Wrinkly Brains, Jumping Jacks & Chillaxin’: The Gamble of Aging Gracefully

With the 2014 Alumni
Weekend rolling in and the thoroughfares of Claremont suddenly full of even more elderly and middle-age individuals, one question that has been on my mind between the increasing
intensity of both my classes and my social life is: What the hell am I going to look like at my 10th,
25th, or 50th college reunion? It’s a strange question for
a 20-something to ask because, in the context of our lives, getting older
is almost entirely positive. We go through puberty, we learn to drive, and we
get stronger and smarter throughout our teens and beyond. Indeed, peak mental
and physical maturity is typically considered to occur around age 24. But after
a half-decade or so of plateauing, our bodies will begin an inexorable decline.
For some of us, it will happen faster. For some of us, it will be marred by
disease. But no matter how it happens, it will happen to all of us, and most of us will be at our 50th reunion
entirely transformed.

Perhaps
the most common question that people our age ask about getting older is: What’s
the secret to doing it well? The answer to this is complicated and in many ways
out of our control, but first let’s talk about what it means to age. To begin with a simple definition: Aging is the process of growing old. Note that I say the process of growing old,
not older. Growing old includes the
gradual decline of the body’s physical functioning, a decline that encompasses every organ
system. Our immune system weakens, and we become more susceptible to disease.
Our skin stretches, sags, and grows wrinkly. Cognitively, our brain works a
little slower and a little less flexibly, though we don’t lose the knowledge
we’ve acquired over the years, which is why we associate age with wisdom.

Interestingly,
scientists are not sure why exactly these processes occur. We do know that
aging is controlled by our genes, so it’s not just a “wear and tear” process as
we once thought. Since our genes control our aging, we must assume that aging evolved.
That is, natural selection must have sustained the genes that cause aging by
making humans who had them more likely to reproduce. How could genes that
affect us after reproductive age possibly make reproduction more likely? Well,
that’s a great question, and if you could answer it rigorously, you’d be pretty
famous, at least in the world of science.

But
for anyone who is leery of the quality of their DNA, there is still hope. I recently
attended a talk by Dr. Perls and came away with a few take-home principles. The
first is clichéd to oblivion but still applies: You either use it or lose it.
Want to stay strong and upright into old age? Better keep exercising. Want your
mind to stay sharp? Keep it active by truly embracing the idea of lifelong
learning. (Side note: I have a 70-something auditor in my neurobiology class
who puts most of us to shame, so I know it can be done.)

The
second principle is also cliché, but it’s easy to forget for the high-achievers who populate the 5Cs: Stress kills.
Mental stress has negative effects on the entire body. Humans are designed to
feel occasional flashes of stress to keep us alive, but not stress that occurs
all day, every day. Find a way to manage and decrease your stress. (Hint: Exercise
is a potent stress-reducer, and it fulfills our first principle, too!) Remember too that stress comes in other ways; excess alcohol, fats, and carbohydrates
all put stress on your body, so do what you can to consume them in moderation.

Finally,
Dr. Perls drove home a pretty unexpected point. He talked about how people who
kept strong relationships with loved ones and maintained a positive outlook on
aging tended to age better and more slowly. Paraphrasing, people who love their
life tend to have more of it to enjoy. The idea of aging with positivity might
be tough to comprehend while we’re in our mental and physical prime. But we
must remember that there are many beautiful aspects of growing old. Nothing
surprises you when you’ve seen it all. People generally give you a pass when
you fart. And personally, I believe you can only understand this unique gift of
life once you’ve had enough time to experience it.

So
remember, keep your stress ball close, your exercise ball closer, and your
loved ones closest. Don’t sweat the small stuff, but make sure you’re sweating
at least three times a week. Find who and what fulfills you, and give as much
love as you can, to both yourself and the world. Do these things, and with a
little luck, you’ll have plenty of life to live.

Warren Szewczyk PO ’15 is a neuroscience major who also co-hosts the radio program Reality Check, which explores the intersection of science and the spirit. In his spare time, he is an avid writer of spoken-word poetry. 

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