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Category — Thinking young

In it for the L-o-n-g Haul

Rectangularization of Morbidity. It trips lightly off the tongue, does it not?

It does not.

It is the anthem of my life. My motto. My hope for the future. The goal I work toward every day. The bumpersticker I would put on my car if I had a really really long bumper.

What is it?

Simply put: Do all you can to create, nourish and maintain high-level wellness and maximum vitality. Sustain that state for as long as possible. Then die. Or, as I’ve expressed it to audiences when I talk about this:

Healthy, healthy, healthy, healthy, dead.

This is the opposite of how most of us age. We are, most of us, living much longer lives these days. The dramatic increase in life expectancy is heralded as one of 20th century society’s greatest achievements. Life expectancy for someone born in 1900 was 50. Today, in the US, it is 79. (In Japan, it is 84.)

But our healthspan – our years of healthy living — has not increased. That means we are living out the last 5, 10, 20 or even more years of our lives with often debilitating chronic illness(es). The average elderly person in the US is taking five different prescription medications. (For those in nursing homes, the number is seven.)

The third third of our lives – a gift! – is spent without the strength, vigor and energy to live fully, to participate with physical, emotional and creative vigor in the lives of our families, our communities, our nation. There is so very much to do, these days more than ever. We, all of us, young, old and in between need to meet these challenges with enterprise and élan, with zest and zeal, with sustained in-it-for-the-long-haul optimism. How to do that?

Rectangularization of Morbidity.

June 28, 2017   No Comments

Curiouser & Curiouser

color curious

Sometimes a groove becomes a rut.

Damn it.

How did that happen? You explored and investigated. You dreamed, experimented, searched, traveled down one road, another, another…and then you found your groove. Your sweet spot. What you love to do. What you were born to do. Your passion.

You fuel that passion. You work that groove. You etch your life in that groove. You… settle in. It begins to feel pretty comfortable in that groove. So comfortable that your CQ plummets.

CQ? What’s that? I hope you were immediately curious. Because CQ stands for Curiosity Quotient. That’s a measure (well, not really a statistical measure, like IQ) of how powerfully motivated you are to learn something new, to not comfortably settle in but to keep exploring, investigating, dreaming, searching, asking questions, taking on new challenges. Venturing out of that groove that over time started to become a rut. You know: Shaking it up.

Having a high CQ means having a hungry mind and an adventurous spirit. It means active engagement in the world. It means seeking novel experiences, both to learn from them and just for the hell of it. Or rather, the joy of it. Because it turns out that curious people have a greater sense of well-being than indifferent or disinterested or asleep-at-the-wheel or comfortably-in-the-rut people. I’m not just talking about subjective feelings here, either. I am talking, yep, science.

When we move out of our comfort zone to try something new, our brain produces a chemical known as dopamine – aka the “feel good hormone” – which makes us, that’s right, feel good. Curiosity elevates mood (as it enriches our experience and widens our view). The curious among us are a high-spirited and energetic lot. The curious among us have a sense of wonder about the world. I might even say a “child-like wonder.”

Remember child-like wonder? The natural high of discovery? When is the last time you felt that? It may be time to rekindle curiosity and boost your CQ.

“I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious” –    Albert Einstein

March 2, 2016   4 Comments

Time to enfeeble AGEISM

photoWhat I see when I look around is old people living solitary, silent lives; old people sequestered in old people communities – “active” for the healthy, “assisted” for the not; old people made to feel as if they need to apologize for being old, for clogging up the works, for showing us the future we don’t want to see.

Presumably we all have a soft spot in our hearts for our old people – grandpa, great aunt Tillie, old cousin Bill – but we lose patience with everyone else’s. The grandma at the grocery store. She’s looking through her cavernous handbag for coupons. She’s taking forever to count out the change from her purse. She’s holding up the line. Come on. The geezer in the car, the one whose gray head you can barely see above the top of the driver’s seat. He’s driving 22 in a 35 mph zone. He’s actually making a full stop at the stop sign and looking both ways before proceeding. Get off the road.

And maybe even, sometimes, we lose it with our own kin. Grandpa (Dad) pulls out the old photo album. Again. He launches into the story about…fill in the blank. Again. We roll our eyes and find the first excuse to leave the room.

Old and in the way.

“Old and in the way” was a music group Jerry Garcia formed in the mid-1970s (with David Grisman and the amazing Vassar Clemens.) I know this not from reading the Wikipedia entry but because I heard the group in Berkeley. I got there early and was hanging out in the alley behind the club when Garcia arrived. I held open the back door for him.

Just as my young self from those days – car-less, kid-less, 401K-less, a joker, a smoker, a midnight toker — could not imagine my mid-life self today, so too can I not imagine my elderly self in decades to come. Or maybe I should say, the (stereotyped) elderly self that comes to mind is not one I care to imagine: the little old lady in a mint green polyester pants suit gripping the steering wheel of a big Buick. The little old lady sitting on a vinyl couch in the TV room of an assisted living facility talking to other little old ladies about blood pressure medicine. Or about how she once held open the door for Jerry Garcia. No thanks.

I want my head full of other images, images of vibrant, engaged older people, funny, feisty, perceptive, talented, passionate, compassionate older people. Older people who not only have experience but still seek it. I want to be that kind of older person. Why is that so hard to imagine? Why do we have to think of aging as a long list of things we can’t do rather than a long list of things we can?

The photo is of my maternal grandparents who traveled every summer throughout the western U.S. landing in various college towns and talking their way (well, Nanny did the talking) into summer school classes. He was an engineering teacher with the soul of a poet. She was a pistol.

February 17, 2016   No Comments

The Power of Focus

planet moonI’ve been thinking a lot about focus lately and how it is central to my sense of self — which is really a way of saying essential to my health and well-being. Yes, I mean physical health, but I also mean emotional and creative health, keys to living a satisfying, engaging (and potentially counterclockwise) life. I’ve been thinking so much about focus because I’ve temporarily lost mine. Or rather, I’ve had to let go of it. This is a predictable, every 3 to 4 year occurrence, a natural – yet nonetheless unsettling – part of my writing life.

When I write, when I am steeped in a new project, my life takes on a shape. There is order to my days. Order to my reading, my thinking, my conversation, even my dreaming. The book is like a planet, and I am its moon. I love the tug of that gravitational pull.

I love the way writing – not to mention the immersion work I do before I write — demands tunnel vision, the way it obliterates the twenty-first-century multi-tasker in me. You’d think all this intense mental activity would be stressful. But it is mostly the opposite of stressful. I exist in the calm center of the work. I find the ease in the effort. I never want to leave that place.

And then, one day, I have to. One day I finish the manuscript, and then the revisions and then everything else that has to do with bringing a book to completion. And I have to let go. I have to end the intense relationship I have had with the characters in the book and the world these characters inhabit. When I do that I am ending the lovely, insistent, book-driven rhythm of my days.

It’s not that I all of a sudden have nothing to do. It’s that all of a sudden I feel as if I have too much to do. With no one thing, there is now everything. And although I actually have less work, I feel more overwhelmed. And that stress everyone thinks I must feel while working on a project (but I don’t)? I feel it now. And in that place, it is oddly easy to compound the problem. To stay up way too late. To eat mindlessly. To lost patience with myself. To forget that I need nurturing and need to nurture.

For me, my healthiest (body, mind, spirit) place is when I am deeply, deeply engaged, single-mindedly engaged, in the work I love.

Here is the planet I’ve been circling, the focus of my days. It is now out in the world. Take a look!

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November 18, 2015   No Comments

What You Expect is What You Get

older swimmer“Expectation equals outcome.” You might hear that from an earnest motivational coach or a speaker at a convention for budding entrepreneurs.

But what if “expectation equals outcome” was the true narrative of aging?

What if expecting physical, cognitive and/or creative decline as we age caused – or was at least a cause – of said decline? Well, folks, there’s no “what if” about it.

We are awash in negative stereotypes (aka expectations) about what aging means, from loss of vigor to loss of memory, from slower metabolisms to weaker immune systems, from creakiness to crankiness. Those in our culture who don’t conform – think Betty White (in her 90s) or Warren Buffet (80s) – are heralded as astonishing outliners. Instead of their energy and vitality challenging the stereotype, they are presented as the exception that proves the rule, thus further legitimizing the stereotype.

In test after test, negative stereotypes have been shown to lead to poor health results. During the past two decades, dozens of studies from psychologists, medical doctors and neuroscientists have shown that older people with more negative views of aging are in poorer health (and die younger) than those who don’t buy into the stereotypes. Here’s a summary of one highly credible study linking negative stereotypes to cardiovascular disease.

This ties in directly with what I wrote about last week: the power of optimism/ pessimism. Those who expect decline (those who assimilate all the frail/ dependent/that’s-it-for-you messages about what aging means) are pessimists who lack self-efficacy. They don’t see that they can have an effect on how – and how quickly – they age. They figure they are “victims” of the aging process. And so they are.

Now there’s a new Yale/ Berkeley study on the power of positive age stereotypes to lead to improved outcome. The study involved 100 older people (61-99 with an average age of 81) randomly divided into groups that heard a series (4 at 1-week internals) of implicit positive messages, explicit positive messages, a combination of both, or no messages.

The implicit intervention strengthened positive age stereotypes…which strengthened positive self-perceptions of aging…which, in turn, improved physical function. This is, dear readers, without any changes in diet, exercise, sleep patterns, health care or further interventions of any kind.

Join me as I shout: WOW.

Now join me as we reject our culture’s sick and erroneous attitudes toward aging. And join me as we take power over our own health, wellness and well-being.

October 28, 2015   No Comments

The “can-do” approach to life

she believedOptimism rules.

Believe it or not, there is serious scientific evidence that optimism (and pessimism) affect health and well-being almost as clearly as do the physical factors we pay so much attention to (exercise, diet, sleep.)

So, wait. For vibrant health we have to walk around like Pollyannas ignoring all the bad stuff and the crazy people and the chaos and sing happy little songs to ourselves and answer, it’s all good, man, to any question asked? Because, folks, that ain’t how I roll.

Happily the “rose-colored glasses,” “oh-blah-di-oh-blah-da” attitude toward life is not the definition of optimism. It is the definition of “naïveté.”

Here’s a much better definition: Optimists believe good things may happen, they have a chance of happening — and that they personally have significant control over that process. They have confidence that what they do (or don’t do) matters. Pessimists, on the other hand, often feel helpless and passive, the victims of circumstance.

At the root of optimism is what’s known in psychological circles as self-efficacy: “a person’s belief in his or her ability to solve problems, handle situation, meet challenges and otherwise influence the course of events.” This do-can approach, this I-am-the-author-of-my-own-life philosophy has been linked to lower blood pressure, a stronger immune system, fewer and less severe diseases of middle age, a significantly lower risk of dying from coronary disease, faster healing after surgery, and generally a longer, healthier life.

Why would that be?

The answer, like everything else about us, is wonderfully complex, a combination of the psychological, behavioral, biological and social. Here’s the way I understand it:. You’d think that people who expect good things to happen to them would sit back and wait for them to happen, but that’s not what optimists do. Optimists, in fact, seize the day. They take steps to ensure that good things will (or can) happen to them. They are far more likely to practice healthy behaviors and to seek treatment for problems than pessimists. Optimists are also far more likely to have the social support networks that researchers have found correlate with long-term good health.

All that seems pretty commonsensical to me. Now here’s where it gets very interesting: Optimists are also different biochemically than pessimists. Feeling overwhelmed, helpless and depressed? Feeling that way a lot of the time because you figure you are the mercy of the fates? Apparently, your brain is busy sending chemical messages to your body, and they’re not love letters. One of the not-love-letters is cortisol, the so-called stress hormone. Overexposure to cortisol is like an express train to the nursing home.

That’s not exactly how the docs at the Mayo Clinic put it. But when they list increased risk of heart disease, obesity, memory impairment, sleep problems and digestive disorders as potential fall-out from chronic exposure to cortisol, that’s pretty much what they’re saying. Optimists, when stressed, produce cortisol too, but their response is muted and transient.

The single most important optimistic message I’ve gotten lately is from a simple statement often repeated in my Barre3 class: “There are always modifications.” To me this means: You can always find a way to succeed. Regardless of who you are or what your circumstance or what your current challenges, you have the power to make it work for you. Whatever “it” is at that moment. You are in control. You make your life happen. This is the essence of self-efficacy. Which is a cornerstone of optimism, which is the foundation to a healthy and vibrant life.

So, yeah, optimism rules.

October 21, 2015   No Comments

Re-thinking “old” now that Annie Lennox is 60

oldAgeism: Alive and well? Hell yeah. It is, in fact, more vibrantly alive and a whole lot healthier than our culture believes older people themselves are. Which I guess wouldn’t be difficult, as our culture equates “old” with any or all of the following: weak, frail, ill, forgetful, slow, cranky, crabby, creaky, stodgy, stuffy, sexless. Am I leaving anything out? Oh yeah: Useless. In the way.

Here’s Annie Lennox, who just turned 60: “There’s this youth culture that is really, really powerful and really, really strong, but what it does is it discards people once they reach a certain age. I actually think that people are so powerful and interesting – women, especially – when they reach my age. We’ve got so much to say, but popular culture is so reductive…”

You’ve got that right, Annie.

But: Do you realize that there are societies where our concept of “old” never took root? In these cultures, aging is not associated with a diminution of vigor or, more important, of usefulness. Activity, involvement and engagement continue unabated throughout life. Older people are as integral to the health and welfare of these societies as younger people — and it may be that this belief (even more than healthy behaviors) keep those older people demonstrably, verifiably biologically young.

Could this attitude about aging and older people ever be part of our culture? It would mean an extraordinary, dare I say mind-blowing, change: politically, culturally, economically, and every other way imaginable. Because I am trying hard to make “optimism about the future” a part of my constellation of youthful habits, and because this applies not only to my personal future but to The Future, I am going to say that such change is possible. And I am going to say that right now, at this moment in time, this change may be the most possible it will ever be.

Why? Because between the (frequently ridiculed and more-often-than-not dismissed) Baby Boomers and the (all-but-forgotten) Gen Xers, the oldest of whom turn 50 this year, there are considerably more than 100 million Americans alive and kicking (creative, active, involved, interesting) in their 40s, 50s, 60s right now. (Not to mention the pre-Boomers now in their 70s, 80s and beyond). And we are hardly “old and in the way.” We are, in fact, in the thick of it.  We can dismantle this damaging “old” stereotype by example, by continuing to actively contribute to and engage with the culture, by choosing not to live in isolated, gated, same-age communities, by embracing change, by staying both physically and intellectually resilient. By using our added years of youthful good health to be useful and do good. There are a lot of us, and we can do this.

If this sounds like a call to arms, it is.

And btw, Jerry Garcia was 33 when he put together and started recording with the group “Old and in the Way.”

February 11, 2015   4 Comments

A new day

news years

You could make any number of counterclockwise-y New Years resolutions. You know what they are, and you know from past experience which ones will stay with you past, say, January 7.  So you could resolve to:

 

Get to the gym three times a week or
Eat six servings of vegetables

Or you could vow to:
Get another hour of sleep or
Give up _______ (fill in with favorite bad-for-you indulgence)

Some people disdain the whole resolutions thing. I personally think January first lists are phony and set us up for failure or guilt (probably both). But I do love the idea of intention that powers action. And I love the idea of self-direction. So I am, in fact, thinking of starting the new year with a plan.

But more and more I am convinced that “staying young” (as in vibrant and active and engaged, curious and challenge-seeking) is about attitude and affect as much – or more – than it is about kale and kettlebells. I don’t mean that good health isn’t important. Certainly it is. And I don’t mean that we should shirk our personal responsibility to promote, enhance and maintain good health. Of course not. So yay for those six servings of vegetables or that pledge to work out more.

But that’s not all there is to counterclockwise living, and resolutions (if you are the resolution-making type) that focus only on the physical are not as life-enhancing as maybe we think (or hope ) they are.

So what is? Waking with energy and purpose, eagerness and curiosity into each morning. That is my “resolution,” and, yes, I know there’s a disturbing whiff of bumpersticker-ese about this. Allow me to replace that unpleasant scent with this quote from John Updike:

Each day we wake slightly altered and the person we were yesterday is dead.

Which means we are reborn. New to the experience of that day. And that, my friends, is counterclockwise living.

December 31, 2014   No Comments

Life ends at 75

oldSeventy-five.

That’s how long I want to live: 75 years.

So begins Ezekiel Emanuel’s awful, depressing, wrong-headed essay in the recent issue of The Atlantic. Emanual, director of the Clinical Bioethics Department at the U.S. National Institutes of Health and head of the Department of Medical Ethics & Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, is a hale and healthy – and productive – 57. But he imagines a dire future for himself. He imagines that when he reaches 75, life will not be worth living.

Why? Because he equates getting older with being incapacitated. He writes, “our older years are not of high quality.” Really? Tell that to Betty White (82) because I guess she didn’t get the message.

Why is life not worth living past 75? Because, he writes, we not only slow down mentally (he gets to this after several slit-your-wrists paragraphs about dementia), but “we literally lose our creativity.” Really? Tell that to New Yorker essayist Roger Angell (94) who is writing some of his best work right now.

Tell that to the consistently brilliant E.O. Wilson (85) with an extraordinary new book just published. The New York Times calls him “wise, learned, wicked, vivid, oracular.” And, apparently a full decade past the end of his useful life.

If those reasons don’t resonate, Emanual ends the essay with the ultimate guilt trip: Think of the burden you’ll be to your kids. Worse yet, those years after 75 — the sickly, frail, uncreative, awful years? – will “inevitably become [your children’s] predominant and salient memories” of you.

Wow. Kill me now, so my kids’ salient memory will be when I rocked out at an ACDC tribute band concert this past summer.

I am just disgusted with Mr. Emanual and with our culture’s fear and denigration of what it means to get older. Thinking old, thinking the worst possible scenarios about getting older, is a shortcut to the unsatisfying, unhealthy and unhappy life Emanual imagines for himself.

Me? I imagine (and am joyfully working toward) an entirely different future. And you?

October 15, 2014   2 Comments

The Biology of the Possible

mind2Hold on…We can think ourselves young?

That’s right.  The theory is called, variously, “the psychology of the possible” or the “biology of hope” or the “biology of belief.”  The general hypothesis that our beliefs might be one of the most important determinants of health and longevity.

Yes, beliefs.  Beliefs about our own health, about our body’s reliance and strength (or lack thereof), about our ability to thrive, about what it means to age.  What we think will happen, what we believe will happen, what we expect to happen may, in fact, happen.  And by “fact,” I mean statistically valid, scientifically derived evidence.  That kind of fact.  Our minds are just that powerful.

Suppose, like just about everyone in our culture, you grow up believing Old is Bad.  Suppose, after years of hearing jokes about being over-the-hill at forty, after seeing thousands of commercials for Depends and Ensure and cellphones with three-inch-high numerals, after watching hundreds of movies and television shows with cranky, crabby, asexual older people, suppose you begin to conflate “old” with sick, debilitated and diminished? With forgetful, slow, weak, timid and stodgy? Those last five adjectives are the most common negative, “unthinkingly accepted” stereotypes of “old” in western cultures, according to one group of researchers.  What we have here, researchers in the biology of belief field say, is a self-fulfilling prophesy of decline.  You get what you expect.

On the other hand, the Abkhazians, one of the healthiest, most vibrant, longest lived communities on the planet, have no word in their language for “old people.”  They refer to the eldest among them as “long-living people.” Note how “long-living” expresses an action, something they are in the midst of doing, while “old” is a static state, a pronouncement.  Are Abkhazians healthy and vital in old age in part because their language (their culture) allows – expects – them to be?  An intriguing idea.

The evidence about perceptions of aging (another way of looking at expectations about growing older) and what does in fact happen is pretty startling.  A Yale study concluded that perceptions held by people about aging had more impact on how long they lived than did their blood pressure, cholesterol level or whether they were smokers.  Regardless of age, gender, socio-economic status, loneliness or – get this – the actual state of their health, the men and women with positive views on aging lived 7.5 years longer than those who bought into the negative stereotypes.

Conversely, another study found that older adults who perceived their health as poor were six times more likely to die (within the time frame studied, that is) than those who thought they were in good health – regardless of their actual health status. One explanation is that if you think of illness and decrepitude as an inevitable part of aging, you are less likely to do anything to prevent, counteract or treat it.  Another study at Yale found a strong link between positive self-perceptions of aging and what’s called functional health – the mechanical well-being of the body, the ability to move and perform desired tasks without pain or injury.

            Clearly the path toward an invigorated and meaningful mid-life and beyond requires us to do more than jump on the superfood-du-jour/ exercise-fad-of-the-month bandwagon.  It requires us to question our beliefs about aging.  It requires us to create our own biology of the possible.

April 16, 2014   No Comments