Ageism is a vicious stereotype, devoid of any scientific basis.
Your age is not what the calendar says. It is not how long you have lived. It is how old your body is. It is how biologically healthy you are.
Well-known medical doctor and health guru Dr. Deepak Chopra identifies three different ways to characterize a person’s age: Chronological age is what your birth certificate says. Biological age is how well your physiological systems are functioning, the most important component of the aging process; this is your actual age. Finally, psychological age is your subjective experience of how old you feel or how old you think you are.
Our actual or real age is our biological condition, the state of our physiological systems. These include aerobic capacity, antioxidant levels, auditory threshold, blood pressure, blood sugar regulation, body fat, bone density, cholesterol and lipid levels, hormonal levels, immune function, metabolic activity, muscle mass, muscle strength, skin thickness, temperature regulation, visual threshold.
Our real age is not the number of years we have existed on this planet, but how healthy these systems are. You may be 70 chronologically, but if your blood pressure is 120/80, fasting blood sugar is 90, bone mass is 40- to 50-year old, and you are not on maintenance at all, you are not really 70. You could be a much younger person. Your actual age could be anywhere from 50 to 60 years old or even younger, biologically speaking.
On the other hand, though you may just be 40 in calendar years but have abused your body through eating processed foods, too much sugar and trans fats, leading a sedentary lifestyle, and having couch potato habits, obesity, irregular sleep, polluted air, negative thoughts and chronic stress, your actual age could be 50 or older. You will really look much older.
Chronological and biological age do not necessarily coincide. Ideally, your body should be much younger than what your birth certificate says. Unfortunately, in many real age tests, most people’s biological age is often several years older than their chronological age.
This is the result of years of neglect, of failing to care for our bodies from the time we were much younger. Slowly but surely, our health becomes impaired until our bodies become old and weak too soon, making us look like senior citizens even before we are 60.
Prerequisites for good health
If we want our real age to be much younger than our calendar age, we have to attend well to our physiological needs, faithfully following prerequisites of good health: restful awareness, deep sleep, healthy food, exercise, eliminating toxins and using nutritional complements wisely.
It is important to understand that the mind and the body influence one another. Mind-body integration is a must to achieve a youthful condition. Dr. Chopra advises us to cultivate flexibility, creativity and love.
That love is a psycho-physical phenomenon that it is not merely an affair of the passions, and can dramatically affect our physical condition, for better or for worse. From a 75-year Harvard study, one of the longest longitudinal studies ever conducted, one clear message is that the biggest predictor of your happiness and fulfillment overall in life is, basically, love.
Cultivating positive feelings like kindness, affection, compassion, gratitude and hope have been found to strengthen our resistance to diseases. Human immune systems function well only when basic emotional needs are met.
This brings us to the third way to characterize a person’s age, psychological age or how old you think you are. This is a crucial dimension of the aging process because it has a direct effect on our biological condition.
If we think we are old when we reach the calendar age of 60 or when we reach retirement age, we stop vigorous physical activity, thinking we might be too old for it. So, because of lack of physical activity, the body deteriorates and paves the way for disease and organ failure.
And because the mind has also retired, we will no longer challenge it to learn new things and acquire new skills. It will succumb to a weakening of the faculties, memory loss, and possibly dementia.
Contrary to popular belief, old age does not necessarily entail memory loss. It happens only because we cease to engage the mind to think, create and hurdle problems and difficulties.
Sense of entitlement
You will find a lot of senior citizens who are not really infirm, but their senior status gives them an unhealthy sense of entitlement. They feel it is their privilege to be seated first, to not remain standing, to be given way to when boarding trains or paying for merchandise.
Out of respect for their seniority, younger people pamper them with such privileges, and the state gives them preference in many things. But if these senior citizens are not really infirm and strong enough to move around, they should not err on the side of comfort and sedentary ways.
If they insist on these privileges, soon they will suffer from infirmities because of lack of exercise. Their bodies will eventually become older than their calendar age. Some retirees I know think that being senior citizens, they should have the privilege of being pushed in a wheel chair from the departure area of the airport to the waiting plane, even when they can very well walk all the way. With this mindset, they are courting infirmities.
Thus, the key to maintaining a youthful body is to maintain a youthful mind. If you think you are old, you will no longer treat your body as a workhorse. You will inhibit yourself from vigorous physical activity. Very soon it will really become old. It is the same with the mind; if you no longer challenge it, it will deteriorate.
A wise piece of advice is, “What you don’t use, you lose.” If you do not use your car for one year, you won’t be able to start it. This holds true for your mind and body. If you fail to put your body and mind to work for a long time, your muscles will become flabby and soft. Your thinking ability will decline. You can only maintain physical and mental fitness through constant activity.
As a rule, avoid comfort and convenience if it’s not really necessary. Choose “discomfort” or the harder way as long as you do not force your body or risk your safety. Take the stairs, not the escalator or the elevator. Walk rather than ride. Ride a bike to work if safe. Do regular exercises, intermittent fasting. Refrain from eating junk food. Eat nutrient-rich food, natural rather than processed. Eat more vegetables and fruits than fish, red meat and chicken. Drink plenty of clean water and get enough sleep. Bask in nature, sunlight and air. Engage in social activities. Develop a positive attitude and a sense of purpose.
All of these are good for the immune system. If you heed such advice from Chopra at the earliest possible time, your body will age very slowly. When your calendar age reaches 80, you could be only 65 or younger biologically.
And, surprisingly, even when your body has become old because of neglect, Chopra says that you can still reverse your biological age to make your body 10 to 15 years younger if you rigorously adhere to a healthy lifestyle.
Thus, it is very clear that ageing is not a mechanical, automatic process. Not all people age at the same rate. That is why thinking that people who reach the calendar age of 60 are already old is a vicious stereotype, without any scientific basis. It is a social crime to restrict the movements of these exceptional individuals due to a misguided notion of age. They may even have stronger immunity to viruses than chronologically younger people who have not cared for their bodies well.
The risk of dying from new coronavirus disease (COVID-19) for older adults, based on studies, is 3-5 percent for those in the age bracket 65-74, 4-11 percent for those 75 to 84, and 10-27 percent for those 85 years old and above. What about the rest of those who became infected but survived? If the mortality rate for those 85 and above is 10-27 percent, that means 73 percent got well, and among them are those whose bodies are much younger than their chronological age.
Not all elderly are “high-risk” just because of their chronological age. They are “high-risk” because of preexisting ill health that makes them especially vulnerable to the virus. They are already “sickly” to begin with, even before the pandemic struck. They are the ones who were not informed enough about or ignored the call for a healthy lifestyle.
To quote sociologist-social critic Randy David, we have to “protest any policy that equates old age with sickness. This cruel discriminatory attitude is called ‘ageism’—the systematic stereotyping of people based solely on (calendar) age. All over the world, a growing number of people enter their advanced years—sometimes way past their 80s—in reasonably good health, free from the ravages of chronic illness.”
Indeed, to restrict the freedoms of 60- to 90-year olds in good health is to condemn them to unhealthy conditions—a sedentary lifestyle and social isolation—that will make them even more susceptible to the very pandemic we are protecting them from.
We must be able to devise a way to categorize people not according to chronological age, but according to their real age, their biological health. Social justice demands no less. —CONTRIBUTED
“Loneliness kills. It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.” — Robert Waldinger
The author is a cultural ecologist, scholar and composer. He is the head of the NCCA’s Committee on Music and teaches Cultural Ecology at the Asian Social Institute (a graduate school for sociology and anthropology students).