Why are some people old at 50, while others are spring chickens well into the nineties and beyond? Good genes play a part in aging well, as do healthy lifestyle habits like getting enough sleep, eating well and exercising regularly.
But what about the thoughts we think?
According to Bruce Grierson, author of What Makes Olga Run, they count just as much, if not more. In his TEDx talk Grierson draws on cutting-edge research as well as his time spent with nonagenarian athletic superstar, Olga Kotelko, to determine why some people age more slowly than others.
So, What Made Olga Run?
Olga passed away at the age of 94, having accumulated over 700 gold medals and 26 world records in her age category. She lived a fuller, more active life than most of us can even begin to imagine. How the heck did she do it?
It comes down to mindset. At 90 Olga claimed to feel like a 50-year-old. She simply decided not to drink the cultural kool aid and become a wizened old lady.
Olga never doubted her ability to compete at an elite level well into her nineties. In her own words, “I do it because I can do it.”
Olga thought conventional limits (shrinking muscle mass, thinning bones, etc.) were illusory. She’s proof that the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves matter. A lot.
The way we think about aging matters a great deal, too. If you ‘expect’ your eyesight to deteriorate simply because you turned 40, it probably will.
Becca Levy, a psychologist at Yale, analysed data from 100s of seniors collected over 25 years. She found that one’s attitude towards aging determines how long you’ll live. People with a more positive outlook and who aren’t afraid of aging, live an average 7.5 years longer.
In 1981 a young psychologist named Ellen Langer accompanied eight men in their 70s to a converted monastery in New Hampshire. Her aim? To prove that age is just a mindset.
Everything in the environment reflected the bygone era of their youth, it was as if they’d been transported back to 1959. However, more than simply inhabit their temporary home, Langer encouraged her subjects to truly live it.
The results were astounding. Their hearing improved, their eyesight improved, even their grip strength showed signs of improvement. They were also more supple and sat taller. All because they’re been exposed to youth primes.
“The upshot,” concludes Grierson, “is that if you can find a way to believe something other than what your birth certificate is telling you, your body will respond accordingly.”
Healthy aging requires a multifaceted approach that includes eating well and embracing an active and social lifestyle. The sprightly old folks residing in Blue Zones are living proof of this. (If you want to live to 100+ you only have to look to them for inspiration.)
But equally important, if not more so, is our mindset. The thoughts we think, the things we say and the attitudes we adopt about growing older. Of course life can dish up unexpected circumstances, but it’s up to us to make the best of them.
If the only thing standing between me and a zimmer frame is a positive attitude, I’m going to do my best to remain upbeat no matter what. If this feisty group of octogenarian cheerleaders can find happiness in old age, so can the rest of us.
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