As we approach this exciting New Year, my New Year’s resolution is to end the year younger than I started it. I know that sounds crazy and as a scientist who studies the impact of the aging process on health, I know that with the passing of time, we all age. I also believe that every decade we reach is a milestone to be celebrated. So I’m going to tell you a secret. I am 59 years old! This is the only time I will ever mention it to you again because I don’t feel or act 59. I know 60 is just right around the corner for me, but I’m actually excited about entering this new decade of life because I know that I am going to “kick butt” in this decade. In the next three weeks, I am going to write three blogs (starting with this one) about what I believe to be the keys to staying forever young.
In my new book, The Rewired Brain, I emphasize the incredibly power of our thoughts—and that includes our thoughts about aging. So how “old” we are depends probably more than anything else on how old we think we are. I like to say, “our thoughts become our actions, our actions become habits, and ultimately our habits become our destiny.” In the picture associated with this blog post, I am climbing the 42 foot mast of our sailboat to untangle a sail. I have also attached a link to some dives I did last year in a video associated with the launch of my book https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=emkJphKFNqc&t=89s . Now, there is no way in this world that I could do these activities at my age unless I truly believed (thought) that I could do them. It is the power of my thoughts, not my athletic ability, not anything else that allows me to do these things.
So if you want to be and stay sexy and youthful, you must push yourself to regularly act in vigorous, energetic ways that support this lifestyle. If you start down that path, over time you will begin to find a fountain of youth. If you tell yourself, “I’m getting old and I must act like an old person,” I promise you that rapid aging will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is clear that for the vast majority of us, we become the type of people our thoughts tell us to be.
But have you ever noticed that at a certain point, a lot of people stop celebrating and start lamenting?
Well, I’m here to fight the notion that turning 50, 60, 70, 80, or even 90 is all gloom and doom. I truly believe that the journey of aging can be amazing. It can be sexy. It can be fun, joyful, and fantastic in so many ways! Really, it’s all about how we approach the idea of aging.
Fortunately, with life expectancies increasing and people living longer than ever, stereotypes about aging have changed for the better. According to a poll conducted by AARP in 2014, 69 percent of people in their 60s said that problems with their physical health did not hold them back from doing what they wanted, and 59 percent thought that growing older has been easier than they anticipated. Fifty-four percent of 60+-year-olds also responded that they had more energy than they expected they would at their age.
Additionally, when asked what age they considered to be the beginning of “old age,” people in their 50s said age 68, and people in their 60s responded 73. So it appears that as we get older, our perception of what we think is “old” really changes! (In fact, one 90-year-old woman said that a woman isn’t old until she hits 95!)1
These thoughts and stereotypes about aging affect much more than our attitudes. They affect how we physically age, too. One study found that people who held negative thoughts about aging actually had a higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Compared to more positive-minded people, participants in their 40s who held negative stereotypes ended up having significantly greater loss of hippocampus volume and larger accumulations of plaques and tangles (all hallmark signs of Alzheimer’s) 25 years later.2
The same researcher who headed up this study concluded in another study that older adults who had positive age-related thoughts lived seven and a half years longer than their negative-minded peers.3
So it’s clear we need to approach aging in a positive light if we want to live life to the fullest. We have no control over the passage of time, but we have full control over how we think about aging. Here are some ways to make the most of these years:
- Find new purpose. Many people choose to retire in their 60s. If you enjoy working and it gives your life meaning, don’t retire! More and more businesses these days appreciate the unique experience and value that older workers bring to the table. So if you feel fulfilled going to work every day, there is no need to stop. If you do decide to retire, you may wonder what to do with all your extra time. Find a new purpose, perhaps something you’ve always wanted to do and new ways to have fun.
- Take risks. In her book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, Bonnie Ware beautifully documents the primary regrets and disappointments of hospice patients. When asked what they would have done differently, almost all said they wished they had had the courage to live true to themselves, not what others expected of them. Well my friends, now is the time! Were you too embarrassed or afraid in your 30s, 40s, or 50s to take belly dancing classes, or try your hand at stand-up comedy, or write a book, or go skydiving, or hundreds of other crazy activities? This is the period of life when it’s time to take chances.
- Laugh a lot. There are countless health benefits to laughter, including increased immunity, better blood pressure, and lower depression. Not only that, smiling and laughing makes you look and feel
- Stay active. Jog, hike, swim, dance, do yoga, or take up karate or even Crossfit! The science is clear—if you stop moving, you will get old and die. Consequently, being physically active is a key to maintaining your health as you get older. I am going to devote my entire next article to this topic.
- Levy BR, et al. Psychol Aging. 2016 Feb;31(1):82-8.
- Levy BR, et al. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2002 Aug;83(2):261-70.