We all hear these cliches things like, “Health is the most important thing”, “Take care of yourself first” and “I’m not as young as I used to be.” That’s all still totally true but we tend to say them without thinking about it anymore. This summer I had the opportunity to help a few older people out with things they just couldn’t do anymore. The people, their abilities and ages varied widely. Some were not that old with little ability to do things due to arthritis others were almost 80 and just wanted another set of hands while I essentially chased them around from task to task. It got me thinking though about those cliches and what sort of old person I want to be someday. Here’s a hint I’d like two 30 year olds to be chasing me too!
As a scientist I know that how you end up isn’t even mostly predetermined by your genes but by your actions throughout your life. This isn’t going to be a lecture post all about getting and staying active although there will likely be some of that, but rather an exploration of why it’s so important.
What kind of old person do you want to be
Let me convince you that what you want to be is atypical and beat the statistics on this one. The only one I need to hear is that the average North American spends 10 years with significantly ill health at the end of their lives. I would personally like to skip as much of that as possible. I want to spend as few years as possible mostly house bound moving between my bed and my chair. I’d like to drive SAFELY as long as I possibly can and I don’t want people to devote a decade of their lives having to care for me. Ten years is roughly 12% of your life after all and that is too much to waste! I also don’t want to spend those years not doing things I enjoy either. I don’t want to take a handful of pills three times a day. And I think literally everyone else out there thinks exactly the same way.
I really don’t want to be a burden to anyone as much as possible. I have a good chance of actually winning my age class if I’m still running in my 70’s, 80’s and even 90’s. That would be pretty awesome so for now at least, I’d like to go for that. I don’t want to have to pay people to clean my house, cut my grass, do my shopping or do other general day to day stuff for a very, very long time. This goes along with having enough money to care for myself into old age. The more help I need and the worse my health is the more money my life will cost me. Actually it would cost a lot more for a much lower quality of life.
At some point I just want to spend everyday doing things I like and I’d still like to be able to do those things. Things like gardening, paddle boarding and cooking for myself. I don’t want to have to skip more important events in my family’s lives simple because getting there is too hard for me. As shallow as it is I would like to feel comfortable in my body for the rest of my life. I think at some point a lot of people just sort of give up on that. While no one will look or feel like they did in their 20’s or 30’s into old age but I think lots of people just let go of the goal of feeling great at some point. I get it I really do, but I’d either like to never do that or at least put it off for as long as possible. Again I don’t think that I’m alone here in my hopes for how I’ll be in old age. It’s a pretty universal dream I think.
Can you even control all that
No, probably not entirely, but what you do counts more than what you inherited for most people. Your genes certainly play a role, really a huge roll for many but your genes are certainly are not inescapable. In biology circles there is a saying ‘your genes load the gun but the environment pulls the trigger.’ That’s certainly true for most traits effecting old age. You might have a genetic predisposition to obesity, diabetes, joint issues, cancer or heart disease (I do on my Dad’s for all those things on my Dad’s side) but your environment has most of the control on those issues. In other words the choices you make matter more than your family history for most age related health issues. Even if some issue is totally predetermined, when that condition hits you is at least somewhat under your control.
Maintaining a healthy body weight and moving vigorously are about the two best ways to safe guard your health an possibilities into old age. If you were going to do a third thing choose a balanced diet low in animal products. Let’s be honest none of those things are all that tough and they are also pretty interrelated. Beyond that there are no rules and you can accomplish all of those things in the best way that suits you. That could include but isn’t limited to meatless Monday’s, evening walks, a gym habit, running, intermittent fasting, limiting carbs, weekly weigh ins and only eating meat when it’s ‘worth it’. No matter where you are in your life and what your genes say it’s almost never to late to start.
How much does that help though
Science says it helps a lot. Heart diseases, diabetes and cancer account for 53% of all deaths in the USA. Someone who is a regular exerciser (150 minuets a week) for the majority of their life can expect to spend 6-18 months profoundly ill at the end of their life which is a lot different than 10-12 years! Your life is really long overall and if there is one thing you can do that will make a huge difference is finding a way to incorporate movement into your life that you love. Find something that you love and can stick with at each and every stage of your life and your future self is sure to thank you.
There are no guarantees in life, with certainly gets more true the older you get. Think about the older people in your life, not just the still active interesting ones (they tend to stand out) but all of them. Where do you want to fit into that spectrum. The group of people I got into gardening for this summer were sort of a senior clique or gang if you will. I started with one and then they passed my name around their peer group. I was happy to help them all and with my personal preferences I was most happy to just do it all on a project really. But these folks were all really nice, about the same age, did the same social stuff, lived in the same hood and wanted their yards to look the same way. What was really different was how much they could do with me. One lady would give me a list on one visit for next time then do that whole list herself in the next two days and give me some other random task when I came back. While mildly irritating at the time she was sort of a rock star and biologically the oldest one.
Others really just couldn’t do much of their yard work at all for the last decade or so and I was tasked with reclaiming the yard. Most people fell somewhere in between though. But once I knew that the first lady was an option I knew that’s where I wanted to be. It got me thinking I pretty much never want to watch someone do something I love and pay them to do it simply because I can’t anymore. Side note I did love spending my time this way all summer doing something I loved, helping people out, making them happy and getting paid for it was pretty awesome! It was in fact just the sort of thing that I wanted to spend my golden years doing and wouldn’t it be a shame if I couldn’t.
Then and now I feel pretty confident that barring anything too dramatic or unexpected I will be able to as long as I keep making the choices I do. Then I wondered if some other old (sorry there’s no getting around that word in your 80’s) people I know have regrets about how they spent their last years and the choices leading up to those years. One gentleman I know spent at least the last 16 years mostly at home, very overweight, drinking and very, very limited in his life. Sixteen years + is a long time to think about something and I wonder if and how strongly he regretted the choices that lead up to those years. Funnily enough his friend who was an avid fisher, hunter and general doer of things made a lot of the same choices and only had about a bad year at the end. I recently wrote about regret in this weekend motivation post and I talked about how day to day regrets happen to everyone but I feel like this is a big one. One of the ones you take to your grave.
Think about the type of old person you want to be someday. Think about how you might regret your choices in life if it doesn’t work out the way you planned. Find a way to fix that now and find a way to get there. If you’re not active and would like to be does your future self as what you’re willing to do to get there. If you are a regular exerciser does the question of you’re old age quality of life factor into your consideration?