I’m going to be celebrating another trip around the sun soon. So, I’m writing this to remind and inspire me — and hopefully some of you — that getting older is not all downhill. While I will concede that I am officially “old” by now, I’m also old enough to feel like I can share some hard-won wisdom with you. So here goes.
No matter what you’re facing, or what age you happen to be, I’ve learned one thing is always true. This life is what you make it. How you spend your days is how you’ll live your life — and a huge part of that is up to me and you because we get to choose how we navigate this life and how we spend our days at every age.
Now, I don’t mean that just by choosing to I can magically spend my days reading books on a beach in the Caribbean. (I wish!) I mean that I can choose to see, focus on, and internalize the good that is present in my life — or not. Our brains automatically look for and hang on to the bad stuff. It’s a natural instinct to help keep you safe and alive. But when I consciously look for the good, it’s always there too just as prominently. The key is to remember to look for it and work towards creating more.
Only seeing and worrying about the bad stuff makes for a miserable existence. I know because I did it for half of my life. Now, I choose to have gratitude and think of the good possibilities too — not just the bad ones. Science has proven that choosing both can improve your health and extend your life. And it sure does make every day more enjoyable.
OK. So, here’s some good stuff to counter my aching knees and selective memory. Below are a few real-life examples to inspire all of us and to help me and you feel more positive about my next birthday (and you about yours too, hopefully!)
Older Can Mean Better Than Ever
Getting older doesn’t have to be an automatic, all-downhill slide.
When it comes to fulfilling your dreams — whether it’s dancing ballet, painting, traveling, or getting a Ph.D., it’s never too late. Millions of senior citizens are participating in sports, playing musical instruments, writing, going back to school, using computers to do everything from Zooming to starting online businesses, and living full, interesting lives. They’re proof that you can discover and cultivate your passion at any age.
Research is showing that our brains even gain some skills as we get older. With age, they reorganize and use more parts to problem solve which results in more wisdom. Barbara Strauch, in her book The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind, says that science is showing that the brain peaks in middle age somewhere between ages 40 and 68. Good news for me!
Although the aging brain does lose 45 percent of the kind of dendrite spines responsible for learning and remembering new things, it doesn’t lose any of the types of dendrite spines linked to core knowledge. The elderly brain is also less dependent on dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitter involved in any reward/pleasure rush which can lead to wanting and craving. This means the older brain is less impulsive and less driven to seek immediate gratification.
Older Brain Success Stories
Anna Mary Robertson Moses was an avid embroiderer until arthritis made the hobby too painful to continue. With no training and at the age of 75 in 1935, she picked up a paintbrush and painted in the American tradition of primitive art. Her paintings were discovered in a drugstore window by a prominent collector in 1938, and a subsequent New York gallery show led to worldwide fame. She continued painting until close to her death in 1961, at age 101. Although she started out selling her paintings for $2 or $3, one of her paintings sold for $1.2 million in 2006.
Fauja Singh is a British Sikh supercentenarian and marathon runner of Punjabi Indian descent who started running at age 89. Singh is believed to be the world’s oldest runner and holds many world records in multiple age brackets. At the age of 93, Singh completed a marathon in 6 hours and 54 minutes knocking 58 minutes off the previous world best for the 90+ bracket. At 106, he ran nine full marathons and beat numerous world records in multiple age brackets. In 2013, Singh retired from competitive racing, but still enjoys jogging every day at 111 years old.
Alexander Fleming discovered the first antibiotic, penicillin. After years of working in an office, Fleming studied medicine and began a career as a research physician. In 1928 at the age of 47, he focused on researching common staphylococcal bacteria. Upon returning from a vacation, he noticed that an uncovered Petri dish near an open window had become contaminated with a mold. However, he realized that the bacteria near the mold were dying. That mold was penicillin. The rest is history. Fleming received the Nobel Prize for his discovery in 1945, at age 64.
A Vera Wang creation is to the bridal industry what a Jaguar is to the luxury car market — both are revered for their beauty and distinction. Born in 1949, Wang, a former ballerina, and figure skater was a senior fashion editor at Vogue for 15 years and then a design director for Ralph Lauren. In 1990 at 39 years old, Wang began designing wedding gowns in a small boutique in New York City. Less than a decade later, her business had grown into a retail empire worth an estimated $80 million. Today, while still an icon designer of wedding gowns, Wang, at 72, has expanded her collection to include many ready-to-wear fashion items.
Julia Carolyn Child was a chef, author, and television personality. She is recognized for bringing French cuisine to the American public with her cookbooks and television programs. Born in California in 1912, Child attended college and had aspirations of becoming a writer. She married Paul Child, who worked for the U.S. State Department, and they moved to Paris, France, when he was posted there. While in Paris, Julia fell in love with French cooking and attended the famed French cooking school, Le Cordon Bleu. After ten years in the making and multiple rejections, Child’s debut cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, was published when she was 49 years old. She went on to host several successful television cooking shows and became a household name.
Just In Case You Need More Inspiration
In 2007, Carnegie Mellon professor of computer science, Randy Pausch, was dying of pancreatic cancer while in his mid-forties. He followed the tradition at the college and held what they called a “Last Lecture.” His talk, which conveyed more inspiration and a positive attitude than any speech I’ve ever seen, became an instant internet sensation.
Facing the last stages of an incurable disease when giving the talk, Pausch emphasized that it would, no doubt, be his last lecture, but that he wasn’t going to speak a single word about cancer or sickness and death. On the contrary, he talked about how to achieve your childhood dreams and declared that he was going to enjoy every single remaining day of his life as best he could. He died about two years later.
We can all learn something from him and the other examples above. Whatever age you are right now is the perfect age to be whatever you’ve always dreamed of being. Start today!