Write Your Own Ageing Script
Getting old doesn't have to mean deteriorating until death. We are born with the potential to live our best lives, including nourishing our bodies into long-lasting ultimate versions of ourselves.
A fit, eighty-nine-year-old man who came to see me for a check-up last week offered up his pearls of wisdom for a healthy and fulfilling life, “ friendship is everything,” he said, “and you can’t change the past, but you can affect the future, so make what you do now matter.”
I observe a somewhat dramatic spectrum when it comes to the health of the older person, which translates in health system speak to anyone over sixty-four. When I encounter a vibrant elderly person with a twinkle in their eye, I lean in to learn their secrets, “I want to be just like you when I grow up,” I tell them. And I do. I don’t want to be decrepit, and we don’t have to be. I listen to people talk themselves into painful old age and watch as that narrative plays out in their bodies over the coming years. I recently wrote about our story-telling bodies; becoming uncomfortably old is a familiar tale.
It is part of my job to know someone’s age to ensure we’re focussed on age-relevant health issues, but I now refrain from telling people they look young for their age, even if they do. This is because I don’t want to fuel our ‘youth-valuing’ dialogue, but I do want to start a ‘self-optimising’ revolution. This begins with a few fundamental tenets;
Create awareness around how societal expectations frame our own. If we take on the messages about a preference for youth and rejection of anything other than that, we will write a sad future for ourselves.
Be mindful of self-talk; what are you telling yourself is happening? If, in your mind’s eye, you are on a slippery slope to loneliness, irrelevance, operations and aches and pains, then you will be.
Visualise your optimal health. Tell yourself constantly how well you are. Whatever you want for your future, tell yourself in the present that it already exists.
Shakti Gawain (1948-2018) wrote a book in the seventies called Creative Visualisation, which sold millions of copies. In it, she describes the concept of visualising your optimal life into existence. It is probably better known as ‘manifestation’ these days, but it is basically a way to approach life with conscious self-fulfilling energy. And while the concepts have been appropriated and marketed through a materialistic lens since then, I still subscribe to Shakti’s original teachings. She also believes visualisation is just as applicable to our physical health, functionality, and appearance as it is to making our dreams come true. With this in mind, let’s apply this to how we see ourselves ageing.
I don’t want to be flippant, and I don’t want to discount people’s suffering. There are many reasons why people are living the reality they are living. I don’t profess to know those reasons, and I accept that sometimes shit happens, BUT I’ve seen enough to know that many stories can be turned around or don’t have to happen in the first place.
But it isn’t enough to think your way into healthful old age; a lot of doing has to happen along the way. Moving is key. I’m always surprised at people’s surprise that their bodies are sore or not doing what they want them to do when they’re not moving them in the first place.
An eighty-something man complained of neck and lower back pain the other day. He also said his legs felt weak, and he frequently fell asleep in his chair during the day. He had truncal obesity (fat guts), and other than bowls that he was doing less of because of the pain, he barely moved, choosing instead to sit in his chair most of the day. He had all the medical problems associated with this lifestyle; diabetes, hypertension (high blood pressure) and probably obstructive sleep apnoea. I was very frank with him. I told him that we only have one body in this life, and maintenance of it needs to increase exponentially if we want it to do everything we want. I told him what I thought he needed to do - lose weight, move more, reduce carbohydrates and get a Thai massage. He asked if that included not eating ice cream, which I said it did, and he replied, “I’m not sure I like you.”
Imagine my surprise when he attended a follow-up appointment two weeks later and told me he’d done everything I suggested. He had lost 3 kg and played more bowls because he had less pain. He moved easier, smiled more and seemed genuinely lighter in the world. Once upon a time, I would have said he was more youthful, but that isn’t the goal. The goal is not to be imprisoned in your body, regardless of age. This story also illustrates that while we are alive, there is potential for our bodies to be more harmonious with our desire to move freely.
As our man alluded to at the beginning of this story, other secrets lead to a fulfilling life. You only have to google friendship and health to discover the positive impact our connections with our favourite people have on our well-being. Much is written about the neural connectivity that gives rise to the ‘warm fuzzies’ we feel for our friends and the beneficial biochemical cascade that results. We can measure all of this with physiological markers such as lower blood pressure and reduced body mass index, but what about the magic?
My ‘inner circle’ is how I describe those closest to me with whom I share a special bond. I’ve often thought of them collectively as treasure I’ve collected throughout my life. Unfortunately, we rarely have them all together in one place unless for a wedding or a funeral, but when we do, the gratitude is indescribable. Knowing that your people see you and have your back whenever you need them is the most intense, feel-good drug. There is no way that feeling isn’t doing all sorts of good stuff in our bodies. The friendships that endure over many decades are infused with longevity which seems to enhance the quality of being accepted and valued.
What goes in our mouths is also vital to how we age and what illnesses we avoid or don’t, as the case may be. I listened to a neurologist, Matthew Phillips, on national radio today talking about the dramatic effect of intermittent fasting and a ketogenic approach to eating that can moderate or reverse diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s. Ketogenesis refers to the production of ketones in a high-fat, very low-carbohydrate diet. To my mind, we might not have to adopt such a stringent regime if our aim is prevention, but a low carbohydrate diet and avoiding processed foods should be a baseline. There is also much wisdom in applying “not too much and mostly plants” to our eating philosophy. I tell people to try and eat food as close to its original form as possible; by that, I mean reasonable quantities of raw and whole foods, often described as a paleo diet.
I could list many celebrities who seem to be paving the way as stellar examples of ageing in a way that is nothing to do with deterioration and everything to do with wisdom, beauty and vitality. But that feels a bit like haves and have-nots. You could argue, and you would be right, that successful celebrities enjoy privilege and what wealth can access. With all the cosmesis, rest, and self-care, their heart’s desire and bodies can soak up its little wonder they’re bouncing around the world. But there are ways to make it possible for us mere mortals to enjoy the holy grail only the rich and famous seem to have the code for.
We are bombarded by media and marketing influences and steeped in a processed world born of capitalism. We don’t have to be unhealthy victims. We can take the power back by being present and making mindful choices. Rewrite your ageing narrative by visualising the best version of you at every age, moving your body, loving your people and eating consciously. The result will be you with a twinkle in your eye, a spring in your step and much gratitude in your heart.