Can Thoughts Make You Older? by Anne Kreamer

What words would you associate with being old? I asked a few people recently, and here are just some of the words they used:  fuddy-duddy, not fresh, decrepit, sad, wrinkly, tired, stiff, brittle, unhappy, invisible, obsolete, diminished, fat, fragile, cranky, and marginalized. Wise and experienced were the two positive words that came up, but only after I pushed to see if there might be anything good about getting older. What's wrong with this picture?

According to a report published in the Bottom Line Health Newsletter, by Becca Levy, Ph.D. from the Yale School of Public Health, it is not an idle question, and how you answer it is clearly linked to your health.

In a variety of different kinds of tests, Yale researchers studied what effect perceptual issues about aging might have on health.


First, they asked a group of septuagenarians what words they used to describe an old person. According to Levy's article, they discovered that "those who had stereotypes like ‘feeble' and ‘senile' had significantly more hearing loss than those who had positive associations with age such as ‘wise' and ‘active.'"

In a different study, the researchers followed the recovery patterns of recent heart attack patients and found that those who thought about aging in a more positive way recovered more quickly and successfully.

In an activity as simple as walking, the Yale team's research revealed that even when playing with stereotypes on an extremely subtle level by subliminally flashing words like "alert" or "mature" to one group and "senile" or "decrepit" to another resulted in the participants in the positive group subsequently walking faster and with better balance.

Levy believes these negative stereotypes of aging are so deeply entrenched in our culture that we are oblivious to them. And rejecting them is not a PC thing - it's a selfish means to living better.

Levy believes that "becoming aware of their presence in everyday life is a first step toward questioning their validity." She suggests that keeping a journal to become more sensitized to positive images and embodiments of aging could have significant health benefits.

Here are some further suggestions:

1. Become aware when you automatically default into a negative stereotype about getting old.

2. Create a roster of older people whom you admire - Nelson Mandela, Toni Morrison, Jane Goodall, Paul Newman, Betty Ford, Madeline Albright, George H.W. Bush, Joan Didion, Maya Angelou, John Updike, Judi Dench.

3. Really understand that a balanced view of aging can help you change your attitude in a way that can make a difference in the long-term quality of your life.

Don't Worry, Be Happy (and Honestly Older) by Anne Kreamer

"Just as darkness is sometimes defined as the absence of light, so age is defined as the absence of youth. Age is assessed not by what it is, but by what it is not." When I read this the other day, written in 1993 by Betty Friedan in her extraordinary book, The Fountain of Age, I realized that even as we 77 million boomers are now clearly in our "middle" years, the pressure to be and look youthful has gotten even more ferocious since Friedan made her observation.

An Avon Global Women’s Survey discovered that 80 percent of women ages 15 to 24 – yes, most teenagers - believe that they are already experiencing signs of aging. This cannot end well.

If kids are freaking out that they look old, they deny themselves the pleasures of actually being young. And if older people feel driven to appear young, they shut themselves off from essential emotional growth in maturity.

"An accurate, realistic, active identification with one’s own aging – as opposed both to resignation to the stereotype of being 'old' and denial of age changes," according to Freidan, "seems an important key to vital aging, and even longevity."

In The Fountain of Age, Friedan cited the studies of Margaret Clark of the Langley Porter Neuropsychiatric Institute in San Francisco to underscore her insight.  Clark found that "those who held most tenaciously to certain values of their youth were the most likely candidates for psychiatric breakdown in age. The self-esteem of the healthy older group seemed linked to 'the fruitfulness of a search for meaning in one’s life in the later years,' as compared to the mentally ill, who were still pursuing the values of their youth.  The healthy group had a broader perspective, which they call by different names: wisdom, maturity, peacefulness, or mellowing."

Dr. Andrew Weil’s take in his book, "Healthy Aging," is similar: "If aging is written into the laws of the universe, then acceptance of it must be a prerequisite for doing it in a graceful way. Yet nonacceptance of aging seems to be the rule in our society, not the exception. A great many people try to deny its reality and progress. Two of the most obvious ways of doing so are the use of cosmetic products and cosmetic surgery."

His ultimate conclusion is that to deny aging is to deny ourselves access to a deeply nourishing experience. "Because aging reminds us of our own mortality, it can be a primary stimulus to spiritual awakening and growth."

And the gerontologist Robert Kastenbaum suggests that "holding onto youth and the denial of age leads to mental and emotional 'stagnation.'"

When all of the experts suggest that our later years are a time for spiritual and emotional growth and that that growth is not only virtuous but actually leads to better physical health, it seems to me that it is time for us boomers to ignore the youth-obsessed marketing that our generation triggered 40 years ago, and to begin embracing the beauty in age.

Growing New Brain Cells As We Age by Anne Kreamer

We’ve all seen the cartoon timeline illustrating the stages of life – you know, the one that starts with a baby crawling, then tottering around, gradually walking upright, growing tall, then, as we age, slumping over, and walking with a cane until eventually we become helpless and baby-like again. But what if that whole cycle of life thing isn’t quite right? What if we actually continue to grow, not diminish, as we age? One thing in particular caught my attention in "Inventing the Rest of our Lives," Suzanne Braun Levine’s examination of life after 50. “Recent research,” she wrote, "shows for the first time that we and adolescents – and no other age group – experience new brain growth."

Dr. Francine Benes, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, happened on the discovery of new synapses while studying schizophrenia in adolescents. According to Levine, the growth identified in Benes’ study, "takes place in the medial temporal lobe, the area that is identified with emotional learning."

"The actual new growth is in myelin, the fatty coating to nerve fibers that insulates and speeds up connections between nerve cells. This augmented brain activity plays a crucial role in helping us synthesize what experience teaches, and it enhances our ability to make considered judgment calls."

"As I see it," Levine wrote, "the same process that accounts for the transformation of impulsive and irresponsible teenagers into thoughtful adults comes back for an encore at midlife, just in time to make us even more thoughtful – dare I say wise?"

More than half a century ago, Erik Erikson identified eight major stages of our psychosocial development - and in the seventh, adult stage, he suggests that our primary motivation is toward "generativity," or a concern in guiding the next generation. How interesting to think that this psychological need to mentor might have a neurological benefit.

When a Money magazine survey of 3,000 boomers reported, "what’s in is volunteerism. Boomers already have the highest volunteer rate of any cohort in the population," I thought, of course, our need to volunteer illustrates a beneficial link between physiology, emotion and action.

I think this is really exciting. The 1960s and '70s idealism of our adolescence and young adulthood can flower again. I’m standing taller already.

Technology Catching Up to Needs of Seniors by Anne Kreamer

Older people are stereotypically depicted as technophobes or out of it when it comes to the cutting edge and the new. But a recent article in ID magazine suggests that we 21st century elderly may have as much or more to gain as anyone from the high tech near future. Juanita Dugdale writes that "the next decades may prove to be the first time in history when it will be really interesting, if not downright cool, to grow old, especially for technophiles. Since 2000, the global race to develop high-tech solutions for problems challenging the elderly has accelerated, particularly where critical shortages of caregivers already exist, as in Asia."

She describes several products already on the market in Japan. "Paro is a robotic baby seal claimed by its inventor to soothe anxious nursing-home patients as effectively as traditional pet therapy...Ri-Man is an interactive robot resembling a giant soft toy that's able to lift an incapacitated patient, sense smells, follow sounds, and track faces."

In the U.S., hospitals are using Tug, a robotic indoor tracking system, and RP-7, a robot that "links off-site specialists with staff doctors at 21 Michigan hospitals around the clock." Carnegie Mellon is developing a robot called the Hug that the elderly could hold, like a plush toy, and receive gentle sounds and vibrations.

MIT has created an in-house group, AgeLab, that has "developed a spectrum of products and services intended to help seniors perform specific tasks better, such as continuing to drive safely, managing prescriptions, or make shopping decisions."

I do imagine all of us are thinking about how we can manage to age by being as slight a burden on our families as possible. I'd rather hug a person or a puppy than a robot any day of the week, but if that robot will also help me deal with the infirmities that I hope I live long enough to come my way, then I'll welcome any Jetsonian Rosie or Astro into my house with open arms. And while they take care of business, I can walk the real dog.


Aging and How to Have it Both Ways by Anne Kreamer

Not long ago the front page of the Styles section in the New York Times ran the following two headlines side by side: "Listen Up, Everybody: I'm in Menopause," and, "'omg, my mom joined facebook!!'" After I stopped chuckling, I realized that the two stories perfectly captured the current emotional spectrum of my life.

Elizabeth Hayt was reporting on women who actually "flaunt their menopausal symptoms. If they are not erupting in the literal heat of the moment, they are flinging wisecracks, adopting a single-sex argot comprising wry, offhanded quips and punctuated by knowing winks and nudges."

Michelle Slatalla, on the other hand, a woman of a certain age herself, was describing her newfound commitment to avoid becoming an old-fogey Luddite. She had joined Facebook. And her teenaged daughter busted her with an IM saying, "wayyy creepy, why did you make one! You won't get away with this....everyone in the whole world thinks its super creepy when adults have facebooks."

Weird, my husband just joined Facebook and that's pretty much exactly what our youngest daughter said to him.

I get it: my generation came of age rejecting the trappings of the one that preceded ours, and being young (but not a child) was empowering and liberating and thrilling. And now that we are undeniably not young - the oldest of the 77 million boomers are now 61 - how do we deal?

On the one hand, legitimacy often comes from public acknowledgment. If we talk publicly and loudly about menopause, maybe it loses its cultural ick factor, and we validate our rite of passage.

But we also cannot bear to feel out of it. So we struggle to find our places in the lightning speed shifts within the techno-world.  And while these two impulses - shout out to the world that we're getting older, and also trying to stay with it - might seem contradictory, they both are healthy ways to approach aging.

Women bonding together to simply joke about their menopausal conditions generates solidarity and reassurance. And a sense of community is central to healthy aging.

A few years ago, the University of Chicago's Louise Hawkley and John Cacioppo published a paper, "Loneliness is a Unique Predictor of Age-Related Differences in Systolic Blood Pressure," in the journal Psychology and Aging, that tells you everything you need to know in its title.

And joining Facebook is a twofer. Community and novelty. I'm not sure figuring out how to post something on an acquaintance's wall or "poking" some friend of a friend will lower your brain age, as Nintendo promises with their Brain Game, but it has to keep us more mentally nimble and more connected to the world, and those are proven ways to help us age more contentedly.

Aging With Grace by Anne Kreamer

FIGURING OUT THE CHALLENGE of aging with grace is a tricky business. If you had to bet who was happier with their body, a 40-year-old woman or a 50-year-old woman, which would you guess? Most of us would immediately assume the 40-year-old. And we'd be wrong. How we handle aging with grace is different for each of us. But some information I picked up from a book called The 100 Simple Secrets of The Best Half of Life, What Scientists Have Learned and How You Can Use It gave me new insight into how I could think about the aging process

What appealed to me about the book was the notion that I could use objective scientific data to help me improve the quality of my life and handle aging with grace.

One chapter in particular resonated with me. According to a 2000 study, People become about 1 percent more likely to hold a positive image of their bodies with each year of age after forty.

I know this is true. After years of highlighting my hair, when I turned 40 I was so uncomfortable about being old I dyed my hair jet black. God, what a disaster!

Aging with grace was the last thing on my mind. What I didn't have the perspective to know at 40 was that our fifth decade is unquestionably the toughest to get through with any sense of physical self-esteem. Everything begins to sag and lose its vibrancy

Our 40s are the official no-man's-land of age, neither old nor young. It's confusing: should we cling to trying to look like we're still in our 30s or should we give it up, join our elders and embrace the challenge of aging with grace

I think why we get comfortable with aging that we become happier with our body image as we get older. We discover that it's not all or nothing. At 50 we know we're actually more than half way through the game and that pretty much no matter what we do, we look our age (even if we're lucky and we look like a good 47)

Other stuff, like staying alive, begins to matter much more than whether our bodies are hot.

There's a middle way. Like most things, it's not a black and white choice. We can do the things that matter for our health, such as exercising more, stopping smoking, or reducing our caffeine intake, and manage the things we do for pure vanity.

The Fountain of Youth Index by Anne Kreamer

How much time or effort do you put into trying to maintain a youthful appearance? If you’re anything like me, you probably regularly add things to your inventory, but rarely remove them. How many partially used tubes or bottles of different skin potions, each promising brightening or tightening benefits, do you have in your medicine cabinet? How many torn-out-but-unused new fitness routine tear sheets litter your desk? I don’t know about you, but I’m increasingly interested in simplifying it all.

Nora Ephron first got me thinking about maintenance in her very funny book, "I Feel Bad About My Neck." “Maintenance," she wrote, "is what you have to do just so you can walk out the door knowing that if you go to the market and bump into a guy who once rejected you, you won't have to hide behind a stack of canned food….there's Status Quo Maintenance - the things you have to do daily, or weekly, or monthly, just to stay more or less even.

"And then there's the maintenance you have to do monthly, or yearly, or every couple of years or so - maintenance I think of as Pathetic Attempts to Turn Back the Clock.”

I’m not insensitive to expense, but for years in the area of “personal maintenance” I had more of an ostrich approach. I knew what I spent, more or less; I just didn’t like to think about it too consciously. I also knew that there were better uses of my time than sitting in the hair salon chair - but hey, it felt good.

So I decided to create a metric to help me calibrate my overall expenditure, what I call the Fountain of Youth Index. And in a national survey I conducted about the issues we face as we age, I asked 500 people to total up how much time and money they spend monthly on the following: exercise classes, gyms, personal training, exercise/sports equipment, exercise clothing, massage/bodywork, makeup, waxing, anti-aging products, cellulite creams, facials, dermatologic procedures (microdermabrasion, Botox, fillers, laser treatments, etc.) skin creams, shampoos, conditioners, salon styling and dyeing.

I tallied the responses; clustering them according to the total amount of money and time the survey respondents spent making themselves look and feel physically better.

This resulted in four basic lifestyle groups – what I call the Skeptics, the Doers, the Followers, and the Perservers.  You can take a mini-version of the survey here and see where you stand.

There is no “correct” approach. If you take the quiz, I hope you’ll have fun and maybe start thinking about time and money management in a slightly different, clearer way.

Are You Aging Yourself by Trying to Look Young? by Anne Kreamer

Do any of you think there is anything at all odd about the following? "It's all about freedom of expression.....ask your doctor about BOTOX Cosmetic."

The advertising copy goes on to read:

"Don't hold back!  Express it all!  Express yourself by asking your doctor about BOTOX Cosmetic."

I'm not entirely certain what KOOL-AID the copywriters of this ad were drinking, but BOTOX, by paralyzing facial muscles, does exactly the opposite of allowing a person to "express" herself.

The May issue of Vogue ran a piece by Marina Rust with the title and sub-headline, "Criminally chic. Could you be guilty of crimes against beauty?  And if you were indeed a full-blown beauty victim, would you know it?"

Rust wrote the following:

"'You know what's weird?' says my husband, Ian. ‘Everyone looks the same age now.  Girls in their 20s are putting stuff in their face that makes them look 50.'...It's true.  Everyone is starting to look the same.  Six months ago, photos ran of the beleaguered Miss USA standing beside Miss Teen USA. I couldn't tell them apart.  Pretty, but a dime a dozen. They could have both been working a car show."

Rust and her husband were on to an essential contemporary truth.  Last year I had the good fortune to attend a meditation lecture by Tibetan monk, Sakyong Mipham, and the front row of the lecture was filled by a group of blonde women.

I guessed they ranged in age from 45 to 65, but they all had had similar cosmetic surgical procedures, which ended up making all of them look roughly the same age. As a culture, we've come to expect that women in their mid-40s through their mid-60s are the ones who have lifts and injections, and we usually notice when someone has had something "done." So the net result is that everyone ends up looking the same 60ish.

Natasha Singer published a piece in the New York Times recently in which she detailed the investments three women made in the pursuit of looking their "best" - and by best they meant as young as possible.

The women ranged in age from 47 to 57 and spent between $1,000 and $6,500 a month on their maintenance. And one of the women had spent $60,000 for a presumably one-time-only tummy tuck, thigh, chin, neck, and eyelid lift, plus arm liposuction.

I also just read that 35-year-old Jennifer Garner has been signed to be the new poster girl for Neutrogena's Anti-Oxidant Age Reverse treatment line. If 35 is the new starting point for when a women is beginning to look unacceptably old, no wonder the pressure to "express" yourself has gotten so warped.