When Old Isn't Old Anymore (Nov/Dec 2005)

Friday, 01 April 2011 07:55

Openmind November/December 2005  

Don’t you find that every item of health news always ends up telling you that you’ve got something wrong? Your favourite food is killing you, the exercise you do isn’t enough or it’s doing you damage, where you live is the worse area for pollution, your level of stress will lead to a heart attack, and what ever has gone wrong is worse at your age, whatever your age is. It’s impossible for me to read a newspaper without the words ‘ageing’ and ‘getting old’ leaping out of the page at me. There was no way I was going to miss the words ‘old age’ in the Guardian’s report on the British Association of Science conference in September, but when I read the headline I was amazed. It said, ‘Old age starts at 80 as brains keep getting younger’.  

This report went on to say that, according to Ian Robertson, the dean of research at Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience, biologically and psychologically old age starts at eighty. Writing this on September 12, I have got 5 years, 3 months, and 5 days to go to old age. This cheers me up greatly. 

However, all of you who have decades to go before you turn 80 need to remember that you’ll stay young to 80 only if you follow  Robertson’s seven point plan. You’ll have to maintain your aerobic fitness, which means lots of exercise, not just to keep your body strong and active but your brain as well. Along with physical activity you must maintain mental activity, which involves more than wondering who’s going to be the next to be thrown out of Big Brother. And don’t think you can get by believing that you’ve learnt everything you’ll ever need to know.  Robertson said, ‘The more you learn the more you can learn. It can have profound physiological effects on the brain.’ You’ll need to avoid high and prolonged stress, know a lot of people and interact with them often, eat healthily (fruit, vegetables and fish) and THINK YOUNG. 

Of course  Robertson hasn’t discovered something new. He’s simply looked carefully and systematically at people and their brains and how they lived their lives. He’s confirmed for me what I’ve observed in my contemporaries, that the people who stay actively involved in life and who don’t think of themselves as being old don’t become old, even though their skin has a few more wrinkles and bits of their bodies don’t work as well as they used to. For many years now I’ve thought that old age begins for individuals the moment they say something to the effect of, ‘I don’t know what the youth of today are coming to’, and ‘I’m not going to learn how to . . .’ The first of these statements has always been popular because the old have always envied the young. The second of these statements became particularly important during the media and communications revolution that followed the Second World War. 

My generation grew up with motor cars and landline phones and most of us learned how to operate both. Those of us who had to do housework welcomed vacuum cleaners, washing machines and refrigerators. I first heard ‘I’m not going to learn how to use that . .’ when answer phones arrived in Australia. At that point my generation divided in two. Some of us saw immediately that answer phones would make our life easier, and others of us got all nervous if they were expected to leave a message. Now there are those of us who struggle daily with the new technology, whether it’s our mobile phone, our computer or just trying to buy a train ticket at a station; and there are those of us who write letters and wait for a visit from the grandchild who knows how operate a video machine. Of course, those of us in the first group are dependent on younger generations in way that older people have never been dependent on the young. Where technology is concerned the young know more than the old because they understand the technology they grew up with. However, because it would be a rare person who understood all current technology, today knowledge is shared rather than passed down a hierarchy of the older to the younger. In conversations, texting, emails and on the web people share their knowledge, and it is done in a way where age is irrelevant. When I email AOL requesting a clarification of some instruction or I instruct Guardian Online to send an article to a colleague no one asks my age. Similarly, in conversations with friends twenty years my junior about the merits of a server or the benefits of a certain firewall, age is irrelevant. In such interactions you don’t think young, you just have to think.