What triggers us to begin to accept the onslaught of age as inevitable? Why do some children appear old at age seven and some grandparents youthful at 80?
“Do not go gently into that good night. Old age should burn and rage at close of day.” Dylan Thomas
When do we become old? What mechanisms trigger within us that cause us to begin to accept the onslaught of age as overwhelming us or inevitable? Why do some children appear so calcified at age seven and some grandparents so youthful at 80?
Research into those who live to be 100 or more shows several common characteristics. The most prevalent and important is an ongoing enthusiasm and excitement about life. These people who are 100+ look forward to each new day a gift and an opportunity. This zest for life makes these people optimists too. An 85 year old included in one study had just planted a tree and said he looked forward to eating some of its fruit when it began to bear in eight to ten years.
Medical and mental health professionals who have studied hardiness or the characteristic of being resilient physically and mentally describe the will to be strong and vital, to be tenacious, as important. Many a nurse or doctor will tell you the cranky patients survive more often than the docile, accepting ones.
Dr. Martin Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, developed the learned helplessness and learned optimism models of behavior. He determined that our “explanatory style”, our sub vocalizations or the way we talk internally to ourselves, exerts a great influence on our belief and behavior patterns. Talking the language of old age sets the psychological stage for us to accept old age. “In our waning years, I’m not as young as I used to be. At my age…” Do we really have to talk like this? Some people almost wear the ailments of age as badges of accomplishments. “You know, at my age, I’m lucky to still be able to hear at all.”
“I know I’ll be 55 next week, but honestly, I feel like I’m thirty,” a friend whispered to me after we’d just listened to the laments of a very old looking 35 year old.
Remaining active by using and trying to expand our mental and physical abilities helps us to maintain vitality. “Use it or lose it” was the headline in the newspaper recently,. Most of us would immediately think about our bodies wasting away from lack of exercise and the sedentary lifestyle that most office dwellers now lead. While it is true that if we don’t use our muscles we become weak, stiff and uncoordinated, this article dealt with our mental capabilities. Research has found that when we keep pushing ourselves to learn, our brains thicken and extend the nerve endings responsible for memory and thinking. Just like we can pump up our muscles, it appears we can also pump up our brains.
So, watch the language you choose to describe yourself. Use youthful, optimistic, ageless words. Look forward to tomorrow and beyond. Stay active. Some researchers have called exercise the true Fountain of Youth. And challenge yourself both mentally and physically to continue to learn and grow. Don’t ever go “gently into that good night.”