[EDITOR'S NOTE: A new story, Women Demeaning Old Women, has been published this morning at blogher.]
This blog was founded as a place to put a decade’s worth of research I’d been doing (and continue to do) into aging along with what I think about it and maybe even more, to counter the overwhelming focus in most popular media that old age is a period only of debility, disease and decline.
Three years later, even with all the hoo-hah over the oldest baby boomers entering their sixties, there hasn’t been much improvement in the media. In addition, there is a disturbing trend that has been gaining momentum in the past few years: an increasing number of stories in mainstream media, infomercials, blogs and commercial websites - that decline in old age is a fallacy.
It appears to be growing out of the fraudulent, billion-dollar anti-aging movement with their claims that you can remain as you were at 25 or 35 or 40, indefinitely.
These claims always come wrapped in a superior attitude of secret knowledge. “You’re an idiot and I’m not and I will show you the truth and the way.” Decline is a lie, they say, and if you would only buy this $5,000 CD course or attend that weekend seminar at $2500 or take these secret-formula pills that go for $179.95 per bottle, you too can bench press 500 pounds until you’re 150 years old, not to mention cure cancer and remove warts.
I’m always tempted to write these charlatans to suggest they hang on to my email address. I’d like know how they explain themselves when they have a stroke or a foot is amputated due to diabetes or Alzheimer’s starts chewing holes in their brain.
It’s not the snake oil sales pitch that bothers me. There have always been swindlers and there are always enough suckers to keep them in business. But I am concerned by the increasing insistence that decline is not part of aging.
You may think I am contradicting myself about decline. I am not. Decline is inevitable, but it is only one aspect of getting old and I want to see more reporting about what we gain with age without falling into the fantasyland these gurus claim.
What is important to know about decline – less strength, less stamina, less energy and the other changes that slow us down – is that we age at dramatically different rates and it is not a 50-year-old’s fault if he can’t run a marathon anymore while another – sometimes an 80-year-old - can.
We all know the right things to do to keep us as healthy and strong as possible. It’s easy: eat your fruits and veggies, exercise, don’t smoke and keep your mind active. That’s all you need to know; anything more is commentary. All else being equal, how well one person survives compared to another is due to earlier health conditions, genes and dumb luck.
But the decline deniers are infecting the culture with the insidious implication that if you can’t carry the groceries up the hill anymore or need painkillers to control your arthritis or are giving up driving because your peripheral vision is shot, it is your fault.
This is piling insult upon injury. Already the culture believes that if you are older than 40 or 45, you have become too stupid to hold a job. Already the culture believes that if you look old, you have nothing to contribute. And now we are to be convinced that if you walk more slowly than in the past, climb stairs one at a time now and are worn out after a morning at the mall, you are to blame for not having the right mental attitude.
If this attitude is allowed to grow and take hold (it’s in its early stages), so will ageism increase. Those elders who are lucky enough to show little decline will be held up as paragons (it is already happening) who know how to think right, while those who slow down will be ignored and when not, they will become examples of wrong thinking who are to blame for their arthritis, heart disease, diabetes, stroke, etc.
It is seductive to think that if you are healthier than Ms. Jones or Mr. Smith who is the same age you are, you must have done something right that they didn't do. If you do believe that, don't break your arm patting yourself on the back because it's not necessarily so. Runner Jim Fixx, an athlete credited with helping to create America's fitness revolution, died at 52 of a heart attack. There are many other examples of seemingly healthy people who did everything right but died young.
If you are old and healthy, count your blessings. But don't go thinking it's your superior mental attitude and don't believe those charlatans who tell you decline is all in your head.