A curious thing happened once I entered my thirties. Suddenly, everyone around me began signaling to me that I was past my prime. If I expressed that I was tired after a late night out, my parents would tell me, “you’re not as young as used to be.” Never mind the fact that at all ages of my life I would have been exhausted following a late night out. The only difference now is that I have to work and do not have the leisure of sleeping in the next day the way I could when I was younger. If I got knee pain while running, my friends would say, “well, we’re not as young as we used to be.” Never mind the fact that I also experienced knee pain from running in my teens and twenties. When I suffered a sinus infection, my coworkers said, “you’re getting older.” Never mind the fact that I have multiple allergies and have experienced sinus infections all my life.
Suddenly everything I experienced was the result of aging. If I proffered another explanation aside from aging, the speaker would double down and and explain to me that decline is inevitable as we get older, suggesting that as the only true explanation. Why, I began to wonder, is everyone I know invested in getting me to believe that I am rapidly and hopelessly deteriorating?
My Epiphany: Use It or Lose It!
At first I bought into this narrative of inevitable, age-related deterioration and started attributing all my new mobility issues and injuries to aging. I continued on this path until I went partner dancing in my thirties for the first time in years. To my dismay I realized that I could not move the way I used to. I remember dancing with a younger partner that night and being unable to bend my knees enough to match him, and I thought, “Oh no! This is it. I am officially old and cannot do the things I used to.”
But I kept dancing in the months that followed, and eventually I had no problems bending my knees to match partners of all ages. I had lost the ability because I stopped dancing for years, but once I started dancing regularly again, my old abilities quickly reappeared. It was not my age that had been my problem; rather it was my failure to continue exercising my capabilities that resulted in a temporary and correctable decline.
I realized then that the body is resilient and wants to function, but it is only going to put its efforts where you put yours. If you sit for eight hours a day at work typing on a computer, you body will get extremely good at sitting for hours and typing on a computer. Similarly, if you never dance, play sports, carry objects, run, sit on the floor, etc., your body is no longer going to put its resources into maintaining those abilities. The body is pragmatic. It is not going to waste energy on functions you no longer use. But as soon as you make the effort to use those functions again your body will in kick in the resources to perform the chosen activity.
Why We Buy Into This Negative Outlook On Aging
The problem with this narrative of aging as intractable deterioration is that it creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once people begin to perceive new limitations as aging, they become resigned to them. They lean into it because decline is inevitable after all, or so they believe. So when a people’s bodies start to feel creaky when getting down to and up from the floor, they decide that they must limit their movements on the floor because clearly their body is no longer capable of ground movement. When knees and backs start to cause pain, people limit their physical activity and turn to supportive braces and chairs. Unfortunately, the more people limit their movement, the more dysfunction can result from disuse.
When individuals do see these new limitations as warning signs, they often try to over-correct, going from couch potato-desk jockey to an intense exercise regimen that substantially exceeds the load of forces to which their bodies are accustomed. They try to compensate for a sedentary lifestyle by throwing themselves into short spurts of intense, physical activity (short relative to the number of hours in a day; spending an hour or two feels like a lot, but that leaves 22 hours of being mostly sedentary if you have a desk job) that their bodies are not yet prepared for after being sedentary so long and get injured, which they then take as proof of age-related decline rather than what it is: proof of improper training.
Aging is a Cultural Phenomenon
We associate aging with decline because in our culture everyone we know begins to decline around the same time in their lives. However, people who live different lifestyles age differently. For instance, in countries like Japan with a strong culture of floor sitting, adults retain the ability to squat and get up from the floor independently as they age, unlike Americans whose culture emphasizes chair-sitting.
Why are we so invested in this narrative of age-related decline? If we abandon this framework and see these limitations as warning signs that our lifestyles are deficient in adequate movement, sleep, and nutritious food and use them to challenge ourselves to make lifestyle changes we will benefit. Even where age is to blame, we’ll keep our bodies fit and functional as we age, which will soften the decline. But if we hold on to this age blame game, we succumb to disuse and contribute to our own deterioration.
The Narrative of Aging Is Dangerous
Recent events have made me realize that this narrative of aging can actually be dangerous. Last year small cysts suddenly appeared on my shoulders without pain or any other symptom. My coworkers dismissed it as the product of aging, but a doctor diagnosed them as the result of a viral infection often transmitted by children (my reward for giving my nephew a piggyback ride when he got tired!), benign but highly contagious. Had I given into an assumption that it was a product of aging, I would not have known it was contagious and would have spent a year putting those around me at risk of catching the infection.
Worse still, my mom was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. In retrospect, she had been experiencing symptoms for over a year, but at the time it was easy to attribute to mere aging. When she felt more fatigued more often, we thought, “she is getting older. We cannot expect her to have the energy she had when she was younger.” When she got sick more frequently, we thought, “her immune system is not as robust now that she is older.” When she did not bounce back as quickly from those illnesses, we thought, “that is what happens when you get older.” When she got winded easily walking up the stairs, we thought, “she is just isn’t in as good shape because she doesn’t have the same energy to exercise the way she used to.”
Now we know that all of what appeared at the time to be signs of aging were really symptoms of cancer. I do not know that it would have made any difference, but I wish now that I had taken these changes more seriously and recognized them for the warning signs that they were. I have since spoken to others who shared similar stories of attributing the symptoms associated with the onset of chronic illness to mere aging. The narrative of aging is sinister because it conceals and dismisses the truths that our bodies provide as warnings of problems needing to be solved.
Let’s Stop Normalizing Dysfunction as Aging
Yes, individuals experience decline in bodily functions as they age, but that decline does not need to be as profound as that to which we are accustomed. The problem is that we seldom encounter healthy, dynamic senior citizens because the American lifestyle is not conducive to healthy aging. The dysfunction inherent in modern life means that very few of us have positive role models for aging. This can change, but it will only happen once we stop telling ourselves and each other that dysfunctional decline is a certainty and instead start asking what aspects of our way of life need to change in order to remain functional as we get older. We need to realize that when our bodies express limitations, they are often signaling that something needs to change. Dysfunction is not normal; let’s stop treating it as though it were.