by Josh Mitteldorf, Ph.D., and Dorion Sagan
(Flatiron Books, Paperback, June 13, 2017)
Everything we think we know about aging is wrong.
According to a popular theory of the 1970s and 80s, aging was supposedly caused by an accumulation of oxidation. Our energy metabolism produces a kind of toxic waste called ROS, reactive oxygen species, which attacks delicate biomolecules. The solution to this problem was supposed to be antioxidant vitamins. In Finland, a huge clinical trial was arranged, with 30,000 participants taking anti-oxidant vitamins to see if it would stave off cancer and heart disease. After just four years, the trial was called off for ethical reasons when early results showed that people taking the antioxidants were more likely to get sick and more likely to die than those on placebo!
Paraquat is a poison which is sprayed onto weeds, burning them on contact. It is the opposite of an anti-oxidant, a powerful pro-oxidant. When worms are fed a small amount of paraquat, they actually live half again as long as worms without paraquat!
These were unexpected results. We used to think that aging was a kind of deterioration, an accumulation of damage. How can we make sense of the fact that adding to the damage – pouring gasoline on the fire – can actually make a positive contribution to life and health?
The first step in understanding is to give the phenomenon a name. When harming an animal leads to overcompensation, greater health, and longer life, it’s called hormesis.
What the heck is hormesis?
No wonder we’re confused! The scientists we count on for information are in the midst of a sea change, so they are giving us mixed messages about what aging is, why it happens, where it comes from.
25 years ago, the first reports came in that lifespan could be dramatically extended by simple interventions. Life was extended by reducing the animals’ rations. Restricting food to the brink of starvation, scientists were able to make mice live half again as long. In other labs, genetic scientists produced a worm that lived twice as long just by crippling a single gene. Elsewhere, dogs were tested for the adverse long-term effects of low-dose poisons, and the researchers were surprised to discover that the poisoned dogs actually lived longer!
Of course, you can harm an animal to the point that it dies. But small amounts of harm sometimes have a paradoxical effect – the animal lives longer!
Nietzsche said, “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”
Science of Aging – a Revolution in Slow Motion
New experimental results like these are pouring in at an accelerating rate. Aging is easily modulated, and often it is not by helping the animal but by harming it. The message is right before our eyes, written in neon lights: The body is not trying to live as long as it possibly can. The body is dying early just when life is easy and all is going well. The body is holding some longevity in reserve to extend lifespan during hardship, perhaps to compensate for all those other individuals who are dying of starvation.
This is a new reality and it is in stark contrast to the way scientists have been accustomed to thinking. Scientists are rational, and they will adapt their theories to a new experimental reality. But scientists are also human. They are attached to their old theories and attached to the funding that comes with being in the mainstream of scientific thought. The truth is that most scientists have been dragging their feet, trying to understand these radically new results within their old, familiar theories. In truth, these experiments fundamentally contradict the old theories, but most scientists are still trying to bend and twist the old theories to accommodate these experiments.
Most upset are the evolutionary scientists. The foundation of their thinking is “survival of the fittest”. But aging is the opposite of fitness. Programmed death is the opposite of survival. Experiments are telling us that there are genes for aging, and not only that, these genes are very old. We share some of the same aging genes with the worms! That means that half a billion years of evolution has preserved the genes that destroy our fitness, genes that kill us on a schedule. It is enough to send an evolutionary scientist into a state of denial. Evolutionary scientists insist that things cannot be as they appear, and what look like aging genes are really fertility genes in disguise. Or perhaps they have some other function that remains to be discovered. We must search harder, examine the genes more closely…
If it quacks like a duck…
Mitteldorf is a theorist who has been in the front lines of a scientific revolution these 20 years. From the start, he has said, “if it looks like an aging gene, it probably is an aging gene.” Through computer modeling of evolution and ecology, he has demonstrated ways in which natural selection might indeed prefer aging genes – not for the sake of the individual, of course, but for ecological balance.
Mitteldorf is also a science writer for the people, with a popular blog and a health advice page. Now he has teamed up with the golden pen of Dorion Sagan to create a book that reports from the midst of a scientific debate as it is happening, before it becomes consensus.
Big implications for health
But this is more than an academic revolution for evolutionary science. The way we think about aging has a big impact on the way we take care of our own health, and the way we pursue the medical research.
Theories have consequences. This misconception about aging has set anti-aging medicine and medical research in general on an unproductive path, a path that cannot succeed.
We’ve been trying to find out what goes wrong with the body and get the body back on track. But the body is already on track, doing what it is designed to do, and that is to slowly destroy itself with age.
The magic bullet will be epigenetics
Epigenetics is the study of how genes are turned on and off in the body. We have the same genes throughout our lifetimes, but different genes are activated at different times.
Children grow because the genes for growth are turned on. Teenagers become sexual because the genes for sex hormones are turned on. In just the same way, old bodies embark on a path of self-destruction, all part of the same genetic program. The way to cure aging is to reprogram the body’s epigenetic signals. Speak to the body in the language of biochemistry, and say the word “youth”.
Today there are tens of billions of research dollars for new cancer drugs and cholesterol-lowering medicines, but maybe 1/100th as much for anti-aging medicine. We’re trying to cure one disease at a time. We should be trying to prevent all diseases at once.
When we understand the epigenetic basis of aging, we will be able to re-balance the hormones in old people to make them look more like the hormone profiles of young people. Aging will stop. It may even be possible to turn back the clock.
Cracking the Aging Code (Flatiron Press) by is a book that will take you the distance. From theory to practice, from the latest medical research to practical advice for a long and healthy life, the book is packed with fresh new thinking that flies in the face of the old science. This is a book for independent minds.
About the authors:
Theoretical biologist Josh Mitteldorf has a PhD from UPenn. He runs the website AgingAdvice.org, and writes a weekly column for ScienceBlog.com. Mitteldorf has had visiting research and teaching positions at various universities including MIT, Harvard, and Berkeley.
Dorion Sagan is a celebrated writer, ecological philosopher, and author or coauthor of over twenty-four books, which have been translated into over a dozen languages. His work has appeared in Natural History, Smithsonian, Wired, and The New York Times, among other publications.
Embracing Your Life After 50 to Find Fulfillment, Purpose, and Joy
By Andrea Brandt, PhD, MFT
“There is no magical age at which we need to abandon our dreams and surrender our possibilities,” says renowned psychologist Dr. Andrea Brandt. So, as you think about growing older — which we all do, if we’re lucky — ask yourself:
- Am I really prepared to grow older?
- How can I make the most of what life still has to offer?
- How do I overcome the negative feelings and fears I have over getting older?
- What changes can I make in my life right now to lead a more meaningful life as I age?
In Mindful Aging: Embracing Your Life After 50 to Find Fulfillment, Purpose, and Joy [PESI Publishing, October 10, 2017], Dr. Brandt delivers the answers to these questions and challenges readers to throw out old stereotypes about aging, look at inspiring new evidence, and open ourselves to the very real possibilities that exist for us right now.
“Giving up a salaried occupation – if that’s what we choose – doesn’t mean giving up purposeful interaction with the world around us. Rather than take feelings of exhaustion and boredom to mean we need to retire, might these negative attitudes be more likely to indicate the need to reinvent ourselves, to explore new territory that brings us back to life and develops the skills we need to flourish there?”
With thought provoking real world stories and examples, Dr. Brandt challenges men and women to rethink aging. In Mindful Aging, Dr. Brandt:
- Identifies cultural and societal connotations about aging and how – and why – we need to rethink them
- Offers specific key ways to increase your happiness as you get older
- Enlightens readers on the role of mindfulness in creating positive change
- Examines the need for creating a vision for life after 50, and how to deal with fear, loss, and resistance along the way
- Outlines the fundamentals for a healthy, happy post-middle age – from relationships and wellness to mental health, spirituality and more
- Describes how to let go of feelings and experiences that no longer serve you from your past
- And so much more!
“That we age is inevitable. How we age is largely up to us,” Dr. Brandt adds. “As the last of the Baby Boomers have now turned 50 and another 10,000 of their generation retire each day, a huge number of Americans find themselves confronted with the changes and challenges that come with older age and with the reality of finite life. I wanted to offer a beacon of renewal on steady shore for those who temporarily feel lost at sea.”
Andrea Brandt, PhD, MFT, has over 35 years of clinical experience as a renowned psychotherapist, speaker, and author. In her work, Dr. Brandt reveals positive paths to emotional health that teach you how to reinvent and empower yourself. She emphasizes the mind-body-heart connection as a key to mental, physical, and emotional wellness.
A featured media expert, Dr. Brandt has appeared on numerous television programs, radio shows, and podcasts. She is a contributor to Psychology Today and has written blog posts for The Huffington Post, Mind Body Green, Psych Central, and more. Long recognized as a pioneer in the field of treating anger issues, Dr. Brandt is the author of 8 Keys to Eliminating Passive-Aggressiveness, Mindful Anger: A Pathway to Emotional Freedom and her newest book, Mindful Aging: Embracing Your Life After 50 to Find Fulfillment, Purpose, and Joy.
by Amara Rose
I see my folks are gettin’ on
And I watch their bodies change
I know they see the same in me
And it makes us both feel strange
No matter how you tell yourself
It’s what we all go through
Those lines are pretty hard to take
When they’re staring back at you.
– Nick of Time by Bonnie Raitt
I got my period on Valentine’s Day. Talk about a literal red-letter day! Never have I been so unabashedly joy-filled at the sight of blood. For the first time, I truly appreciate a euphemism both girls and women have used for generations to refer to their Moontime: “my friend.”
Perhaps I should explain that I am not thirteen. I’m not 37. I’m 50, and this is my first cycle in five months. Menopause swooped in without warning last fall, and I dried up like the Sahara. To suddenly bleed after a week in which I did, in fact, feel premenstrual is confirmation that my body’s still experimenting with this shift. It’s not a done deal. There’s yet time to adjust to the idea of being a Crone — and being eligible for membership in AARP (you’ve got to be kidding!)
Embracing the “F” Word
Now that the largest cohort in history is graying en masse, someone turns 50 approximately every eight seconds. Even this formidable fleet can’t stem the tide of aging jokes, however. At 50, the good-natured ribbing begins in earnest. My friend Faith, who celebrated her 50th just weeks before me, recalled a card she received when she turned 40: “I’m going to have to say the ‘F’ word: forty! Forty! Forty!”
We lamented that the greeting card industry doesn’t seem to think we still have a sense of humor a decade later. Why isn’t there a card for 50-year-olds that reads, “I’m at the age where I can freely use the ‘F’ word: fifty, fifty, fifty!!”
My parents, who do not perceive themselves as “old” in their eighties, sent me a hilarious Dr. Seuss parody of “Thing One” and “Thing Two” called “It’s a Fifty Thing!” The card included lines such as, “Thing Fifty can groove to the latest CD. (And with bifocal lenses, Thing Fifty can see!)”
Hm. It’s one “thing” to major in gerontology and enjoy working with elders in your twenties; quite a different matter when you’re on the cusp of joining a collective that’s marginalized in Western society and rendered virtually invisible.
I remember my mom telling me with pride about a man at the Department of Motor Vehicles flirting with her when she retook her driver’s test at age 65. I was 35 at the time, and even then, wondered aloud in my public speaking class “how much longer” men would continue to flirt with me.
From the vantage point of an additional fifteen years, I find my 30-something fear rather quaint.
A Bountiful Harvest
The fifties promise to be an intriguing balance of living in an aging body, while possessing a certain ineffable wisdom and spirit we hadn’t accessed in our younger years. Although the twenty-somethings and teens I meet today often seem wise far beyond where my generation was at their age, due no doubt to the rapid evolution of humanity as a whole, there is much to be said for the joie de vivre that accrues with vintage. Wrinkles signify ripeness. There’s a reason the honorific, “sage” is usually conferred on an elder.
I met an 83-year-old woman with close-cropped silver hair streaked fuchsia, wearing peace sign earrings. I commented that it was so cool to see “a woman of her maturity” thus attired, to which she replied, “Oh, I wasn’t cool when I was young!”
Reconciling body image with spiritual awareness is, paradoxically, only an issue if one chooses to focus on the physical. When the body becomes background — as it often is de facto in youth, with parts that are well oiled, shapely, firm, and thus, easier to “ignore” — our essence shines forth, and that’s what people see when they read the story in our eyes.
Fifty is a time to harvest our joy — and acknowledge evidence of our mortality. While several of my contemporaries have already matched wits with serious illness, and a few have transitioned to the other side of life, I’ve also watched three dear friends meet and marry their life partners in their fifties. As I’ve been casting my soul mate net for nearly a decade, this is heartening news, indeed.
Life in the Middle Ages can be bountiful, as Oprah Winfrey, our ultimate generational role model for accomplished aging, said of her 50th birthday: “All these years I’ve been taking lessons from life experiences and feeling like I was growing into myself. Finally, I feel grown. More like myself than I’ve ever been. If it’s true what Maya Angelou says, that the fifties represent everything you were meant to be, all I can say is, watch out.”
Riley Mackenzie* embodies Angelou’s decree. In her fifties, she studied the subtleties of Argentine Tango, became a serious ceramics artist, and swung from a high trapeze. Now 68, she’s just back from a leisurely road trip around the periphery of the U.S. with her husband of almost, yes, 50 years. She’s also reinventing her marketing business with a partner, another vital woman in her late fifties. Mackenzie says emphatically, “It’s the most fun I could ever imagine having!”
Hot Flashes…of Inspiration
Age, like everything else in life, is a matter of perspective. Six months before my milestone birthday, I fell into conversation with a lively older gentleman as we waited to cross the street. He was searching his pockets for his glasses, and, after I helped him find them, we walked together for a few minutes. He told me he was 100 years old, and regaled me with tales of his life. As we reached a parting of the ways, he turned to me and asked, quite seriously, “So tell me, young lady, have you graduated from college yet?”
Now, that’s the ultimate tonic for the “chronologically gifted”!
As I sit in a local teahouse, sipping rooibos and savoring my feminine cycle along with some exquisite chocolate mousse, I’m tickled by these words from The Reconnections website, on Meeting the Beloved: “I saw a license plate the other day, on a car belonging to a woman aged 50 plus: ‘Give me chocolate, and no one gets hurt.’ I thought that one was pretty neat until I saw a better one: ‘I’m over 50 and I’m still hot — except now, it comes in flashes.'”
How true. Flashes of insight. Flashes of inspiration. Flashes of unmitigated delight at just how extraordinary life on this beautiful blue-green planet can be. One author refers to the second half-century as “Jubilee Time.”
I’m ready to party. Considering how many playmates I’ll have in the galactic sandbox, it’s destined to be an unsurpassed blast. Bring it on: fifty! Fifty! Fifty!
* name changed to honor her privacy
© Copyright Amara Rose 2007-2017
About the Author:
Amara Rose can pluck a graying hair from her scalp at 25 mph; driving any faster, she waits for a red light. To see what she’s done with her first half-century, visit LiveYourLight.com. Amara Tweets and builds conscious community on Facebook, Li nkedInand SelfGrowth.com. Offer her dark chocolate and you open the doorway to friendship.
by Amara Rose
The day before I turned 55 I received a letter from my bank. The auxiliary checking account I’d opened for online transactions would shortly be assessed an $8 monthly fee unless I (a) maintained a $1000 minimum balance, (b) deposited $250/month or (c) used my ATM card at least ten times per month, none of which was feasible for me.
A bit put out by this parsimonious behavior from a bank I’d found very customer-centric until then, I contacted the assistant manager. She skimmed the letter and said confidently, “We’ll find a solution.” After a couple of basic usage questions, she asked, “Are you 55 yet?” I exclaimed, “My birthday’s tomorrow!” She said, “Then the account is free,” and scrawled, “55+ FREE” across the notice in red marker.
This was my first encounter with the unexpected perks of my seniority.
Sea Change in Consciousness
No doubt about it, coming of age as a member of the silver tsunami is a sea change in consciousness from growing older in yesteryear. As the Boomer wave grays the globe, some members of this tribe have concocted playful descriptions: “chronologically gifted” and “over the speed limit” are two of my favorites.
Language matters, because, like the mirror, it reflects how we see ourselves. Cross-cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien once shared how a child stroked her grandmother’s cheek, crooning, “Grandma, you have such pretty designs on your face!” Too young to “know better,” the little girl viewed her grandmother’s facial lines not as a sign of senescence, but as fine art. Wrinkles can signify ripeness, wisdom, and a life lived by design, indeed.
Yet even as robustly alive as many of today’s elders are, I’m nowhere near ready for “Gran Central Station,” as I refer to the exuberant members of a senior center in a nearby town. And therein lies the conundrum.
“Forty is the old age of youth. Fifty is the youth of old age,” wrote French novelist Victor Hugo 150 years ago. Hugo lived to be 83, considered pretty “ripe old” for the 19th century. His observation is daunting to me at 59, because I don’t feel remotely on the cusp of old age.
Marc Freedman agrees. Of the description “young old”, the author of The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife asks sardonically, “Are most people in their 50s and 60s in anything resembling ‘old age’? Are they elderly? Senior citizens? (Why not child old for those in their 40s, infant old for the late-thirties set, and prenatal old for latter twentysomethings?)” Prenatal old. Love it!
While it’s vital to “die” to earlier life stages, beliefs and behaviors in order to fully live, excessive focus on the aging process can keep us contracted in fear. To discover what ecstatically alive aging looks like, I turned to some over-the-speed-limit role models:
- Susan Sarandon, a leading lady on the Silver (!) Screen at 69, who also volunteers in service all over the world;
- Shirley MacLaine, best-selling author and truth seeker, an 82-year-old tour-de-force: her Sage-ing While Age-ing is a bracing exploration into the deepest questions of existence;
- Louise Hay, whose classic You Can Heal Your Life served as a template during my awakening journey, launched Hay House in her late 50s. Now 89 years wise, the personal growth pioneer oversees a global publishing company;
- Indefatigable Betty White hosted Saturday Night Live at 88 and was offered her own NBC show at 89, Betty White’s Off Their Rockers, where seniors play practical jokes on the younger generation. The show’s been canceled, but Betty is rockin’ on. At 94, she’s active on social media, and recently paid homage to hip-hop artist Queen Latifah with a dramatic reading of the latter’s lyrics.
This can be a juicy time. Visionary OBGYN Christiane Northrup, M.D., author of the breakthrough health guides Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom and The Wisdom of Menopause, says midlife brings potential for regeneration; clearing old habits creates the opportunity for healthy aging. She cites research that shows women in their 60s and 70s enjoy the best sex of their lives. Clean out emotional debris, claim your power — and it’s an erotic feast!
A Place of Passionate Possibility
Just as old age was reimagined as “the Golden Years” and retirement as a destination (Sun City), Boomers now in midlife and beyond are rapidly reinventing this time of our lives as a place of passionate possibility.
In The Big Shift, Freedman chronicles how Granville Stanley Hall essentially invented “adolescence” at the beginning of the 20th century with a landmark book by that title, later bookending life with Senescence: The Last Half of Life, published when he was 76. Written in the aftermath of WWI — “decades before the first Social Security check, proclamation of longevity revolutions, or emergence of the concept of centenarians,” Freedman points out — Hall characterized this period, which he depicts as beginning in the early forties, as “an Indian summer,” a “precious bud of vast potentialities,” and calls on midlife people to step up, regardless of how they’re regarded by others:
“We have a function in the world that we have not yet risen to and which is of the utmost importance — far greater, in fact, in the present stage of the world than ever before. Modern man was not meant to do his best work before forty but is by nature, and is becoming more and more so, an afternoon and evening worker” (and he’s not referring to shift work!).
“Not only with many personal questions but with most of the harder and more complex problems that affect humanity we rarely come to anything like a masterly grip till the shadows begin to slant eastward, and for a season, which varies greatly with individuals, our powers increase as the shadows lengthen.” Indeed, Hall’s greatest creativity and achievement came after age 50.
One of my defining moments arrived several years ago, when I was reading Deathing by Anya Foos-Graber, an uncommon guide to creating a spiritually informed dying process. The composite protagonist, Selma, in preparing for a grace-filled departure from this life, shares an inner vision of seeing people on a half-built bridge, “spilling into the sea, drowning in their own ignorance because they had no bridge, no reality construct to cross from this shore to the Other Side, from one reality to another.” And just as a voice instructs Selma to “Build them a bridge,” I realized with chills of recognition that my recurring childhood dream of a train on an unfinished track jutting out into space was Spirit dispatching my mission statement: Become a world-bridger, build the bridge between mainstream and metaphysical. I was initially shown my life purpose in a dream at age eight, and only completely understood this early message at 55! I reveled in awe and gratitude for this belated awareness — even though I’ve been “on purpose” for years.
How can we awaken to the clarity of who and what we are, whatever our chronological age? Freedman says that by midlife, life has become a run-on sentence in dire need of punctuation, and he proposes a metaphorical semicolon to capture the sense of renewal and redirection.
Becoming An Elder of Excellence
Anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson, author of Composing a Life and Composing a Further Life, calls for establishing what she elegantly terms “a midlife atrium”: a sabbatical of sorts that functions as an opportunity to let in more light and air — which is precisely how Kathy Bates describes this shift in the film Fried Green Tomatoes. When her perplexed husband asks his quintessentially evolving wife, “What’s changed?” she muses, “Oh, the air and the light.”
Bateson writes, “The doorway to this new stage of life is not filing for Social Security but thinking differently and continuing to learn.”
We all have the choice to become “Elders of Excellence,” a Louise Hay euphonic. Even the word “elder” confers an essence of wisdom and respect that seems lacking when we append “ly”, transforming the vibrant, vintage noun into a frail, forgotten adjective.
Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, author of the wise guide, From Age-ing to Sage-ing, says we become elders not by accruing years, but by harvesting our wisdom in service to others — future generations, yes, but also our peers who may be aging fearfully.
Elders, he writes, “have an ongoing responsibility for maintaining society’s well-being…They are pioneers in consciousness who transmit a legacy to future generations. Serving as mentors, they pass on the distilled essence of their life experience to others. The joy of passing on wisdom to younger people not only seeds the future, but crowns an elder’s life with worth and nobility.”
Becoming a sage also means making peace with our mortality. As MacLaine writes in Sage-ing While Age-ing, “We talk about making a soul connection with our bodies. It occurs to me so often now that one day I will literally not have this body any longer, and I will live with only my soul memory of what my life was like living inside it. My perceptions and familiar tools of physically relating to the world will be over and gone.”
Wonder and Wisdom
Perspective shifts as we do. I learned this most profoundly from my lifelong friend Ellie, who lived alone after her husband’s transition until she was nearly 96. At 72 she began writing letters to the editor of her local newspaper, expressing strong opinions about the salient issues of the day — and continued to do so for the next 22 years. Most of her letters were published, and in 2009 the paper ran a front-page profile lauding Ellie’s chirographic activism.
When I interviewed her at age 92 to write about her life, Ellie shared how she was considered a surrogate mom by “lots of young people.” I was 48 at the time and wondered what she meant, since to me “young people” were in their teens and early twenties. I was amused by her reply: “In their fifties.” By the time you’re 92, fifty is young.
Ellie’s enduring gift has been the joy with which she greeted each morning, her gratitude for “being accepted” by Source for one more day on Earth, alive and alove, keen to give it her best and create a little more beauty in the world. The last time I saw her, she scampered down three flights of stairs (yes, at 95) and pressed her nose up against the glass prior to opening the door to her apartment building, causing me to giggle.
“I hope you never lose your sense of wonder,” sang Lee Ann Womack, and she might have been channeling Ellie. Although my friend never learned to drive a car, she lived over the speed limit in every sense of the phrase. As elders-in-training, we can all embrace this teaching: when you get the choice to sit it out or dance, DANCE!
© Copyright 2013-2016 by Amara Rose
About the Author:
Amara Rose helps individuals and organizations create spiritually successful change. Her transformational toolkit includes personal and business coaching, e-courses, a CD/mp3, talks and playshops. Learn more at LiveYourLight.com, where you can subscribe to her inspirational e-newsletter, What Shines.