What it really means when we say that "age is just a number"
Americans love to celebrate the passing of each decade up until, well, forty. You can buy a slew of Hallmark Cards which jokingly express great sorrow at the Passing of Youth, and each card gets blacker in humor the bigger the number. While that's funny, the absolute belief that you deteriorate swiftly with age is, in fact, genuinely deadly.
My sports jock chiropractor Kevin Plummer is 48. In school, he was a decathlete. For those not familiar with the term, it's a multi-sport event:
Decathlon events are: (first day) 100-metre dash, running long (broad) jump, shot put, high jump, and 400-metre run; (second day) 110-metre hurdles, discus throw, pole vault, javelin throw, and 1,500-metre run. Lotta work.
Back in his twenties, he had decent running time, and decent vertical leap. Good enough to be highly competitive. But nowhere near as good as he his today, nearly thirty years later. At 48, right about the time that a great many of us are struggling to find the buttons on our jeans because well, they disappeared.
Plummer today told me that he's been shaving time off his 100 meter dash. And his dead lift, which he uses for strength, has doubled from 300 to 600 lbs. His vertical leap has gained height, and across the board his performance continues to improve. Thirty years later.
This is not the arc that most of us expect. Which is why, when I saw an article by someone in her sixties, which is where I am, that "someone at 60 can't do what someone at 24 can do," I had a good laugh.
In my comments, which I made private out of respect, I said NO, I can't. I can do far, far FAR more. Because at sixty, I started training four times as hard, and my body responded with gusto. It's also not just me. I am constantly receiving emails and messages about people well past fifty who are just getting started on their athletic careers in one way or another.
Plummer was telling me that the way he thinks about age is that it's a "mental virus."
"I don't see aging as a thing," he explained. Kevin usually talks so fast that his words spill out and get all tumbled up in his face mask, so I have to listen fast to catch up. "Time isn't anywhere near as important as how we think about the moment we're in," he explained. "Rather than thinking about ourselves as forty, or fifty, where I almost am, if we think about how we spend that time, the habits we build, it changes how we interact with and see ourselves."
Plummer says, as all of us experience, that his eyesight is changing, along with his skin elasticity and a few grey hairs here and there. Those are the law-comfortable aspects of aging that are hard to negotiate unless you're willing to invest in plastic surgery, hair plugs and color and other youth-chasing exercises. Those don't interest him.
What does is his physical performance, and that of his patients."So many people come into my practice and because of a number, they've already given up," he says, shaking his head in frustration. "As though the moment you hit a certain mile marker, because of how society feels about age, you just decide that life is all over. It's too late.
"The body is meant to perform at a very high level for a very long time, but only if we treat it like the incredible chassis that it is," Plummer explained. I am getting ready for shoulder surgery in a few weeks. I have a 68-year-old shoulder, but it needs maintenance. Lots of you can relate. I had rotator cuff repair three years ago, and while that year was awful, now my shoulder is fully operational, pain-free and can, with respectful care, give me decades more service. The short-term investment in upkeep, especially for active people, is what keeps all of us in the game.
But not if you buy into the mental virus that age alone ages you. Yes, numerically. But that number is relatively meaningless if you have energy, a youthful viewpoint and attitude, and your age actually surprises you. It's not how you feel.
To that, Yale School of Health Professor Becca Levy, in a widely-quoted research paper from 2009, has found that exposure to negative and positive age stereotypes over time "plays a crucial role in whether people develop signs of dementia in their later years."
Perhaps the single most powerful line out of that paper for me, and for Dr. Plummer, is this:
The central message of the theory, and the research supporting it, is that the aging process is, in part, a social construct.
In other words, how you and I see ourselves, and how society treats us as aging human beings, has more to do with our quality of life than age itself.
The study is worth reading if for no other reason than it punches missile-sized holes in the notion that society shoves at us that age=deterioration, decrepitude, despondency and depression. In sum, if we believe that it sucks to be older, it WILL suck to get older. In fact, Prof. Levy's research indicated that those who bought into negative aging stereotypes are far more likely to suffer a cardiovascular event ( congestive heart failures, heart attacks, and strokes) in the next few decades.
That is the "mental virus" Plummer is referring to, and he's spot-on. This is why such ageist behaviors such as treating highly competent elders like children and assuming infirmity is not only insulting, but it's abusive. It beats people down emotionally.
It doesn't suck to be old. It sucks how society treats older people. While those of you reading this might well be a few decades away from where I am, like George Carlin used to say,
wait a while.
What's far worse, however, is how we treat ourselves as we age. For the elder abuse that folks suffer is nowhere near as damaging as deciding well, it's all over now that I'm (forty, fifty, sixty....)
That's a statement of defeat.
From Levy's paper: The behavioral pathway of age stereotypes is illustrated by healthy practices. Because negative age stereotypes are often based on the assumption that health problems are an inevitable consequence of growing old, they tend to result in regarding healthy practices as futile (Levy & Myers, 2004)
So if you flip that around, the way Plummer does, and how I do it, old has nothing to do with performance. While my body is indeed aging, that alone doesn't mean that I can't do sports any more. Like Plummer, and like so many friends and those people about whom I write, the inevitable signs of aging have little to do with what I can do, and how I can continue to improve, as does Plummer. I typically add a new sport every year, and those I don't much care about any more I discard, as with scuba. I prefer horses and trails and kayaks and air sports, and events that involve hard physical labor.
So, when the forest products folks dump a couple cords of wood in my driveway, I'm the one who schleps it up the hill to my firewood palette. Alone, hour after hour, until it's all stacked.
Because I can, and because doing that kind of thing keeps me strong. And youthful.
To be able to do that I have a very serious training regimen, as does every vibrantly aging oldie I know. None of those people sees themselves as elderly. Because elderly is a mental virus.
They are out living life to the absolute edge for as long as they can. They don't have time to get old.