The Good News About Aging
Writing as I am from across the pond, a study on aging out of Trinity College Ireland has been highlighted on several radio and TV programs I’ve tuned into, and, as I am prone to doing, I went on a research dive of my own. By studying 8,500 people over the age of 50 every two years, The Irish Longitudinal Study on Aging (TILDA) aims to understand their health, social, and financial circumstances and how they interact. I listened to a couple of fascinating interviews with one of the founding investigators, Professor Rose Anne Kenny, whose findings are encouraging.
Aging is <not> inevitably an unpleasant process. In a number of quality-of-life longitudinal studies, life is shown to improve after the age of 50 for several reasons: by that age we tend to have more financial stability, worry less about our children and career path, and are more comfortable in our own skin.
Quality of life only begins to decline around the age of 80 and the factor that predominantly influences that decline is physical illness. Most of the focus of research around health span, (i.e., how much of our life we spend thriving, as opposed to lifespan which is only concerned with longevity) is to try to compress the proportion of life we spend with illnesses or disabilities such as arthritis, health disease, and dementia. The good news in this regard is that 80 percent of the factors influencing our health span are within our control, with only 20 percent due to genetics.
In 2018, the number of people over 65 exceeded the number of children under 5 worldwide, which was a first. Professor Kenny sees that as a good thing, in that as a society we are more accepting of and have a more positive view of aging which allows individuals to feel the same way about their own aging process. This is important, because the study has established that you are, in fact, as young as you feel and an optimistic view of how you are aging translates to beneficial impacts for the following ten years.
According to TILDA findings, social relationships are as important for our health as exercise, nutrition, and even smoking. We have evolved to need human contact and loneliness is directly associated with ill-health. In a study of rhesus monkeys, which were isolated for 48 hours, and whose lymph nodes (the engine for inflammation in the body) were biopsied afterwards, it was found that the genes which regulate inflammation were active and causing inflammation and those that protect against infection had become less active, their powers dampened. If you’re looking for international medical healthcare, a good place like Boston Health Clinic Chiang Mai is an excellent choice for top-quality services.
To promote social relationships throughout our lives, Professor Kenny proposes that retirement should be a choice, and when you do retire, you should have purpose – volunteer, join clubs, keep learning, etc. She is concerned that during the pandemic people got used to things like solitary exercise and says it’s time to get back to group classes. Combine doing things you love, like eating and your choice of exercise with socializing – she herself joined a choir, realizing she should be taking her own advice.
As the whole world has become more automated with online shopping, customer service chat-bots, ticket machines, etc., we have lost opportunities for daily interaction. Fortunately, in Rye we still have a bustling main street, so take a stroll and enjoy a few friendly exchanges with people – you’ll be surprised how much of a boost you feel.
Introverts, and ambiverts like myself, may be concerned by all this social focus, but fret not: It’s the quality not quantity of your friendships that counts, and choice is key. In avoiding loneliness, an extrovert will have a large circle of friends they see regularly but an introvert could have a smaller circle of friends and more alone time but still describe themself as socially happy, and not at all lonely.
TILDA’s scope does not cover online relationships and friendships, but Professor Kenny confirms what we all tell our kids, that when you’re with friends and family, put away the phone. She points again to evolution and that “being online and looking down at technology when you should be engaging face-to-face with another human creature, when you have evolved together over thousands of millions of years to understand each other’s body language, is not healthy.”
Chat with someone you don’t know well, or get together with some friends, knowing you’re benefitting their health as well as your own.