The upside of aging

Very few people welcome the aging process with open arms. BeWell spoke with Manjula Waldron, PhD, consulting professor at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, about the often-overlooked positive side of aging and how having a plan for healthy aging can make a real difference.

Should we be pessimistic or optimistic about the aging process?

Birth and death are two ends of our life book and aging is in between. We began aging the day we were born and aging is a process, not something at which we arrive.

The very act of staying healthy requires courage to let go of the negativity associated with aging and accept that we are in the second half of our life. At this point, our blinders are taken off. No matter which way we cut it, we definitely see the finiteness of life and the aging process becomes personal.

Before you get too pessimistic, recite to yourself these observations and see if you agree that they ring true for you. And keep in mind that research supports these very positive aspects of aging:

  • "I can let go of stuff that doesn't matter and focus on what does.”
  • "I realize tranquility is within me waiting to be uncovered.”
  • “I have tools in my toolbox that bring me wider perspective on life.”
  • “I can retrain my brain for outcomes that are important.”
  • “I have more choices in life than when I was constrained by the demands of others.”
  • “Vulnerability is comforting and not shameful anymore.”
  • “I can focus on myself (and my health) without feeling guilty.”
  • “I have more compassion for others.”
  • “I can slow down and just be — for the joy of being.”
  • “I understand better what love means.”
  • "I can let go of fear of failure and be grateful for what it taught me.”
  • “I am aware of my legacy. Knowing what I am leaving behind is an opportunity to change what I can, let go of what I can't and wisdom to know the difference.”
  • “I know that aging is a journey — not a destination or a label.”

Do men and women age differently? 

Personally, this difference is not important to me. I am not a dot on some statistical curve. What is important is that I manage my own health through designing my life to live physically fit, mentally agile, socially networked and fiscally secure.

The wonderful thing is that each of us ages uniquely. Doctors see in their many clinical encounters that those who take charge of their health by making fundamental lifestyle changes often defy the aging norms. It is never too late to begin.

Do my sleep or exercise needs change after 50?

When I turned 50,  I had a serious medical problem, a major organ failure, that required drastic solutions and changes to my lifestyle. I began meditation and aerobics, which brought better sleep and sent me on my wellness journey.

For me, a 24/7 sedentary, stressful professor’s lifestyle was not a healthy sustaining way to live. I joked to my students that my warranty ran out when I had my first symptom that required my full attention.  

"My" is the operative word here. Being more mindful of what your own needs are helps at any age. However, if we live mindlessly up to 50, we may encounter a medical issue that suddenly makes us pay attention. We cannot burn ourselves through adrenaline forever without paying for it through health consequences.

Therein lies the opportunity for the U- bend — making changes necessary for life to unfold more positively. Even if no sudden, negative wake-up call occurs near or at age 50, which is not a magic age, it is often at or about this age that “normal” wear and tear prompts us (or should) to make fundamental life shifts in the areas of exercise, sleep, diet and stress management.

Ideally, we have attended to our health all our life and do not need this intervention at a given age. If not, it’s never too late to initiate prevention strategies and priorities that will place our physical, mental, social health right up there in importance with our social responsibilities. Fortunately, after age 50, we may have more awareness and control over this process of adjusting our lifestyle.

What cognitive changes should be expected as we age, and how can we learn to accept these changes?

As we age, we move from a more restricted, focused, and convergent view of the world to one that is more expanding, dynamic, and divergent. We become more adaptive and resilient. We can handle uncertainty better.

Contrary to the popular myth, we become more creative. We can learn new things and grow new neurons and synapses and change our cellular physiology. However, sometimes the process of changing our old stories and beliefs, which may no longer serve us well, requires a little more effort (as old pathways will kick in if we are not mindful) as we age. Fortunately, we have tools that help us to steer the changes in the direction we desire.

What are the best ways to learn to adapt to an older mind and body?

Remain open to new challenges and be willing to change. We encourage people to remember the acronym “REWARDS”:

Relax: meditate and learn to be present
Exercise: move your body
Wisdom: benefit from your knowledge and life experiences
Attitude: be positive and grateful
Resilient: accept and adapt to change
Diet: healthy eating for what your body needs now
Social: have spiritual, meaningful, purposeful connections

… any final thoughts?

New research and technology has made it possible for us to challenge the old aging myths and work toward improving our quality of life. When people have the tools that help them to understand the process of aging and know how to stay healthy, they will look forward to creating and living the second half of the book rather than dreading it.

Having the tools in the tool belt is one thing, but using them is another, which requires continued vigilance and motivation. Fortunately, our bodies are alive and respond to TLC. We just have to be willing to honor it.

Related articles:
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Influence how you age

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Interview conducted by Julie Croteau and edited by Lane McKenna.

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