“I enjoy talking with very old people. They have gone before us on a road by which we, too, may have to travel, and I think we do well to learn from them what it is like.”
— Socrates, from Plato’s “Republic”
As Baby Boomers crash the party on old age, the topic of aging well should be foremost in everyone’s mind, lest they also break the bank in health care costs for generations ahead. Two perspectives on age can help us sort through the best tactics for remaining active and healthy, both mentally and physically.
First, “Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life” by George Valliant (Little, Brown and Co. reprint, 2003) affirms that health and happiness in later years are at least partially in our control. Based on a 64-year longitudinal study conducted by Harvard University, Valliant correlates data from three amazing, but distinct groups of people composed of male Harvard graduates, inner-city, disadvantaged males, and intellectually gifted women, all of whom who were tracked beginning in their teens.
Valliant’s findings indicate that it is not the bad things that happen to us that doom us; they will happen regardless, but rather it is the good people we encounter who facilitate a happy old age. For instance, a good marriage at age 50 contributed to increased longevity, even more so than low cholesterol at that age. Health factors that did have a bearing on successful aging were not drinking to excess, which can undermine one’s social support, and not smoking. Valliant also advises staying physically active, keeping weight down, engaging in altruistic behavior, and continuing to pursue education, all of which can be within our personal control.
Long before Valliant’s study, however, the ancients laid out their perspective on aging. In looking at these, we can see that despite our modernity, the same precepts Valliant proposes were discussed by ancient thinkers such as Marcus Tullius Cicero, who wrote “On Aging” when he was 62. In it, Cicero examines happiness in old age and arrives at the same conclusions as Valliant’s study 2,000 years later. He advises the aged to remain active in community service, continue to learn, and to adopt a regimen of health that includes exercise. His treatise has remained popular for millennia because of its continued relevance to the problems of life we all face, if we live long enough.
As Valliant says, old age is like a minefield; if you see footprints leading to the other side, step in them. And once you see them, it might be added in the vein of Baby Boomer ideology of the 1960’s, keep on truckin’. Try these recipes to boost energy and brainpower into a healthy and salubrious old age.