Post Road Magazine #24

O Is for Old

Priscilla Long
The idea of a journey—to one's own self, to the depths of one's longing—is crucial here.

—Michael Tucker, Dreaming with Open Eyes


What if you grew to be 100 years old? How would 100 feel? In 2010 in the United States there were 53,364 centenarians. A century old. Old skin, old bones, old eyes. Memory of horses and steam engines and cookstoves and coal fires. Memory of war. Memory of hard times, good times, old times. If I live for thirty-one more years, I will be 100. What are the chances of that? Should I plan for it? Should you?


"The body says what words cannot."—Martha Graham


Our trillions of cells developed from one cell—our zygote, our fertilized egg. Cell division commenced and our fetus developed. After birth and throughout life, our cells continue to divide. At each division, there's a bit of damage, leading ultimately to breakdowns, to old age, to cell death. One idea (based on work by Leonard Hayflick) is that a cell is able to divide only a limited number of times. Hayflick's human cells grown in culture could divide only about fifty times. Mouse cells (mice live three years) could divide about fifteen times. Turtle cells (Galapagos turtles live 175 years) could divide about ninety times. Different cells in the body divide at different times, some often, some not so often. But the moment arrives when a cell can divide no more. This may explain why immortality is reserved for the rocks and stones. And, possibly, for lobsters. A few animals in the Kingdom—lobsters, some turtles, sturgeon—do not appear to age. They become someone's dinner or die of some disease unrelated to aging. Or by accident.


Alzheimer's afflicts forty-five percent of all Americans over the age of eighty-five, according to the Alzheimer's Association. And Alzheimer's is only one of the ways you can lose your wits. More than half of Americans over eighty-five suffer some degree of dementia. Is this inevitable? Should we shoot ourselves in the head at age 84.5? Is dementia genetic? Answer: Some is genetic but a lot is lifestyle. Believe it.


I say I'm too busy but am I really too lazy? Do I really want to deed the last decade of my life to a dementia unit? I've read the science news from Mayo Clinic. I get that aerobic exercise diminishes the risk of MCI (Mild Cognitive Impairment) and even of Alzheimer's. I get the large number of studies the Mayo Clinic people analyzed to come to this simple conclusion. I get that in my aging brain small vascular strokes can cause dementia and I get that lack of exercise can cause small vascular strokes. I get that my mother had small vascular strokes and my father has congestive heart failure and my grandfather, a writer, had a devastating dementia likely from small vascular strokes. I get that small vascular strokes (and small-vascular-stroke dementia) are in my future if I don't get my butt over to the gym. I get it, so what's my problem? I'm too busy, that's it. That's my problem.


Evidence abounds that savoring close connections is concomitant to living to a competent and creative old age. Older people, though, don't need for everyone to like them. They don't enjoy casual socializing, blind dates, or random social events. Most ancients are not party animals (there are exceptions). As I get ready to turn seventy, I review my dear friends. Have I been paying them enough attention or have I been ignoring them as usual? Have I been consciously choosing those persons I want to travel the next decades with? Do my beloveds include people of all generations? What about you and what about yours?


Our genes are not programmed for death. It's just that our cells wear out as they divide and further divide. Also, it's possible to be born with a genetic propensity for a disease. But mostly, lifestyle rules life span. With one exception. Those supercentenarians, the 110. to 120-year-old crowd, do seem to have a genetic propensity for a long lifespan. There's no super-centenarian gene, but these very old persons seem to share a similar complex of genes. And it's not that they're protected from the usual cancers and heart conditions of middle and old age. No. Rather, they have survived them.

How to Live to Be 100

Quit smoking. Reduce stress (see Sabbath). Have a purpose. Get enough sleep. Eat vegetables, fruits, nuts, and berries. Move. Make friends. Learn. Lose weight.


To be toothless and homeless and cold. To have no one. To live without a caregiver or anyone to care. To have to choose between food and heat. To be old and lonely and poor. To feel pain in your feet and pain in your heart. To be hard of seeing and hard of hearing. To be depressed. To be one of the circa 400,000 people in the United States who live alone with Alzheimer's with no caretaker in evidence (Alzheimer's Association). To be "a rag upon a stick" (Yeats).


Most jokes about "geezers" and "little old ladies" are decidedly unfunny. But here's a funny one. Jeanne Louise Calment, a resident of Arles, France, lived to be 122. (She remembered Van Gogh, thought little of him.) At some point she began hosting annual parties to celebrate her internationally renowned birthdays. One party guest, upon bidding her farewell, said (in French) "Until next year, perhaps." Her response: "I don't see why not! You don't look so bad to me."

Killer Molecules

An oxygen atom with an extra—unpaired—electron wants to and will combine. The atom ransacks the cell's molecules to steal an electron (since a pair of electrons is stable) and so begins the wrecking process. The molecule with its electron recently ransacked now also becomes a free radical. A chain reaction begins.

Free radicals aren't all bad. The body produces them constantly and the immune system mobilizes them to capture viruses and bacteria. The body also produces enzymes and antioxidants to keep free radicals in control. But they can veer out of control, spurred by toxins like tobacco smoke or radiation or by insufficient antioxidants. Free radicals running rampant kill. They create conditions conducive to cancer. They contribute to biological aging. So eat your blueberries, your beans, your wild salmon. Drink your green tea.


Learning preserves cognitive function. That much is known. But it amazes me that anyone thinks crossword puzzles or Sudoku are sufficient stand-ins for learning. Think again! Here's an idea for learning, to be undertaken by persons seventy or over. Choose a field, one far afield from your same old same old. Say astronomy (if you were an English teacher) or mathematics (if you were a cafeteria server) or gourmet cooking (if you were an auto mechanic) or oil painting (if you were a history scholar) or music (if you were a cartographer or a bus driver). Now, determine to become a master, to get a PhD or the equivalent in your new endeavor. Start at the beginning, wherever that may be. It may be fourth grade arithmetic. It may be the vocabulary words baste or sauté. It may be learning the C chord. Begin learning the requisite vocabulary at perhaps five words a day. Take classes. Practice your passion. Give yourself a decade to get really good. Now you are working your brain.

Maximum Life Span

This is the longest any individual member of a species has been known to live. For our species it is (so far) Jeanne Louise Calment. Her 122 years represents the longest (documented) life span. (Keeping birth records, though, is recent and not yet universal.) Though she went blind and ended up confined to a wheelchair, Calment's mind was ever-intact. She rode a bicycle until she was 100. She was witty to the end. By age 120, she'd become a celebrity of old age. When a reporter asked her what she had to look forward to, she quipped, "I wait for death. . .and journalists."

Natural Selection

Natural selection is a passive process in that those who survive long enough to reproduce and to raise their children to reproductive age can pass along their genes. There are always environmental pressures against survival, such as, for our species, measles and diphtheria and smallpox. But natural selection does nothing for your ability to grow to a very old age (excluding genetic propensities for certain diseases). It's true that the grandmother factor helps new little ones to survive, but this does nothing for the grandmother's genes. Our increases in longevity are due mostly to non-genetic shifts in society—sanitation, antibiotics, vaccinations. . .


How old is old? The age of old is changing. In the developed world, life expectancy has increased. In prehistoric times people commonly died between ages fifteen and thirty. Only one in twenty lived to age forty. During the Roman Empire, if you survived childhood (which was unlikely), you could expect to live to age forty. In 1900, most people died by age fifty. Since then we have gained thirty years of older age. Our life expectancy in the United States is seventy-eight and growing. In 1950, worldwide, there were 14.5 million persons over the age of eighty. In 2009, there were more than 101 million octogenarians, nonagenarians, and centenarians.

I will be seventy on my next birthday. My knees work great, thank you. (I walk a lot.) I do not have senior moments. I find it easier to learn things than I did when I was younger. A main cause: I no longer have feelings of inferiority. I'm a better learner because I'm more emotionally stable and because I have taught myself (with the help of therapists) to have high self esteem. In some ways, then, I'm typical of older persons—happier, more stable, more focused, a better learner.


Beauty. . .in one of my late adolescent journals (1962) I actually wrote: "The most important task confronting a woman is to make herself beautiful." I was 19 years old. Recently, I told the story of this journal entry to one of my writing classes and the class burst out laughing. (So, we've made progress. . .) My point had to do with the difference between document and memory. I never would have remembered feeling that way. Too extreme and surely not me. (At the time my wardrobe comprised tee shirts, blue jeans, and boots. I never bought clothes. I wore no makeup. And since I was not in the habit of elaborating my grandiose pronouncements, I have no idea what I was talking about.)

But we do care, don't we? Anti-aging skincare products are a major growth area of the beauty products industry, according to the market research firm NDP Group.

If we must get old, must we also look old? Couldn't we get our skin replaced—or something?


Can I lose ten pounds? How much more time do I have? What am I here to do? Can I achieve my creative potential in whatever amount of time I have left? Can I be a better friend to my friends? Can I give back to younger people coming up? Can I remain solvent through a lengthy old age, if I am granted lengthy old age? Can I keep doing yoga until I'm 103? Can I keep walking, keep eating salads? Can I learn to take care of myself a bit better? Can I curb my workaholic tendencies by 5 percent in favor of self-care and still remain just as productive? These are my questions. What are your questions?

Rotten Teeth

Teeth hurt. They hurt when they rot, they hurt when they loosen, they hurt when they fall out. Rotten teeth hurt when you eat. A painful subject for the old. To be toothless is to be ugly, to be hungry (or at least malnourished), to be distraught about money. Teeth cost when they're not covered, and dental insurance is mostly worthless. My dentist said, "Don't they think teeth are part of the body?"


Communities whose members live to be ancient, active, and cognizant include Loma Linda, California, a community of Seventh Day Adventists. In this community, as reported by Dan Buettner in "Secrets of Longevity," in National Geographic magazine, the people, observing ritual and religious decree, stop work at sundown on Friday and do not resume until sundown on Saturday. They observe the Sabbath. The Seventh Day Adventist day of rest includes a walk in nature, praying, and talking to kin and to friends. This is not optional. It occurs each and every week, without fail. The Sabbath is also observed by observant Jews. And I maintain that creators—artists and writers, poets, potters, scholars— should observe a creative Sabbath. This will add to our longevity and to our creativity. But oh, it's hard to do. It's hard for me to do. I've got too much to do to do that, too.


Telomeres are protective caps on the end of each cell's chromosomes. They are a run of repeating base pairs that protect the rest of our DNA and they get shorter each time the cell divides. Telomeres are reliable markers of biological aging. They wear down with time, leaving cells more susceptible to damage. In non-aging animals, such as the immortal (possibly) lobster, an enzyme called telomerase is found in all the cells. Telomerase makes cells immortal; in its presence, telomeres do not shorten when the cell divides. Cancer cells are replete with telomerase.

We don't want cancer but we do want a brake on the wear and tear of our telomeres. It may be that eating Omega.3 fatty acids such as that found in wild salmon will help keep our telomeres long.


To be uber is to be a superlative example of your type and kind. To be uber-old, then, is to be old and healthy, strong, energetic, forgetless, fearless, and full of purpose. It is to remain active in creative work or in the community or both during those thirty extra years, this new phase of life. Most of the supercentenarian set are fit and sharp and in good health. It's typical for them to die in their sleep after a long life, no feeding tubes or ventilators involved. They are our uber-old.

Vegetables, Fruits, Nuts, Seeds, Beans

Prunes, yams, pears, peanuts, walnuts, sweet potatoes, sweet peas, tomatoes, avocados, pinto beans, black beans, string beans, green beans, red grapes, red beets, grapefruit, kiwi, artichoke, chard, apricot, kale, bok choy, broccoli, chickpeas, cashews, cabbage, cauliflower, lentils, corn, cranberries, blueberries, strawberries, sunflower seeds, spinach, asparagus, lettuce, summer squash, butternut squash, watermelon. If you see what I mean.


We are too fat. More than a third of us adult Americans are obese

(35.7 percent of us, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Obesity means that our Body Mass Index or BMI, based on weight versus height, is thirty or more. And if we are not obese, we are overweight. Fully 63.1 percent of us are one or the other. I am overweight (BMI 25). Dropping ten pounds would give me a more healthy weight and would decrease my chances of getting heart disease, stroke, diabetes, certain cancers, bone breaks, joint ache. . .And, yes, "Packing on the Pounds in Middle Age" is linked to dementia (Science News, May 2, 2011). And, yes, let's accept the assertion of the National Association of Size Acceptance that fat people should be respected, treated with dignity, employed, loved. A fat person can be beautiful! But let's move more, drink less soda pop, eat less junk food, and get healthier. Let's move toward an uber old age, a superlative old age. Let's drop some pounds. End of sermon.


X stands for the unknown. I have x more years. You have x more years. In this past decade, the decade of my sixties, my life has sustained shocking deaths, unexpected deaths. A writer friend off to a jolly working trip to Greece became ill on the flight and died in an Athens hospital. A dear longtime client diagnosed with melanoma in January, died in April. And others. In sum, in one decade, a shocking ten persons dear to me, friends of my life, gone. At some point, the body is required to disperse its molecules. But when? The answer is unknown—x.

Yeats, et al.

Yeats was among the creators who did uber-work in late old age. Beethoven was another. Edward Said, author of Late Style, did not live long enough to have a Late Style. By Late Style, he meant a transcendent burst of final work, not a slowing down or wrapping up of a lifetime body of work, but an opening out, new ground broken for artist and for art. Said's list includes Jean Genet and Glenn Gould. My list includes the poet Akhmatova, the painter Philip Guston, the singer Johnny Cash. May I live a long life. May I come into a Late Style, O Muse.

Zero Sum

Zero sum means that anything given to one party is subtracted from another. There's nothing left over. Add ten, subtract ten, sum—zero.

There's talk about how supporting the old (with decent social security benefits and so on) subtracts from supporting the young. But that's wrong, say John Rowe and Lisa Berkman of the MacArthur Foundation's Research Network on an Aging Society. It's a myth that you have to remove older workers from the work force to get younger people into it. In fact, the more work older workers have, the more work younger people get, or so it seems. Also, in workplace situations, mixed-age work groups work best. Also, aid to old people tends to aid young people too. In South Africa, when pensions were given to certain grandmothers, their granddaughters grew taller, got healthier, did better in school. Because the old care about the young. The old concern themselves with the progress of the young. The old who were once young wish for the young to flourish. The young are born into a world made by the old. So let us not disparage the old. Let us honor them. Let us wish them well on their journey. Let us comfort them and praise them. All praise to the old.

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