Successful Aging: Why acting your age may not be all it’s cracked up to be
I am a 75-year old woman who fortunately has the opportunity to continue working. Being self-employed helps. I am not always available to get together (safe distance, of course) with friends because of several consulting projects and some volunteer work. One friend recently said to me, “The problem is that you think you still are 60.” Essentially, she was saying, “act your age.” I found this disturbing. So, what does “act your age” mean to a 75-year-old woman? D.N
Unfortunately, even in our somewhat enlightened age, people have expectations of what older men and women should look like, act like, and think like, according to their age.
Each of us experience aging in a different way. Many feel older or younger than their actual or chronological age. This is their subjective age, meaning how old they feel. How we perceive our own aging is important since it may have an impact on the number of years we will live as well as predict the level of our health in later life.
Feeling younger than your chronological age has some benefits. These folks typically are healthier and more psychologically resilient than those who feel older than their chronological age, as reported by Emily Laber-Warren in the New York Times. Additionally, they perform better on memory tests and have a lower risk of cognitive decline compared to those who feel older than their chronological age.
There may be a physiological basis to this lessened risk of cognitive decline. An interesting study by a team of South Korean researchers conducted brain scans of 68 healthy older adults. They found those who felt younger than their actual age had thicker brain matter and less deterioration due to age. Those who felt older than their actual age had an increased risk for hospitalization, dementia and death. Note, this is only one study and does not suggest that feeling younger is a direct cause of better health. The studies on subjective aging are based on the association between how older people feel and their actual health status. However, it does draw attention to linking how we feel about our own aging and possible implications for our physical and mental health.
One might assume that someone who feels younger than their age has a positive view of aging which can be an advantage. Beca Levy, professor of epidemiology and psychology at the Yale School of Public Health, found that people who had a positive view of aging lived about seven-and-a-half years longer than those who had a negative view of aging.
Here are some examples that defy the notion of acting your age, which relies on age stereotypes:
Entrepreneurship: A 2019 reported entitled “Kauffman Indicators of Entrepreneurship” found that 38 percent of those aged 55-65 started a new business. Furthermore, the percent of new entrepreneurs who created a business by choice rather than necessity in the 55-to-64 age range was just over 88 percent. This was higher than any other age group.
Broadcast journalism: Warren Olney, age 83, has been a fixture in Los Angeles broadcast journalism. For 24 years, he hosted “Which Way L.A.?” When asked, “Why not retire?” He responded, “I don’t know what retiring means. I love doing the work I do,” as quoted in the Los Angeles Business Journal.
Advocacy: Gloria Steinem, age 86, is considered the architect of the women’s movement. The New York Times had a Sept. 20, 2020 story with the headline, “Gloria Steinem is nowhere done with being an activist.”
Education: Joe Saltzman, age 80 and professor of USC Annenberg School of Journalism and Communications, was asked why he is not retiring. He replied, “It’s a cliché, but the trick of never having to work a day in your life is to always do something you love,” again as quoted in the Los Angeles Business Journal.
Women’s Business. On a local level. Elaine Macy shared her story. She left her job as an executive vice president for a large hotel company. At age 70, “with two amazing partners in their 60s,” she opened a new business, Reiimagine, that provides comprehensive sales support to luxury hotels and resorts around the world.” Macy is president.
When you think about it, if being older were not considered negative, we would have no reason to say, “I feel younger than my age.” We have a lot of work to do to change attitudes.
D.N., You raised an important question. Thank you and stay true to your instincts and values, while making some time for friends. That’s also important. Above all, stay safe and well.
Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging, employment and the new retirement with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience. Contact Helen with your questions and comments at Helendenn@gmail.com. Visit Helen at HelenMdennis.com and follow her on facebook.com/SuccessfulagingCommunity