Photo by Chastagner Thierry on Unsplash

Why not feeling your age is more important than looking younger

Three mountain bikers were on the trail above me as I gained altitude. My carbon poles dug into the hard dirt, sending the rocks flying. I pulled my mask up over my face, but the young woman on the lowest bike could see my grin.

She was panting. Me, too, but I was moving a lot faster. This is the part of my four-mile hike-run that warms me up for the nasty bits.

She leaned on her bike as I passed her.

“Oh hell,” I joked. “I’m sixty-seven. You’ll be passing me at speed in no time.”

Her eyes got big. I waved a pole at her and headed uphill.

I ran most of the way up once I got my legs and cranky knees warmed up. On the way down I finally passed the three of them again, as I turned off the main trail at the top back onto the rocky parts of the trail.

We waved again.

I did my clumsy camel routine all the way down. About a week ago I was hiking, not running. Then I ran, but only partway down. Then all the way down. Then part of the way up AND down. Now almost all of the way up AND down. You keep asking the body, you keep getting.

No way I feel sixty-seven. In fact, I have a hard time trying to figure out precisely what that’s supposed to feel like (now the way I look is another issue entirely but I’d rather not go there, I’m in a good mood).

According to this article, that’s the whole point:

The age you feel means more than your actual birthdate
Imagine, for a moment, that you had no birth certificate and your age was simply based on the way you feel inside. How…

My birthdate, 1953, dictates both to society - especially in America and to many of my favorite trollers on Medium -that I’m elderly.

Oh, I love that. As I’ve written elsewhere, both old and elderly have been terms that have crept steadily southward for the last few decades. These days, it’s about, say, fifty.

Fifty. Holy criminy.

If fifty is the new elderly, I’m in deep shit.

But if I’m in deep shit because I’m elderly, why don’t I feel like it?

From the article :

Interestingly, however, the people with younger subjective ages also became more conscientious and less neurotic — positive changes that come with normal ageing. So they still seem to gain the wisdom that comes with greater life experience. But it doesn’t come at the cost of the energy and exuberance of youth. It’s not as if having a lower subjective age leaves us frozen in a state of permanent immaturity. (author bolded)

I know a shit-ton of older folks frozen in a state of permanent immaturity. Most of them are White guys past sixty on, but I digress.

There is solid research around how those of us who expect to age well, who have very positive feelings about evolving into our later years, and who truly do not see age as a disabling disease are likely to enjoy significant benefits. Attitude does indeed affect our quality of aging, which is one reason we see the growing issue of gerascophobia (fear of aging).

I can’t speak for anyone else here. For my part, I’ve taken some very real delight in making fun of those parts of aging about which I can do nothing, and I’ve made no bones about it in my articles. Nose hair, the various insults of an increasingly small bladder, whatever. Look, part of that is manageable, part isn’t. It’s all comedy fodder. Consider the alternatives.

However, like many other late bloomers, I didn’t even begin to come into my own until I was in my late fifties. Not even. Which, at least for my part, has made aging a gas. Not just a gas, but one hell of a joyride.

Okay, okay, I also have more gas, but again, I digress. At least it’s not from Goya products.

Again from the article:

This new understanding of the ageing process has been decades in the making. Some of the earliest studies charting the gap between felt and chronological age appeared in the 1970s and 1980s. That trickle of initial interest has now turned into a flood. A torrent of new studies during the last 10 years have (sic) explored the potential psychological and physiological consequences of this discrepancy.

Age has become a real discussion point lately not just because there is such unfortunate ugliness hurled at Boomers, the rise of gerascophobia and the wholesale dunning of anyone who dares to age past sixty. Covid peeled back a lot more than just the massive ineptitude of government, the social inequities and all the other ills that were simmering below the surface. I read plenty of comments that spoke to a level of age-hate I have never seen before.

In the span of my lifetime our society has gone from the (quaint) respect your elders to a widespread preference for geriatric genocide. While I recall a general distrust of older folks in my youth, I don’t rightly recall the desire to see every single grey hair gassed out of existence.

I might have wanted to strangle my folks once or twice but that would have wrought havoc with my inheritance. Which was for shit anyway, but I didn’t know that.

Having been young once, I remember the feeling of invincibility that accompanies being twenty-something, and believing that death, disease and pain were things that happened to other people. Age is as distant as Jupiter, and cannot possibly happen to the Almighty Me.

Until, of course, it does. Most of us would like to live very long lives, which is only one reason why a recent Medium article on Dr. Shigeaki Hinohara got so much attention:

A 105 Year-Old Japanese Doctor’s Guide to Living Longer
Purpose is the key to a long life.

But we have a dichotomy here. From what I keep seeing and, in fact, of course engaged in myself until I grew up, was that most of the emphasis is on looking younger. Not feeling younger. We want to live a very long time, but we don’t want to age. We hate looking old. In part because of how we treat older folks these days.

Therein lies the difference.

Billions upon billions are spent on the former, without enough attention on the latter.

While I dither a bit about letting my hair go grey (I’ll get over it eventually), the more important issue is the driving force of energy. Enthusiasm. Anticipation of each day.

Since I turned sixty I have thrown myself into some pretty extraordinary experiences, more than forty to be precise, ranging from climbing two very big mountains, to kayaking the Arctic Ocean to riding horses in some of the world’s most remote places. I’ve suffered horrendous injuries, had to be airlifted a few times. In no time I was right back out on the road again, healed and happy, and making fun of the bumps and bruises.

There is nothing particularly extraordinary about me, or my physical ability. If anything, my clumsiness is legendary. Part of what I delight in, and I am well aware that my readers delight in, is my willingness to make fun of my failures.

Then I get up, tape up, clean up and get my aging ass up the mountain anyway.

Back on the horse. Into the kayak. On the bike.

I age, I injure, I do my PT, I recover, I learn more ways to be strong, be flexible, and I have watched my body recover. Over and over and over. That has taught me to trust my body. Its physical age notwithstanding, the strength and power and endurance I enjoy are all simply indicative of how much work I’m willing to do.

Those keep me youthful. Here’s why:

Exercise Wins: Fit Seniors Can Have Hearts That Look 30 Years Younger
We know we need to exercise for our health, but a lifelong exercise habit may also help us feel younger and stay…

When you and I can release the lie that we are only valuable when we are young, we can age with grace and humor and power. Real power. For real power is borne of a youthful attitude, the resilience that comes with having survived shitshows. The resilience that we develop when we don’t run from, but walk towards, challenges and difficulties.

Most people I know who are pre-fifth decade haven’t had enough life to have those perspectives. Some have. But most haven’t. That’s not a criticism at all. It’s simply that age offers, but does not guarantee, perspectives and the power that seeing differently can offer.

Photo by Vladimir Soares on Unsplash

When I look in the mirror (after I stop laughing anyway), especially at the end of the day, I see the work that the Goddess has been doing on my face. Fifty years in high dry are no kindness to the skin. Nor are about forty seriously badass adventures at high altitude, in severe weather, extreme conditions and everything else that make up my choice of lifestyle. My face is an ever-changing novel, my visage a testament to one hell of a life.

What would age me overnight would be fearing age. Fearing decrepitude. Fearing injury. Fear. Fear. Fear.

Well, shit. I’ve already broken my back, smashed my pelvis, broken my elbow and wrist. The list of injuries and issues is endless. All since I turned sixty.

This morning I was up at 3:30, and on the mountain by sunrise. Of course I was. Because I am scared of falling down a mountain while hiking on rocks. So I am running down them, on uneven trails, full of rocks.

When I see a new doctor, which I will after I move to Eugene, inevitably some wag will ask me -because I am elderly- how many times I’ve fallen this past year.

While Covid has changed some of this only because I can’t head out to new horizons right now, I’ve always had a lot of fun with this question.

You mean falling out of an airplane? (Argentina)

Falling off a bridge? (Croatia)

Falling on a mountain trail at high altitude, leading a horse on very rocky, wet ground? (Kazakhstan, Canada)

You mean falling down doing kickboxing (at which I am laughably, ridiculously bad, just ask my neighbors who throw money on my deck)?

You mean..Nah. You get it.

Before I turned fifty I didn’t find my failures, flops, false steps and fuckups funny.

Do now.

Before I turned fifty I took myself SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO seriously.

Don’t now.

If there is anything to LOVE about the aging process, IF you are willing to ride this pony for all she’s worth, you can learn to let go of the pretensions of youth, make room for the preciousness of perspective, the bigness of life and the promise of what’s possible.

But not when you and I feel old at twenty, fear turning thirty, and believe that fifty is a death sentence.

That’s how we age ourselves overnight.

Why is this so critical? Again, from the article:

Most people felt about eight years younger than their actual chronological age. But some felt they had aged — and the consequences were serious. Feeling between 8 and 13 years older than your actual age resulted in an 18–25% greater risk of death over the study periods, and greater disease burden — even when you control for other demographic factors such as education, race or marital status.

Fear, depression, angst, and terror of turning twenty, if you will, will age us pretty swiftly. I also experience fear, depression and angst. I feel every single one of those things right before I look at myself in the bathroom mirror every morning when I put my teeth in.

Photo by Dan Cook on Unsplash

Again, from the article:

As Nosek and Lindner put it in their paper, “Subjective ageing appears to occur on Mars, where one Earth decade equals only 5.3 Martian years.”

That explains a lot, and why my neighbors stare at me like I’m not of this world. That’s why they throw money. They are truly hoping for plastic surgery to improve the view.

In fact they’ve taken to holding up signs, with twos and ones on them. I did get a four once, but they were drunk.

I hate to disappoint them. Look, I’m moving to Eugene anyway. One more week in Denver, and I close the book on fifty years or so of Colorado. I don’t know what’s coming.

But I do know that I am going to have a shit ton of fun doing it.

Photo by frank mckenna on Unsplash