’s take the political scene. President Donald Trump is age 74; President-elect Joe Biden is 78 as is Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is 80 years old and Senator Chuck Grassley is 87.

Then there is Hollywood: Maggie Smith is 85, Robert DeNiro made his latest film “The Comeback Trail” at age 77. Helen Mirren is 75, Diane Keaton is 74 and Barbara Streisand is 78 years old. Al Pacino starred in his latest film “Hunters” at age 80.

Then there are books with positive titles such as “The Upside of Aging” by Paul Irving, “The 100-Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity” by Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott and “This Chair Rocks” by Ashton Applewhite. We have movements that affirm the value of older adults such as Gen to Gen which has launched a campaign to “mobilize 1 million adults 50+ to stand up for — and with — young people today.”

Another example is the Encore Network composed of 124 coalition leaders from 32 states and 11 countries who view longer lives as an asset. Yet despite our progress, ageism still exists. In an AARP workplace survey, two-thirds of those 45 years and older had experienced or seen age discrimination in the work setting. And among this two-thirds group reporting aging bias, 91 percent believe such discrimination is common.

J.C. What are the greatest benefits of this shift in attitude?

H.D. The benefits are many. Today, older adults have more opportunities, and that means more equal opportunities. One reason is a change in mindset. Many older adults do not see their age as a limiting factor to their dreams and activities. They have engaged in encore careers, gone back to school, become entrepreneurs and even athletes. Of equal or greater importance is the relationship between having a positive attitude about aging and longevity. Beca Levy of Yale found in her research that those who had a positive view of aging lived on average seven-and-a-half years longer compared to those who did not have such an attitude.

J.C. Has the anti-aging mentality as seen in products, books, miracle drugs and the media given us the impression that aging is not good and we need to avoid it. Has this helped or hurt the positive shift toward aging? 

H.D. I believe the anti-aging movement goes against the positive view of aging and has explicit ageism as part of its rationale. The movement assumes that aging is not a natural or normal process. Rather it is to be denied and covered up instead of being embraced. The dread of aging may be an obstacle to important decisions such as planning for retirement and the end of life. …We do know that we can influence how we age and the rate we age by the lifestyle we choose.

Joseph CascianiMany older adults don’t see aging as a positive experience. Rather, they see aging as a stage of decline, despair and helplessness. What would you say to such an individual?

Helen Dennis: I would aim for a course correction and begin with some basics of Aging 101. We know that aging is a declining process; that’s the bad news. We lose muscle mass and lung capacity; the immune system does not work as well; it takes longer to recover from stress; digestion time changes; and skin loses some of its elasticity. Here is the good news and what I would emphasize. We can slow down this process by our lifestyle choices. In a study of fraternal and identical twins, researchers found that 70 percent of physical aging is due to lifestyle; the remaining 30 percent is due to genetics. 

Rather than feeling like a victim, we can seize the opportunity to age well by embracing and implementing exercise, good nutrition, having a sense of purpose and more. And purpose is important. It has been well-documented that having a sense of purpose leads to better cognitive functioning, greater physical agility and increased longevity. Furthermore, some things get better with age. We have the potential to deepen relationships, improve physical strength and increase what is called crystallized intelligence. This type of intelligence refers to everything we have learned in our lifetime, our skills, abilities and knowledge that lead to wisdom. My message to that person is that we have the power to influence how we age. Of course, a little luck always helps.  

J.C.: What needs to be done to continue the shift towards positive aging?

H.D.: Here are just a few suggestions. 

Call out ageism: We need to first examine our own attitudes and beliefs. The noted late geriatrician Dr. Robert N. Butler wrote in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Why Survive? Being Old I America,” “There is a deep and profound prejudice against the elderly which is found to some degree in each of us.” The World Health Organization published an Ageing Attitude Quiz. Check it out at https://www.who.int/ageing/features/attitudes-quiz/en/

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