2011 May/June

Click here for the PDF - Printable version of Issue No 68

May/June, 2011


The Positive Aging Newsletter by Kenneth and Mary Gergen,
dedicated to productive dialogue between research and practice.
Sponsored by the Taos Institute (www.taosinstitute.net).

Wall Street Journal

Issue No 68

COMMENTARY Needed: Category Busters

There were the heroes of gang busters and ghost busters, and now we need a new variety of hero: the category buster. By this we mean people who challenge the common attempt to describe and explain us in terms of set categories. Recently an Irish therapist colleague argued strongly against understanding clients in terms of diagnostic categories. She was especially concerned with people who are called “disabled” because of the effects of this category on their lives. Once they accepted the label into their lives, they began to shape their lives around it. The same is true of such categories as "aging" and "old." It is not only that such labels suggest constraints over how we may behave, they also reduce our sense of who we are. Some time ago a woman at a party introduced another woman, as “Julie, a cancer survivor.” Julie recoiled at this definition of herself because it shoved all the other aspects of herself into the shadows of a diagnosis. Such thoughts were magnified by the front cover of the New York Times Magazine, June 26, 2011, which featured a Yankees baseball player with a candle on his helmet, standing on a birthday cake. The caption read, “Derek Jeter turns 37, an age that, for a professional athlete, is nothing to celebrate.” Inside, a long article featured statistics on the decline of aging athletes. However, less than a month later the shortstop climbed into the record books when he reached 3,000 hits, an achievement that is rare in baseball history. Further, this hit was a home run; the fans were delirious. Jeter's category defying behavior was equaled as well by two women tennis players in the finals of the French Open. Both women - Na Li from China and Francesca Schiavone from Italy - were hovering in their 30s, an age when most women tennis players are considered well past their supposed prime. Now, however, we must celebrate the category busters in their later years. These are the heroes among us who disregard the cultural expectations, who refuse to be constrained by categories. They reject the common phrase “I am too old to ...” flirt, go dancing, enter the contest, buy a sports car, have my teeth fixed, visit Egypt, learn Spanish, go white water rafting, etc. They are more like our friend who survived cancer to take up running at the age of 50, and who at the age of 70 is an award winning distance runner. These are the new heroes; they challenge the common stereotypes and in doing so contribute to lasting cultural changes. They also invite us all to think freshly about what is possible in our own lives. Mary and Ken Gergen

Research: Preventing Cognitive Decline

Often in this newsletter we have reported on small research studies that have made claims that various forms of activity, such as playing bridge or walking briskly will improve one’s cognitive capacities, or at least prevent some cognitive decline. Trying to ferret out the really significant scientific findings from the wishful thinking variety, NIH (National Institute of Health) called together a panel of 15 experts across a range of fields from various medical fields, nursing, psychiatry, mental health, family caregiving, and more, plus 20 experts who presented their data to the panel. Among the conclusions: - There was no compelling evidence of a relationship between cognitive decline and childhood socioeconomic status, education, past alcohol use, or the use of pharmaceutical agents or dietary supplements to prevent cognitive decline. - A robust association exists between the loss of a spouse and cognitive decline. This finding supports numerous other research reports in this Newsletter pointing to the beneficial effects of social participation on well-being and longevity. - There is a beneficial impact of physical activity and other leisure activities (such as club membership, religious services, painting, or gardening) on cognitive function. Increased involvement with cognitive activities in later life may also be beneficial. It should be noted, however, that there are difficulties in drawing firm conclusions, especially because there are neither standardized definitions of decline nor common measuring practices. Researchers may variously define and measure decline in several ways: Memory of various sorts, planning, integrating information, focused attention, imagination, creativity, and more, and what is the case for one study may not be for another. From: NIH State-Of-The-Science Conference Statement on Preventing Alzheimer’s Disease and Cognitive Decline Vol 27, Number 4, April 26-28, 2010, National Institute of Health, Office of the Director (http://consensus.nih.gov)

Research: When Every Day is a Challenge

We report here on the creation of a novel exploration that is proving useful in improving the lives of older people with difficulties in managing everyday life tasks, such as bathing, dressing and toileting. The program called Advancing Better Living for Elders (ABLE) involves participation in five occupational therapy sessions and one physical therapy session over 6 months. The Occupational Therapists (OT’s) meet the participants and through interviews determine what the priorities are for each individual. For each targeted area the OT’s observe and evaluate how well the participant performs each activity. The OT’s encourage the client to identify specific aspects of the performance that they wish to improve upon, and they co-create strategies for doing so. For example, someone may be especially interested in being about to take a shower safely. Special attention is given to balance and muscle strengthening techniques, and ways to recover from falls more effectively. In addition, the client and therapist may decide that a special mat and hand rails should be installed to make the bathing safer. There are progress reviews and additional educational resources provided. After the educational program is completed, brief check-ins are made to reinforce good habits. The results of this program are powerful and positive. Among the 319 people in the study, 70 years old or older, from various social groups, functional difficulties were reduced and fear of falling fell. People felt more in control of their lives and had safer dwellings. Mortality was reduced by 9% at 12 months. People from the program who were hospitalized in the first year had no deaths, compared to 21% among the control group. A lower mortality rate was sustained over 3.5 years, and was especially notable for people over 80. In effect, when challenged with everyday activities, important steps can be taken to improve conditions. From: Enhancing Quality of Life in Functionally Vulnerable Older Adults: From Randomized Trial to Standard Care by Laura N. Gitlin, Tracey Vause Earland, Catherine Verrier Piersol, & Geri Shaw. Generations: Journal of the American Society on Aging, Spring, 2010, 84-87.

Research: Happiness Increases after 50

Closely related to the topic of marital conflict is a recent study of happiness over the life-span. In 2008 a phone survey was performed by the Gallup Organization with over 340,000 randomly selected adults aged 18-85 in the U. S. The respondents were average folks, with 29% holding a college degree and a median monthly household income between $3,000 and $4,000. The participants were asked to rate how they currently felt their life stood on a scale of 0 (“the worst possible life for you”) to 10 (“The best possible life for you”). They were also asked if they had felt various different emotions, such as happiness, enjoyment, stress, sadness, anger, and worry, a lot on the previous day. Lead researcher Dr. Arthur Stone, of Stony Brook University, reports that stress peaked between the ages of 22-25, and decreased drastically after age 50. Worry was relatively constant from 20-40, then declined in the mid-50’s. Anger began tapering off after 18; Sadness increased for those in their 40’s, and then declined for those in their mid- to late 50’s. It increased slightly for those in their mid-70’s. (One might well imagine that sadness at those times could be attributed to the loss of parents and partners through death.) The best news was that both happiness and enjoyment peaked at two points in the life-cycle, when people were 20 and again when they were 70. These findings support the frequently found difference between younger and older people, that older people are more able to regulate negative emotions, and recall fewer of them in their lives.

Interestingly, between the genders, women throughout the life-span tend to report more stress, sadness and worry than men. Here is a topic worthy of further investigation.

From: Its getting better all the time: Happiness, well-being increase after 50 by Katherine Harmon, Scientific American, May 17, 2010. From their website.

Research: Benefits of Internet Use

The common stereotype is that older people have no interest in computers and the internet. Surveys do show that the younger population is more involved with the internet, and social networks, in particular. But the trend is shifting, and each year, increasing numbers of older people are becoming wired. What are the benefits of this involvement? In this study, Galit Nimrod from the Center for Multidisciplinary Research in Aging, Ben-Gurion University, examined the contents and characteristics of messages exchanged by seniors’ online communities. Data from 14 leading online communities was examined, including over 700,000 messages. During this one year period, the level of activity constantly increased. The major points of discussion included, from highest to lowest:

  • fun on line
  • retirement
  • family health
  • work and study
  • recreation
  • finance
  • religion and spirituality
  • technology
  • aging
  • civic and social relations
  • shopping
  • travel

There were also ample exchanges involving political and intellectual issues and those that invited creativity. The benefits from being on-line were many, and especially for those physically unable to be out in the world with ease. As the researcher concluded, on-line communities can provide social support and self-preservation; they can serve as an opportunity for self-discovery and growth.

From: Seniors’ Online Communities: A Quantitative Content Analysis by Galit Nimrod, The Gerontologist, 2010, 50, 382-392.


Margaret Gullette, a prominent writer on issues of aging, has hit the nail on the head in her critique of our national pastime of worrying about memory loss. “The mere whiff of perceived memory loss can have terrible consequences. This epidemic of anxiety around memory loss is so strong that many older adults seek help for the kind of day-to-day forgetfulness that was once considered normal.” Part of this fear is related to the hype around Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of dementia. People over 55 dread getting Alzheimer’s more than any other disease, according to a 2010 survey. Gullette suggests that there are economic advantages to those who foster such fears, and that ordinary folks should try to resist them. Strangely, despite the commonplace notion that it is possible to diagnose someone with Alzheimer’s, no test can predict whether forgetting names or common words is a sign of degenerative disease or not. Most forgetfulness is not a sign of any impairment at all. The major damage is done when those around someone forgetful start to treat the person in a patronizing manner or avoid them altogether. Despite cognitive impairments, which do occur more often as people get very old, people can live happily with their families for a long time. Gullette’s mother, who died at 96, was forgetful, but she found the upside to it was that many of her rancorous memories were among the casualties. She was able to sing, recite her favorite poems, and even created some new ones. The important thing is to emphasize personhood over disability; the slogan “forget memory, try imagination” is at the heart of a play written from the poems of people with degenerative diseases. Gullette believes it is time to stop fear-mongering about forgetfulness, and reaffirm our collective compact with people of any age, regardless of their impairments. Everyone needs to look forward to old age with hope and not despair.

From: Our Irrational Fear of Forgetting by Margaret Morganroth Gullette, New York Times, May 22, 2011, Sunday Opinion, 9. Also by the same author: Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America, 2011, University of Chicago Press. In this book, the theme of ageism and its corrosive effects of social life and policy decisions, as well as on individual well-being are examined. Marketers take advantage of this bias to profit at the expense of the general public, and especially older people. Gullette encourages resistance, via education, secure social safety nets, and other opportunities.

If we wish to combat ageism among older people, we have to start with the younger generation as well. What about the many people in the middle ages who begin to worry about their slipping mental capacities? Here too we are victims of a subtle ageism. In a recent summary of the existing research on the brain at mid-life, Melissa Lee Phillips discovered many studies indicating that the middle aged brain is just fine, thank you very much. One way to look at what is happening at mid-life: “The middle-aged mind preserves many of its youthful skills and even develops some new strengths.” Just as in younger years, the brain’s capacity to rewire itself continues through middle age, and beyond. In addition middle-agers are less neurotic and better able to sort through social situations. Some people’s cognitive skills improve over what they could do as young people.

The Seattle Longitudinal study has tracked the cognitive abilities of thousands of adults over the past 50 years. Results indicate that middle aged adults perform better on four out of six cognitive tests than those same individuals did as young adults. (It is unusual to have a study in which the same people are studied over time so these results seem exceptionally strong.) What slows down as we age are memorization skills and perceptual speed (that is, how quickly we can say we saw something). What is more important to most of us having greater verbal abilities, spatial reasoning, and math and abstract reasoning skills. Further support for the increasing capacity in older ages was found in a study published in Neurology in 2007, in which researchers tested pilots aged 40-89 as they performed on flight
simulators. Older pilots took longer to learn to use the simulators but did a better job than their younger colleagues at achieving their objective: Avoiding collisions. (We note that the recent spate of near misses of planes at U. S. airports have had newly trained air traffic controllers in charge.) One of the consistent findings in this research is that one size does not fit all. Some people gain, some lose, and some seem to stay about the same in terms of their cognitive abilities. In the Seattle study, for example, most participants’ ability to remember a list of words declined in middle age, but about 15% of the people improved their scores over what they had done as young adults. In general, those people who improve, intellectually, over time are more likely to be physically, cognitively and socially active than their peers who do not improve. From: The Mind at Midlife by Melissa Lee Phillips. APA Monitor on Psychology, April 2011, 39-41. .

What do the experts say about how we might outsmart our genes, whatever they are, in order to live longer and more satisfying lives.

  1. Engage in physical activity. In a recent study done with over 8,000 adults in Australia over a six year study, the benefits of movement on longevity proved to be immense. On the other hand, for each daily hour of television watched, there was an 18% increase in deaths from heart disease and an 11% increase in overall mortality. The researchers controlled for prior heart disease and other risk factors, such as diet and smoking. Interestingly, being overweight, itself, was not a significant factor.
  2. Sun yourself 15 minutes a day, in order to get your Vitamin D for strong bones. (Don’t use sun blocker). If you live in the north, (above Atlanta) you will need to supplement the sunshine with pills in the winter.
  3. Choose foods that look the same when you eat them as when they come from nature… (which is a clever idea, although not very conducive to creative cookery.) If hungry, snack on healthy foods between meals. How about them apples?
  4. Sleep more than 7 hours a night. (Some sleep experts suggest that looking at a screen, computer or TV, is not a helpful activity before bedtime. Reading and sex are better.)
  5. Find meaning in your daily activities. “You have one life; it makes sense to love living it.”

Resource: Living Long and Living Well by Dr, Oz, Time, Feb. 22, 2010, pg 82.

Good news for seniors! According to the U. S. census from 2010, the difference between the life expectancies of men and women has shrunk, and men are living longer. This is especially true in the over 65 age group. Currently the life expectancy at birth is 80.8 for women and 75.6 for men. Since 2000 the number of men 65 and older increased by 21%, compared with 11% for women. This increased prevalence of men has many political and social ramifications. “Last month the Republican-controlled House approved sweeping changes to Medicare for people younger than 55, but the party has begun to pull back after meeting stiff protest from older voters.” Issues that were once considered relevant only to older women are now becoming important to aging men, who see a longer future ahead for themselves. From: Gender Gap is Narrowing among U.S. Seniors by Hope Yen, Associated Press, May, 2011


The Spiral of the Seasons: Welcoming the Gifts of Later Life
by John G. Sullivan, Chapel Hill, NC: Second Journey Publications. 2009.

Author John Sullivan, a member of the Elon University philosophy department, offers an engaging and inspiring little book. Unsurprisingly, the book is organized around the seasons, beginning with “Spring’s Stirrings: The Art of a Beginner” and continuing into “Summer’s Fullness: Finding Fulfillment in the Rising and Falling Phases of Life”, through “Autumn’s Way: Releasing and Simplifying”, and finally “Winter’s Gifts: Dwelling in the Depth”. The notion of the springtime is that we are all always beginners, and we must appreciate that eternal aspect of ourselves. For the summer season, Sullivan stresses the import of relationships and caring. Fall is a time of forgiving, releasing, and simplifying. In Winter, the mysteries of life -- depth, vastness, the unknown -- are explored. Each essay contains lovely stories drawn from diverse traditions: Zen, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, as well as words from various sages, including Bob Dylan’s lyrics for “Forever Young.” Although simply written and short, the book has rich commentaries that create slow reading, in the manner of slow food.. something to deliciously hold in our senses. This is a lovely gift to share. MMG


Jay Bloom writes: Thanks for sharing your newsletter again.”
Jay has a website on which he offers interesting and engaging essays on aging. For example, he writes about Returnment, not Retirement, and many other interesting topics.We recommend exploring the website to learn more about Jay and his essays: www.bloomanew.com


October 16-17, 2011: Aging with Passion & Purpose: A Biennial Conference on Aging. University of Nebraska at Omaha. For registration, info HYPERLINK "http://www.champsonline.info" www.champsonline.info
November 18-22, 2011. Lifestyle/Lifespan, 64th Annual Scientific Meeting, The Gerontological Society of America. www.geron.org/annualmeeting or call 402-895-2224.

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