In the 1960’s, during the heyday of the Beatles and rock ‘n roll, no self-respecting young person would trust anyone over the age of thirty.
Adults were the “establishment.” The arbitrary age marker signaled something to be avoided at all costs: growing old. People above the age of thirty were square. Someone age forty and up was an antique. Once you hit sixty, you were practically dead! A person in their sixties in the 1960s would be a white-haired old lady (or old man) consigned to life in a rocking chair.
Of course by the turn of the 21st century, those same baby-boomer teens from the 1960’s had grown up, and suddenly they realized that thirty wasn’t so old, after all. Yes, one was an adult, with adult responsibilities and sensibilities. That didn’t mean the same thing as being a senior citizen.
Forty wasn’t old any more, either. Nor was fifty. People who’d already seen sixty years did all they could to remain looking and feeling youthful. Catchphrases like “Sixty is the new thirty!” were spawned, referring to the levels of health and activity that have changed how we view the decades of our lives.
We all know that chronology can’t be altered by a catchphrase. Sixty is still sixty and thirty is still thirty, even if you erase and rewrite the numbers on every legal document produced since your birth. All those years can’t be un-lived!
But perhaps the better question is, is sixty still old? For that matter, what exactly constitutes “old” in the first place? Is it a number? A level of physical well-being? A frame of mind? Can we cheat age and death, maintaining health and vitality to the century mark and beyond? What if we manage to unlock the secrets of the body’s aging process and find ways to extend life in good health? Will that prevent us from becoming old, or will our definition of the word (at least insofar as it refers to human beings) change to accommodate our new physiological states?
The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) caters to those age fifty and up. It disseminates advice and provides travel and other discounts to senior citizens. Does that mean that turning fifty make you old?
YOUTH AT ANY AGE, FOR THE RIGHT PRICE
Between Botox injections, lifts and tucks and chemical peels, we’re now able to delay, reduce or remove the imprints of time in our faces. Diet and exercise can sculpt bodies of any age, and there’s always plastic surgery and liposuction to control the extra sags and bulges and lift what’s fallen. Hair dyes (for men and women) and cosmetics do their part in covering up age’s little changes and imperfections, too.
Dimming eyesight can be corrected with glasses, contact lenses or medical intervention. Cataract surgery is a routine procedure. Hearing aids offset loss of hearing. There are exceptions, but almost anything that natural aging processes can do, modern techniques can reverse (or at least significantly improve.)
THE NATURAL ALTERNATIVE
While the results are not yet conclusive, some studies now suggest that melatonin can inhibit the body’s aging process, even reversing it to a degree.
Melatonin a naturally-produced hormone and antioxidant that also works as a natural sleep agent. (It’s inexpensive, too. A small bottle of melatonin tablets can be purchased for less than $5 at your local WalMart.) It’s found in some form in all living things, from algae to the human body. It is believed to affect a person’s circadian rhythms. Light, even in small amounts, suppresses its production, and reduced levels of natural melatonin may explain why people who work at night have an increased likelihood of contracting cancer.
Can taking melatonin supplements slow or reverse the aging process in the human body? That part’s still open to debate, though it’s been shown to extend the lives of mice by up to twenty percent, and studies are underway that focus on possible applications for Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.
But melatonin doesn’t stand alone on its age-defying pedestal. Health foods and supplements as a whole have become serious business over the last several years.
And why not? Science now knows the value of antioxidants on virtually every aspect of the human body. Most people recognize that calcium intake prevents osteoporosis. Eating broccoli, using olive oil for cooking, and drinking tea may help prevent cancer. We now understand the medicinal value of drinking a glass of wine now and then.
Most people take for granted the fact that eating healthy, when combined with regular exercise, extends lifespan and enhances one’s quality of life. So does that mean all of those precautions can delay or prevent you from growing old as you age?
Each of these scenarios describe real life conditions, though they are not “real people.” The question for my readers is this: in each case, is this person old?
Robert just celebrated his fifty-third birthday last week. His family was there with cake and candles, singing to him and watching as he opened his gifts. Unfortunately, Robert doesn’t remember it. He doesn’t recognize his children and grandchildren when they visit him, and today he didn’t know his wife, either.
Robert is a victim of early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease.
First diagnosed with the disease at age forty-nine, Robert gradually deteriorated to the point that his family had to put him in a nursing home. Once considered a mover and shaker in his community, he has already regressed to the mentality of a three year old. The disease will eventually claim his life, but it has already taken away the person that his family knew and loved.
Betty Sue is sixty-one years old, a mother of three and and a grandmother of four. A marathon runner who lives an active life, Betty Sue works full-time as a tour guide at a local tourist attraction, where she walks about two miles every day, educates visitors on the history of the site, and even dances as part of her repertoire.
Betty Sue takes her health very seriously, which to her includes a diet of natural foods, vitamin supplements and regular checkups.
She certainly doesn’t consider herself old. She dates frequently, enjoying the freedom she gained thanks to a recent divorce. She feels good, she looks good, and most people who see her assume she’s far younger than her birth certificate says she is.
Lionel is forty-eight and the owner of a software company. He’s balding, though he wears a toupee that looks reasonably natural. He also wears false teeth, thanks to periodontal disease that destroyed his natural teeth in his thirties.
An early diagnosis of prostate cancer almost certainly saved his life. Treatments were successful and while he had some erectile dysfunction as a result, an internal prosthesis allowed him to resume lovemaking with his wife. An old knee injury inhibits his ability to exercise, so he’s put on some weight even though he tries to watch what he eats.
Overall he’s happy to be alive.
On Friday nights, Lionel goes out, has a beer to drink, then goes home to his wife of twenty-five years. They own a home together and thanks to careful financial management, they’ll be able to retire when Lionel turns fifty. Lionel is always tired, and stress lines his face. He can hardly wait until he retires.
Angel is eleven years old, but has been diagnosed with progeria, a progressive disease which makes his body age at an extremely accelerated pace. He has developed heart problems, has osteoarthritis and is is completely bald. At the age of fourteen years and six months, he’s already surpassed his life expectancy and knows there’s a very good chance he won’t reach his sixteenth birthday.
Angel’s face is creased by wrinkles and he walks with a specially-made cane. His bones are brittle. He’s already fallen once and broken his hip.
Mentally and emotionally, Angel is a normal eleven year old boy. He likes video games and rap music, and wishes he could have a dog. But his cells show the same form of genetic deterioration as someone in their eighties.
In the four previous examples, chronological ages vary, as do health and mental conditions. Each situation carries some aspect of what people think of when they think of old age. My challenge to you is to spell out in a note which one (or more) of these people you would classify as old. If you believe all or none of them fit the bill, please explain why or why not.