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Successful Aging: It all depends on how you look at the greatness of 80

Q I am 79 years old and soon will be celebrating my 80th birthday. Although I am grateful to have lived this long I feel so different about this birthday. I recently dreamed that I was about to wander through an arch and at the last minute stopped, which is when I woke up with heart palpitations. Turning 80 makes me nervous. Could you speculate reasons for my apprehension in addition to the fact that for a woman, 80 is seriously getting old?

— S.J.

A Dear S.J.:

Congratulations for living almost 80 years. If you were born in 1900, you may not have celebrated an 80th birthday since average life expectancy was 47 years.

Today a woman at age 80, on average, can expect to live another 9.73 years, which would take you to almost 90 years. Note this is average.

Children are rather consistent in looking forward to their birthdays. They can’t wait to be a year older to have more freedom, privileges, independence and, of course, a driver’s license.

Adults often have less than enthusiastic reactions to their birthdays, particularly in later life. Reaching age 80 may trigger some trepidation when looking in a mirror and wondering, “Who is that person looking back at me?”

For others losing friends and family creates an awareness of one’s mortality, realizing that life is not a dress rehearsal. For others the age epiphany might be realized when slowing down a bit, having less energy and having a few aches and pains, wishing that a dose of WD-40 could lubricate the joints.

Then there is some data that sounds discouraging. Take mobility as an example.

A Consumer Reports survey noted that mobility decreases dramatically with age: 33 percent of their sample of those 80 years and older had difficulty walking and more than 25 percent had difficulty getting out of a chair.

That’s all the more reason to have healthy habits that can slow the aging process at any age. For example, regular physical activity can increase muscle mass, meaning one can get stronger with age. Learning anything new can create new neural pathways in our brain. Having friends and acquaintances can reduce risks of cognitive decline. Living with a sense of purpose can lead to greater longevity.

S.J., you are not alone in feeling uncomfortable. Here are some comments from women in later life and reasons they are concerned about getting older.

• “Will I have enough money to live to be 100?”

• “I feel I am getting closer to God’s waiting room.”

• “It takes me longer to recover from being sick.”

• “I sometimes struggle to find the right words.”

• “If people know my age, they will think I am old.”

• “I have more wrinkles.”

• “I don’t sleep as well.”

• “I have more years behind me than in front of me.”

• “My arms are getting baggy.”

One reason many of us have a knee-jerk reaction to turning 60, 70 or 80 is that we live in an anti-aging society that suggests we should never look our age and do everything we can to look younger.

This message is conveyed by magazines, newspapers, the entertainment industry, social media and comments such as, “She looks great for her age” or “She’s beautiful for an older woman.”

In addition to these messages, we have industries that remind us to dodge being older from Botox, Restylane, lotions and potions plus cosmetic surgery.

Some of that messaging is changing. Allure, an American women’s beauty magazine published by Conde Nast, announced it will no longer use the term “anti-aging.” Editor-in-chief Michelle Lee is quoted in the magazine as saying: “Whether we know it or not, we’re subtly reinforcing the message that aging is a condition we need to battle.”

The anti-aging mentality has been resisted by icons such as Norman Lear, Betty White and Carl Reiner — all in their mid-90s and loving their work.

What’s the message? Acknowledge that aging is a declining process; do whatever it takes to slow the process. Then take the advice of Lee: “Growing older is a wonderful thing, because it means that we get a chance, every day, to live a full, happy life.”

S.J., hope this helps. Have a fabulous 80th birthday and many more.

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