How bodies age: A new perspective from Carole Carson
Special to The Union
If the measurement of oranges was the singular measure of fruit, then in comparison, the skin of apples would measure thinner. The interior of oranges would also be measurably softer. No doubt we could easily quantify other differences as well.
Currently, the adult body in its prime (oranges) is the baseline for health against which aging bodies (apples) are measured; hence, it’s not surprising to find that:
• Individuals lose height as they age, on average 2 inches by age 80.
• Body fat usually increases from 14 to 30% at the same time that there is a loss of lean muscle mass and a decrease in total body water.
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• Some organs shrink, such as the liver and kidneys, while others, like the prostate gland, increase in weight.
• Changes in the skin, mainly wrinkles, occur.
• Changes in hair may involve color (graying) or loss. Men may lose head hair only to find hair growing out of their eyebrows, nostrils, and ears. Women sometimes see an increase in facial hair. Hair growth is slower, whether on the scalp, pubic area, or armpit. Formerly curly hair may straighten while straight hair can turn curly.
• Muscle strength, endurance, size, and weight typically decrease. Bone loss typically occurs, although at highly individual rates.
• The brain shrinks, as do the levels of neurotransmitters and hormones.
Focus on Pathology and Losses
The above medical perspective is based on the notion that aging represents a steady, measurable erosion of the organ systems and the body’s ability to repair itself.
Upon reflection, however, comparing bodies in their prime (oranges) to aging bodies (apples) makes as much sense as using the norm for infants as the baseline for assessing teenagers’ health. Obviously, both stages of life are quite distinct and require different definitions of normal.
Moreover, this notion of human aging solely as a process of deterioration inadvertently created — and then reinforced — a distorted and negative stereotype of aging. With the focus solely on pathology and loss, it failed to take into account what normal aging looks like.
Comparing Apples to Apples
Going forward, future medical models will compare aging bodies to aging bodies. With this model, for example, at age 78, I would know if my body was aging well or prematurely. But today, we lack this information.
Scientists, however, are beginning to develop such models. When aging bodies were compared, one or more system tended to be more vulnerable than others. Four ageotypes emerged: metabolic, immune, liver, and kidney. There may be more — perhaps a cardio-type. Armed with this information, physicians will be able to anticipate health problems and engage in preventative care for their aging patients.
Evolving, Growing and Thriving
Even more importantly, though, treating aging solely as a pathological condition failed to recognize the inherent potential in this final stage of life as a distinct, legitimate stage in and of itself.
The negative stereotype also contradicted the findings of researchers who reported that on average people’s wellbeing steadily improves with age. And improvement occurred despite physical health decline and problems with memory and thinking.
The positive psychology of aging movement arose in rebellion to the refusal to accept the final stage of life as separate and discrete. For sure, the movement doesn’t minimize losses or changes. But instead of focusing exclusively on disabilities, disease, and decline, this viewpoint includes abilities and successful adaptation to aging.
With this new perspective, the discussion shifts from how aging bodies differ from bodies in their prime to one of how to support older members of society to evolve, grow and even thrive.
Lifestyle Choices Impact Final Years
Reinforcing this paradigm shift is the increasing realization that many of the negatives associated with aging are a function of lifestyle. For example, immobility triggers muscle loss independent of age. In an experiment to confirm this, healthy 23-year-old college students were required to rest in bed for a week. At the end of one week, their skeletal muscle mass was “substantially reduced.” And that was only one of the negative outcomes.
But immobility isn’t a necessary part of aging. It turns out that regular exercise for 30 minutes most days can “rejuvenate physical capacity by 10 to 15 years.” Moreover, neuroplasticity of the brain suggests that dementia isn’t inevitable.
Advice on how to keep the brain functioning well typically includes lifelong learning, eating healthfully, exercising regularly, limiting alcohol consumption, meditating or engaging in spiritual exercises, and socializing with others.
Pick Your Perspective
Adopting a more balanced perspective — that aging is a distinct stage of life characterized by both pluses and minuses — can potentially extend your life.
Over a two-decade-plus period, researchers studied individuals and found that the ones who had more positive perspectives on aging lived 7.5 years longer. This occurred even after taking into account age, gender, socioeconomic status, loneliness, and functional health.
Pick your perspective! I know which one I’m choosing.
A fresh, squeezed glass of chilled orange juice is a wonderful way to start the day. But after supper, it’s hard to beat a slice of Granny Smith apple pie.
Carole Carson, Nevada City, is an author, former AARP website contributor, and leader of the 1994 Nevada County Meltdown. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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