The Downward Spiral of Aging is a Dangerous Myth

I’m shocked to be in my mid-fifties. When did that happen?

I’m also amazed to have gotten where I am so much stronger, healthier, and more vital than what many of my aging role models taught me I could be at this age. We’re all too familiar with the idea of aging as a downward spiral to loss of beauty, brain atrophy, helplessness, and–God forbid–“retirement” (I mean this in the old school sense of disengaging from an active life–many people remain vigorous as they shift their priorities later in life).

We’re barraged by people in our lives and media images of aging that are disparaging–the blue-white hair, stooped-over, increasingly helpless men and women. The grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins who seemed to take a death spiral when they hit middle age. My grandparents, after retirement, spent afternoons and evenings sitting, watching game shows, and sharing local gossip. My own father retired in his early fifties, retreated from the world, and is now in a memory care center at the ripe age of seventy-eight, virtually immobile from Parkinson’s and increasingly forgetful. It’s a terrifying specter.

And what a betrayal it must have felt to them–to spend their first decades reaching for life goals, following the cultural norms of growing up, becoming an adult, raising families, climbing the ladder. Only to be left at the end with unrealized expectations, poor health (mostly preventable!), and total shock about what aging had done to them. I remember visiting my ninety-two year old grandmother in a nursing home where she was recovering from pneumonia, when she pointed out “that old lady” down the hall. She was still a young woman on the inside, but with a body letting her down at the end of life.

Instead, I find myself here, closer to the precipice of being “old,” and not understanding any of that. I’m better than I’ve ever been. I am my most vigorous and energetic. I see more potential for myself and my life than I have ever known before. I continue to grow and evolve my scope and strength as a physician and have just completed my first book. I’m not slowing down. In many ways I’m accelerating. I’m more vibrant. What on earth is retirement or the decline of aging?

And what about beauty? Our culture teaches a youth-oriented idea of beauty–especially for women–that is so out-dated. My older vibrant role models are drop-dead gorgeous! Look at Gloria Steinem rocking her leather pants and silk blouses and tell-the-whole-truth-about-what-you-know attitude at age eighty-three! Check out Judy Dench and Helen Mirren fully embodied in the truths of who they are, unafraid to fill the big screen with their unadulterated, sexy, aging, bad-assed selves.

Yes, we’re more beautiful as we age–especially when we grow into our more authentic, sassy, truth-telling selves.

And when we care for our precious bodies with precision and discipline.

The inevitability of decline is not on my radar.

I do not accept it. And science supports me. We can live vibrantly and beautifully into advanced age and beyond.

Aging is a mind-set. Aging is not a destination. It’s a process, an evolution, a wisening and ripening, a journey of becoming our best selves.

And it’s all about the choices we make every day–what we practice–in our self-care and our approach to living.

We can navigate our lives into richness, growth, and freedom–to increased vigor, limitless curiosity for life, adventurism, and strength. Our potential for living happy, fulfilling lives is unlimited.

But we’ve got to have a plan. A life plan. A beautiful age-resilience plan.

We Can Support Beautiful, Resilient Aging

By identifying common misconceptions about aging and turning them on their heads.

We must upgrade the messages–the powerful affirmations–we declare to ourselves about aging. These determine everything that is possible–and not possible–for us.

Try these on for size:

  • “I am free to be my whole true authentic self.”
  • “I am powerful and determine my own destiny.”
  • “I don’t take shit.”
  • “I am a truth-seeker and a light in this world–my perspective and my wisdom is necessary.”
  • “I am strong and balanced and have infinite potential.”
  • “I am free to tend to my own needs.”

By accepting the inherent uncertainty and mystery of our lives.

We are challenged to accept that aging–and death–are inevitable. None of us knows what is yet to come for us. Our charge is to view them not as failures, but as essential parts of the human journey. To resist our mournful, fearful ideas about the end of life and instead choose to live fully here in our present lives, knowing–and not knowing–our destiny. Gracefully bowing to the greatest mystery of life from the fullness of our aliveness.

By letting go of self-violence: perfectionism, comparisons, and unworthiness.

We know about this all too well: the expectations we impose upon ourselves to measure up, to be successful, to be beautiful, to be good enough, and deserving of love. How many of us have nearly drowned in this psychic muck? It’s nothing short of self-violence. The evolution of vibrant aging–of age resilience–is to fully accept the truth of who we are, as we are, here and now. Already worthy. Born beautiful.

By trusting and supporting our brain power.

The science of neuroplasticity proves that the potential of our brains and minds to heal and grow is unlimited given the right conditions.

These are the attributes of healthy living shown to support brain growth rather than decline:

  • Nourishment with good food and nutrients.
  • Movement, body strength, and balance.
  • Adequate sleep and rest every day.
  • Curiosity and seeking opportunities for intellectual growth and stimulation.
  • Quieting the mind–we build mind pathways of calm and equanimity through meditation and calming activities.
  • Balancing the excesses of stress and maintaining positive mindsets about the benefits of stress.
  • Getting a handle on inflammation (work with a trusted Functional Medicine practitioner on this).

By taking beautiful care of our bodies.

These are the non-negotiable parts of being healthy that we all know about, that are keys to aging well, and support everything else on this list. Practice what you know, and enlist help with what you don’t, to achieve optimal health.

  • Nourish: eat for vitality.
  • Restore: sleep deeply.
  • Move: move, balance, and carry yourselves well.
  • Balance: create physiological balance and stress resilience.
  • Let Go: avoid toxins, irritants, and negative energy.
  • Connect: practice love and connection.

rock your boots at any age, beautiful aging, age well, age resilience, functional medicine, wisdom, karynshanksmd

  • By proudly rocking our weather marks. 

Every gray hair, laugh line, and stretch mark provides a timeline of our amazing lives–just like our favorite tattoos. And, listen up: our little sisters and daughters (and our sons!) are carefully watching. Gift them with the legacy of self-acceptance and vibrant aging. And have fun with it. Wear what you love, not what you think is “age appropriate.” Rock those cowboy boots, big earrings, or short skirts you were too afraid to put on in your youth. Now’s the time!

By being inspired by positive models of healthy aging.

… and ignoring the rest–they are NOT our destiny.

By staying curious about life.

“None are so old as those who have outlived enthusiasm.” -Henry David Thoreau

Seek out opportunities to learn every day. Curiosity is the inspiration of growth and adventure–it’s what makes life fun and worth living.

By cultivating awe.

Learning the fine art of being Present allows us to take in the wonder of the world all around us. It truly is amazing. And outweighs everything else.

By staying playful and silly.

Taking ourselves too seriously is stressful and accelerates the aging process. Light hearted playfulness keeps us relaxed and grounded, and marinates us in resilience molecules–endorphins, oxytocin, and GABA.

By being our whole true authentic selves.

Then we will never have to be bitter, regret the past, or miss out on our own amazing, miraculous lives. We must use our voices, tell our truths, be ourselves.

By forgiving everything.

This one is for EACH ONE OF US. Because none of it was personal–none of it. When we fling those monkeys off our backs, we live in freedom.

By sharing our wisdom with the world.

Yes, we are all chock full of it by now. We all need it. We need one another and to hear the deepest truths a million times over.

By doing the things that scare us.

By stepping right up. Way out of our comfort zones. By giving it a try, it’s just a trial run, not a lifetime commitment. It may be exhilarating. It’s definitely expansive.

By cultivating optimism.

This is not to suggest that we view the world through rose-colored glasses or pretend that things are other than they actually are. Not at all. Some aspects of life simply suck. Optimism is the practice of seeing the inherent good, wisdom, or opportunity (to learn, to grow, to create needed change) in our life events.

Optimism literally builds brain connections and pathways that help us to see the infinite possibilities of our lives, in spite of what our current circumstances may be.

By being grateful.

Our hearts are pathways to our bolder, healthier, more connected selves. The HeartMath researchers have shown that gratitude shifts our thoughts and our entire biology in ways that strengthen us, make us smarter, and turn back time.

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Resources:

Karyn Shanks, MD. Eight Unexpected Ways to Boost Your Mind Power. 2017.

Karyn Shanks, MD. Optimism: the Key to Starting Over When We’ve Failed. 2017.

Karyn Shanks, MD. The Liftoff Foundational Intensive Nutrition Food Plan. 2016.

Karyn Shanks, MD. Create Vital Energy Through the Power of Deep Sleep: Part Two. 2017.

KARYN SHANKS MD

Karyn Shanks, MD, is a physician who lives and practices in Iowa City. Her work is inspired by the revolutionary science of Functional Medicine, body-mind wisdom, and the transformational journeys of thousands of clients over her twenty-five-year career. She believes that the bones of healing are in what we do for ourselves.

 

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