If you think that getting older is the beginning of the end, think again. Sure, skin loses some elasticity and joints get creaky, and maybe you can't keep your eyes open past 9:30 p.m. But even people well into their 80s are going to yoga and Pilates classes, volunteering, having sex and taking college courses. In short, getting older has its upside.
Don't believe it? Then listen to these experts. John Murphy is a Brown University Medical School professor and expert on geriatrics, and Cheryl Phillips is chief medical officer of On Lok, a nonprofit organization in San Francisco that advocates for the elderly and for long-term care. Here's what they had to say about aging, in separate interviews:
What gets better as you age?
Murphy: Memories and stories get better. I think that past recollections, which are so much richer than in my younger patients, can really flavor how (older people) respond to new occurrences in life. Seniors generally identify quality of life as good. As we age, we each start to develop a sense of perspective that makes us more valuable in contributing to society.
A couple of weeks ago, I spoke with two seniors who recalled the 1918 influenza outbreak; one was in New York, one was in Berlin. To hear them, what it was like then, certainly they put the panic . . . and the H1N1 (flu) in perspective.
Phillips: Very often, as people age, they will describe a much broader network of family and friends. There is an opportunity to expand that network, adding new friends and family.
If you look at aging as a series of losses — strength, hearing, eyesight, friends, time — people will get depressed and see it as a negative. If they see it as new opportunities — historian of family experiences and a new opportunity to travel — they will embrace it.
Language skills continue to improve into our 40s and 50s. Skills that depend on strategy and learning get better in our middle age. Not only do we have experience to build from, but also our brains store learned patterns. We know, for example, that people are better drivers in their 30s and 40s than in their teens and early 20s: Just ask the insurance companies.
Many sports that require repetitive actions and thus learned muscle responses also get better. Peak athletic performance is in the late 20s and early 30s, but it is often later than that when we best learn how to discipline ourselves, use better thinking and strategy planning and be more observant.
What about sex?
Murphy: The fact that older individuals are asexual is a myth. Older individuals continue to have sexual activity with whatever gender they've been sexually active with in their youth. And the benefits are the same: physical, psychological and sociological. It's an important part of life regardless of age.
Phillips: Seniors are still sexually active. There's a new image of seniors: What does Grandpa do when Grandma dies, and you start to see him with a new woman? Sex is as important to maintenance of the psyche as any other aspect of life.
What gets worse as you age?
Murphy: The risk of developing a number of diseases increases. Risk of fractures for women in their 60s, much later for men. Hearing declines with exposure to noise. A person may have osteoporosis, so walking four blocks to the grocery store gets harder. Kidney function gradually declines. Your risk of having memory problems increases with age.
Phillips: Strength does decline with age, as well as vision, hearing. You may have more body fat and less muscle. . . . Yeah, sure, they can't ride a bike as fast as they used to, but they still describe their lives as very rich.