Wednesday, April 07, 2010

On growing old

One is never too old for the internet. Olive Riley, an Australian woman believed to have been the world’s oldest blogger, started her blog, The Life of Riley, in February 2007, at the age of 107.

With a little help from a friend, Olive, who could not see well enough to type, posted over 70 entries and several video posts on You Tube. She made her final post on June 26, 2008, at her nursing home in Woy Woy, New South Wales, two weeks before she died at the age of 108.

So many individuals have become famous in old age. The American folk artist Grandma Moses took up painting when she was 75, and painted 1,600 paintings by her death at the age of 101. Enrico Dandolo, the 41st Doge of Venice from 1195 until his death, led the infamous Fourth Crusade in his 80s. Harry Bernstein published his first book, The Invisible Wall, at 96 in 2007. When his wife Ruby died in 2007 after 67 years of marriage, loneliness devastated Harry and he used that as the catalyst in writing his first book. He has since published two more books and continues to write.

Arthur Winston, who at age 100 retired from his job at the Los Angeles Metro after 72 years, missed only one day at his work. That happened when he had to attend his wife’s funeral in 1988. There are many others, all octogenarians and centenarians, who did well in their golden years.

Being old is never a burden to society. The Chinese, for example, take the usefulness of experience to the extreme. In their gerontocracy, no one under 75 is regarded as yet fit for power. For the Chinese, time induces perspective. When the late Chinese leader Zhou En Lai was asked whether he thought the French Revolution was a good thing, he paused, and then said: “It’s too soon to say.”

If aging brings wrinkles, sagging bodies and increasing episodes of forgetfulness, getting older may not really be bad at all. There is evidence to support that aging may be a key to happiness. Despite conflicting results from research studies on aging, most experts say it may boil down to this: Attitude is everything.

Research shows that older adults tend to be more optimistic and to have a positive outlook than their young and more stressed counterparts. This observation is very important in light of increase in life expectancy.

A research published by Yang Yang, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, suggests that an increase in the years of happy life for people over 65 accompanied the increase in life expectancy on the average. The big question is, why are older people happier?

A more recent study suggests one reason why: older adults remember the past through a rosy lens. In other words, they tend to have rose-coloured memories. Optimism also lends itself well to old age. In one study, both old and young participants were shown virtual faces portraying sadness, anger, fear and happiness. Eye-tracking technology showed the participants aged 18 to 21 focused more on the fearful faces, while those aged 57 to 84 zeroed in on the happy faces, avoiding the angry ones.

In general, the studies suggest that older adults enjoy life when they are more comfortable with themselves and their roles in society. More than a majority of participants in the studies said they were enjoying more time with their family. About two-thirds reported more time for hobbies, more financial security, and not having to work, as benefits of old age.

Although there were conflicting findings about aging and happiness, the good news is that there doesn’t appear to be a limit to how much happiness one can achieve in one’s life. It’s all about attitude, the studies would seem to agree.

Which brings us to the other notion, that of dying of old age. Many grandparents have died of old age, but doctors remain woefully unable to explain how the advanced years kill poor Grandpa or Grandma. Perhaps, they attribute an elderly person’s death to old age because there is no other obvious explanation.

It’s true that there is a fixed limit to the human lifespan. Still, the human body doesn’t just grind to a halt after reaching a certain age.

A study conducted at the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Vienna showed that in many cases, elderly deaths are pinned to old age because no one looked very hard for the true cause. After scores of people who died after age 80 were autopsied, the study found that the 40 centenarians who died at home, while they all looked healthy and seemed to be healthy, they were not. The study found disease in every case, such as cardiovascular problems and respiratory illnesses.

So, it is disease that is ultimately to blame for death at old age. However, a downward spiral that leaves an older person particularly vulnerable often precedes this. The new science on frailty is helping explain symptoms that come with aging like weight loss, decreased muscle mass and strength, weakness, lack of energy, and reduced motor performance. Frailty seems to spring from a general weakening of the body, including the skeletal, muscular, blood and neuroendocrine systems. Thus, frailty may be the answer to who is going to die in the short term.

Because autopsies are rarely done on old people, this makes it difficult for doctors to ascertain the true cause of death or to learn from their mistakes. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, postmortem examination is quality control in medicine. If only autopsies were more common, fewer deaths would be attributed to old age. Dying of old age could be an old wives’ tale. Finding out the real cause of grandma or grandpa’s death might also yield clues about how all of us could live longer.

Certainly, we all can learn a lot from the lives of older people. As the French moralist and essayist Joseph Joubert said: “Life is a country that the old have seen, and live in; those who have yet to travel through it can only learn the way from them.”

This reminds me of a good and bad news story I heard before.

An old man visits his doctor and after a thorough examination, the doctor tells him: “I have good news and bad news, what would you like to hear first?”

Patient: “Well, give me the bad news first.”

Doctor: “You have cancer. I estimate that you have about two years left.”

Patient: “OH NO! That’s awful! In two years, my life will be over! What kind of good news could you probably tell me, after this?”

Doctor: “You also have Alzheimer’s. In about three months you are going to forget everything I told you.”

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