On September 30, the New York Times published an article by Roger Rosenblatt, who identified himself by his age of 83: What Nobody Tells You About Growing Old.
The article goes into great detail about the author’s difficulty getting out of taxis. He spends huge amounts of time dealing with the medical system: going to appointments, scheduling appointments, and reviewing test results. He feels invisible and irrelevant.
Compensations? Grandchildren. Respect from maintenance crews. Watercolors and book clubs for women. Pointless “camaraderie” among men.
My initial reaction was, “If this is getting old, I’d prefer ‘the alternative.”
I also wonder where he’s been for the last 50 years. Book clubs attract women (and some men) of all ages.
Rosenblatt presents his experience as universal. The title suggests he sees himself as representative of the 80-plus age group, giving advice to others in the same age group..
The irony is that the variance among older people is huge.
Geriatricians have a saying, “If you’ve seen one 80-year-old, you’ve seen one 80-year-old.”
An article in The Journals of Gerontology: Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences, is titled Heterogeneity in Healthy Aging. From the abstract:
“…a growing body of research indicates substantial variation in the health impact of aging, influenced by multiple factors such as gender, race, income, and educational attainment… suggesting that poor health is not a necessary consequence of survival to older ages…The terms “young–old” and “old–old” were coined decades ago to emphasize that chronological age is not as relevant as functional status, and that people of any age can fall into either category. Only a minority of individuals are ‘old–old,’ in need of special societal care and support.”
In other words, we can’t look at one man who struggles with taxicabs and conclude, “That’s life in your 80s.”
Why this article is dangerous
As it happened, shortly after this article appeared, I started reading Becca Levy’s important book, Breaking the Age Code. A professor at Yale University, Levy has published studies showing that attitudes toward aging directly affect physical and mental health.
We can easily find examples of people over 80 who live exuberantly. She describes her own grandmother: “In her eighties and nineties, she traveled and played golf and went on long walks with her friends. She threw elaborate costume parties and wrote us letters that reflected her unforgettable personality.”
I frequently mention Olga Kotelko, running track and field well into her nineties.
It’s true that many of these people are outliers. I don’t buy into the promise that “Anyone can do this.” As I say elsewhere, that’s another form of ageism.
But if you’ve got health problems, you can’t blame them on aging or shrug them off as “what to expect in your 80s.”
To be clear, you’ve probably heard the joke about the man who visits a doctor with a sore knee.
“It’s sore because you’re old,” the doctor says.
“My other knee is the same age and it’s just fine,” says the man.
So when someone says, “I have this problem because I’m 80,” we can point to other 80-year-olds who do not have this problem. The problem may not be anyone’s fault and it may not be curable. But you rarely can blame it on age.
We also know that most people of any age can make progress when they make the attempt.
In their book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool write that people can “train effectively well into their eighties. Much of the age-related deterioration in various skills happens because people decrease or stop their training; older people who continue to train regularly see their performance decrease much less.”
Did Rosenblatt, the NYT author, hire a personal trainer to help with his mobility issues? Did he try physical therapy? I’m appalled (but not surprised) that his doctors didn’t suggest it.
Dr. Levy writes about an 83-year-old woman – the same age as Rosenblatt – who participated in one of her studies. She was required to “respond to a few surveys, engage in some computer games, and do a few physical exercises.” She was also exposed to positive age beliefs.
At first, she had difficulties getting out of a chair: she asked for help from the research nurse. In three weeks, though, she got better. She found it easier to get out of bed and climb steps. Her mood changed and she engaged in more social activities.
She wasn’t alone. A group “exposed to positive age belief walked significantly faster and had better balance” than a control group.
Back in 2014, the NY Times published a piece with a similar message – What If Age Is Nothing But A Mindset.
That article reports on studies by Ellen Langer, which have been criticized by contemporary social scientists but remain valuable as anecdotal evidence.
Unfortunately, we’re seeing more and more dangerous articles.
Blogs (including Medium) frequently publish “How I Experience Aging” articles. The authors suggest their experiences are common and even inevitable. They talk about aches, pains, and memory loss. They talk about medications.
Becca Levy’s work teaches us that these articles contribute to misleading beliefs about growing older. If you think your pains are inevitable you won’t take steps to heal them. You’ll be so stressed you’ll continue to experience losses in balance, memory and mood.
Dr. Levy shares a story about herself. Being late to a marathon, she didn’t take time to warm up and she pulled a leg muscle. At first, she blamed the injury on her “middle-aged body” which was “succumbing…to the ravages of age.”
Her teenage daughter pointed out that she hadn’t warmed up properly. What could she expect?
Dr. Levy was horrified. She’d been studying aging for years. Yet,
“The negative stereotypes I had absorbed since childhood from the surrounding culture materialized in a sudden fear of age-related frailty which led me to misattribute the cause of the pain in my knee.”
She explains this mechanism in the context of memory loss. Imagine you’ve heard your parents talk about their parents. They’re absent-minded, they say, as they get older. Meanwhile, the media points to forgetfulness as a sign of aging.
“And as you finally enter your own old age, whenever you can’t recall something, you blame it on aging. When you do this, you’re actively manifesting the stereotype you grew up hearing applied to older people, but now you’re directing it at yourself. This, in turn, can lead to stress, which can reduce memory performance.”
The reality, she says later in the book, is that people of all ages get memory lapses.
“In short,” she says, “what causes certain forms of memory to decline isn’t necessarily aging itself, but rather the way we approach and think about aging…”
Dr. Northrup, for instance, is a board-certified gynecologist. In her book, Goddesses Never Age, she writes that many people over 60 are taking up to five medications a day … and most, she says, are not necessary.
Next time you read an article that presents negative experiences of aging, stop.
Recognize that the author may have internalized stereotypes. Very few experiences are truly universal. The author reports on his or her unique experiences, which may or may not have relevance for you.
Beware of sentences beginning, “As we get older…” Ask yourself why the authors attribute their outcomes to age rather than other factors.
Be aware that these articles can contribute to a negative mindset, which in turn leads to poorer physical and mental health, which in turn leads to more negative outcomes that support the conventional wisdom of aging.
Write to the authors and editors of these publications. Let them know they’re not just misleading their readers. They’re downright dangerous.