It is interesting to study how some people age well (and George Vaillant’s book Ageing Well is a great study of them).

The question this raises is: So what? That radio station we like to tune into: WIIFM (What’s in it for me?). Can I do anything that makes it more likely I will age well?

There are (at least) two possible reasons why we couldn’t be able to do anything about ageing well.
1. It’s all in our genes.
2. It’s all due to our environment.

With these two positions I have the difficult job of saying that I am in partial agreement. Our genetic make-up provides limits and resources of some kind. We can make up for these by cultural creations: for instance clothing. People can only tolerate a range of temperatures – these may be wider than we think, but those who live close to the poles don’t walk about without clothing (there are limits to our adaptability). These limits are then accommodated by our technology and creative adaptation (inventions like clothing).

Our environment influences us in important ways. If it was all up to us as individuals there would be no reason to care for others (our action would make no difference – it would be all up to them) or create beautiful things (people could decide to see anything as beautiful).

The great variety of cultures and individual differences makes it unlikely that either of these positions is correct. Two people in the same situation can respond quite differently (even if they had a similar upbringing). “Identical twins” are different in measurable ways physically and can be quite different in personality (even when brought up in the same family).

That “identical twins” raised in the same family can be so different I think shows that both the ‘it’s all in the genes’ and ‘it’s all the environment’ are both wrong. The individual makes their own contribution to how they put their life together. They certainly use the elements of their genetic inheritance and draw on their social situation as elements that they put together, but the individual makes their own contribution.

This means that we can do things to make it more likely that we will have a good old age. Some of these are surprising and require explaining, I’ll write about these in future posts. To end this post I’d like to list some of the simple and obvious ones.

What can we do?

  • 1. Avoid alcoholism. It not only has serious affects on our physical health, it often devastates our relationships too.
  • 2. Physical health matters. Being able to get around and not be in pain make a big difference to how good we feel when we get old.
    The simplest useful advice I know on diet is Michael Pollan’s: eat food, not too much, mostly plants. The best way I know to find the diet that fits for you is to keep a food diary.
    Exercise for 20minutes a day at 70% of capacity. It turns out that we are pretty good at picking what a 7 is on a scale of 1 to 10. More precisely it is exercising at an intensity that your heart rate is about 70% of maximum. This is 220-minus. So for me, this would be 220-50=170. 70% of this is 17×7 = 119 (about 12 beats every 6 six seconds or about 20 beats every 10 seconds). If you can find exercise that you enjoy and that you can do with others, it will be easier to have exercise as a regular part of your life. Aim for 30 minutes a day and you have a bit of a buffer for the occasional days where you don’t get to do it.
  • 3. Get to know young(er) people. Due to misfortune and ill health our friends tend to die off as we age. A lonely and isolated old age is not enjoyable.

    How do you feel you are ageing? Are you happy with how you’re doing? Have you found things that have helped you age well? I’d like to hear about your experience in the comments.

    If you liked this post you might also like:
    A Good Old Age
    Four Simple Little Things to do for Big Health Benefits
    How to live a long and healthy life


    Would you like to feel less stressed?
    Could you do with more joy in your life?

    The answer is living authentically. Buy the book or sign up for the course now from my Living Authentically website.

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    6 Comments to “Ageing Well – can we do anything about it?”

    1. Adelaide says:

      I especially like 3: get to know younger people.

      I am spending time with people younger than me at the moment and it is good.

      David Brooks of the New York Times wrote about reproduction and posterity. It is a good pointer to the things you talk about, especially the individualism so many of us have. But if we care responsibly about ourselves we can care more about others too, as the other.

    2. Evan says:

      Thanks Adelaide. I like spending time with younger people too. And I like David Brooks, I’ll do a search and find the article. Thanks for your comment.

    3. Madeleine says:

      Good points. I completely agree that physical health–meaning a good diet and enough exercise–are crucial. The problem (in the U.S., anyway) is that many middle-aged peole don’t eat a healthful diet or exercise enough. As they get older, two things happen: their health deteriorates more and it gets harder to change their old (bad) habits. Social activity with people of all ages is also so important as long as we live!

      Keep up the good work; I just subscribed.

    4. Evan says:

      Hi Madeleine, nice to have you on board. Thanks for your comment.

    5. In terms of maintaining your health I get the sense (and this is not based on peer-reviewed science or anything) that maintaining a sense of purpose is key to staying vital. The older people I know who still have goals they’re focused on, as opposed to giving up and assuming “it’s too late,” also seem to be healthier.

    6. Evan says:

      Hi Chris, that’s my sense too.

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