In my library I have six books about how to age happily and successfully. (In case you think I am obsessed with that subject, I have over 100 books about China!) The writers are younger than me – some by decades. Most are in their early middle age. The oldest are in their 70’s.
If you read my post ‘Being Old is a Choice’, you will know how I approach aging. I believe in not thinking about it and getting on with life. Yet, there is a lot going on in science today; there is new research and new perspectives. But there are no books on the subject written by someone my age or older. That is odd because there are many examples of older people running marathons, skydiving, water-skiing, lecturing, and writing academic papers. In 2019 the AbeBooks Community forum published a list of authors by age. The oldest in the list, Boris Pahor, a poet and novelist living in Trieste, was born in 1913, making him 107 years old this year.
I believe that active older people do not have the time or interest in writing about age. They are too busy living their lives. But what do the younger writers say? They tend to look ahead towards being older. The books they write fall into two groups – those paying attention to the science of aging and those that deal with everyday life.
‘The Longevity Paradox’ by Steven Gundry identifies links between age-related ailments and gut bacteria. Dr Grundy outlines what he maintains are ‘good strategies for maintaining optimal life quality by supporting the body’s age-vulnerable microbiome.’ (Your microbiome is a massive ecosystem made of up trillions of organisms such as bacteria, yeasts, fungi, and viruses that live in your digestive tract. Collectively these weigh up to 2kg – heavier than the average human brain!) As this linked article shows, Dr Grundy’s theories are not without criticism. The book is interesting for the intriguing recipes it contains to make tasty meals from beans and lectins!
The blurb describing Suzanne Somers’ ‘A New way to Age’ starts:
At seventy-three years young, American sweetheart and health guru, Suzanne Somers, has written 27 books and established herself as a leading voice on anti-aging.
I have not seen or read any of Ms Somers other books. In this book, her interviews with leading scientists echo – and go further – than Dr Grundy’s preoccupation with the gut. If you follow the science, she says, you will be happier, healthier, and making the most of your life whatever age you are.
‘How not to Get Old’ by Jane Gordon is fun with serious messages. Jane is a journalist who suffered a bad car accident in her 60’s leaving her unable to care for herself for a time. She had to face what it might be like to be old and infirm. When she left hospital, she embarked on a series of year-long experiments to see what she could do to avoid getting old before her time. Her book covers her enquiries into everything from diet to exercise; from using her brain better, to the clothes she wears. She is funny, humble, instructive, and entertaining.
‘Extra Time’ by Camilla Cavendish is a fascinating, global, look at aging. She examines longevity in Japan, scientific breakthroughs and ‘wonder drugs’ in the USA, social conditions in Singapore. She looks at the science of brain neuroplasticity and talks to an 82-yearold professor in London, who just happens to be an endurance cyclist. She gets to understand how a good GP can help a patient start to lose weight in 20 seconds. She quotes a genetics professor in the UK:
There is nothing pre-determined about aging, there is no aging gene, it’s a matter of environment…
Her conclusions are that society must change to make the most of the reality: vibrant life expectancy is extending and will continue to do so. What is holding many of us back are outdated expectations of what being old means in the 21st century and beyond.
A book that appeals to me is ‘Keep it Moving’ by Twyla Tharp. She is a choreographer and active ballet dancer. She is happy to be 79. She writes:
‘Keep it Moving’ identifies a ‘disease’ and offers a cure. That disease is our fear of time passing and the aging process. The remedy? My book!
This is a practical book using real-life stories to make important points. She follows these with small exercises to help readers develop a more energetic and joyful approach to everyday life. Part therapist and part gym instructor, Twyla Tharp shows how mind and body should work together. Using the power of both enables us to make the most of whatever physical age we happen to be.
My most recent acquisition is a book by Andrew Steele published a few weeks ago – ‘Ageless, the new science of getting older without getting old’. Andrew Steele is a physicist turned biologist. He believes that biology is on the verge of solving aging symptoms. He opens with the story of Matilda, a Galapagos tortoise brought back to the UK by Charles Darwin in 1835. She died in 2006, at the age of 175, surviving Charles Darwin by over a century! Tortoises, along with various fish and reptiles, do not lose physical capacity as they age. Matilda, Steele says, was as active at 170 as she probably was at the age of 30 during the reign of the UK’s Queen Victoria. This may not say much as she was after all, a tortoise! This thought leads Andrew Steele to look at current research into anti-aging drugs and the longer-term possibilities that exist in, literally, reprogramming our biology. He believes that breakthroughs in both are not far away, given enough research and funding.
What to make of it all?
Ask yourself this: how many healthy people do you know over the age of, say 80, who are:
I doubt if you know anyone who is all three – and very few who are even one of those.
Everyone who understands health and aging agrees that keeping a correct weight, getting enough exercise and being energetic and happy at work or play are vital. Though not as important as weight, exercise, and energy, smoking and drinking alcohol also are better restrained. Eating a mixed diet is important too.
These are well known. I add one more ‘must-do’ … do not retire – ever. It is so important to stay part of the world in whatever way you can.
We should all be grateful for modern drugs. They have kept many people alive who would have died only 50 years ago. But have they prolonged their active lives or merely enabled them to ‘survive’? Vaccines will continue to control viruses and diseases (including COVID-19). Modern surgery has made astonishing progress and improved the quality of many lives. Pain killers undoubtedly reduce the negative mental effects of illnesses and accidents. They help us live active lives more comfortably.
We all benefit hugely from modern medical science. But can it help us with aging?
I am not a medical scientist. Yet, I am sceptical of believing too soon in anti-aging drugs or therapies. All the research so far shows that mind and body work together in our diseases and in our health. Reprogramming our DNA or taking a super pill each day will not be effective if we are still unhappy, lazy, or overweight.
One other medical book seems important to me. It does not mention age or aging. It contains no modern research. It is full of references to mysterious compounds. The treatments described are thousands of years old and, to western readers, sometimes bizarre. This book is ‘The Complete Book of Chinese Medicine’ by Wong Kiew Kit. Its sub-title is ‘A holistic approach to physical, emotional and mental health.’
The book explains the theories and practices of Chinese medicine. The over-riding principle is the ‘whole person’ approach. Hence there is no mention of aging; on its own it is irrelevant. Chinese medicine has treatments for physical, emotional, and mental health because mind and body are inextricably linked. If you are anxious for example, the cause may lie in your kidneys. Obesity can arise through hormonal imbalances and cured by specific trestments.
What is important about Chinese medicine, whether its specific techniques are effective or not, is that mind and body work together – in both illness and return to health. Western medicine recognises this too, but we have become accustomed to products and techniques that address specific issues. These generally work superbly – for the purpose for which they are intended. But often, ‘side’ issues are left to other specialists.
Like other cultural differences, the debate between Chinese and Western medicine is full of doubts, mistrust and, occasionally, respect. At their best, as with all cultural differences, both schools of thought acknowledge the merits of the other.
We have a long way to go to understand, let alone deal with aging. It is possible that we never will. Reviving frozen corpses, regeneration tanks, extreme lifespans belong, at present, in science fiction.
Meanwhile, we have choices. We accept the popular norms about getting older and face our lives closing in. Or we choose to enjoy the many benefits that getting older brings and make the most of them.
I know which I prefer!