September 24, 2010

USA: Think of it as getting happier, not older

PITTSBURGH, Pennsylvania / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette / Opinion / September 23, 2010

By Samantha Bennett, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

If you're feeling a little creaky, noticing the lines in your face or even staring down the barrel of another birthday, consider this:
Getting older may be discouraging, but it beats the alternative.

Besides, older people are actually happier than younger ones. The jig's up, Aunt Frieda. All that grousing about your disappointment in the romantic choices of your nieces and nephews, the supermarket meat counter, loud TV commercials, rampant rudeness, and the disappearance of your favorite shade of lipstick (Garbo Smiles) isn't fooling anyone anymore.

You're happy as a lark on your Lark.

This was one of several "surprising new facts about aging" featured in The Week. I was drawn in by the headline, thinking the facts would be truly surprising. Like, "Aging has only been happening to human beings since 1200," or "Older people are more waterproof."

But no, the new facts are not quite that surprising. The happiness one isn't even particularly new, and it makes intuitive sense. When you're 18, you're immortal and invincible and on an inevitable meteoric rise to fame and fortune, plus you live off your parents. As the decades pass, life bludgeons you about the head with a series of nasty shocks, tedious responsibilities, sexually transmitted diseases, filthy habits and disappointing cubicle-related career developments.

By the time you hit about 50, you achieve a zen-like epiphany along the lines of, "You know what? The hell with it," and start feeling much more cheerful. If you live long enough, you may return to a childlike state of grace, where pudding can make your day.

It's also not surprising to hear that a lousy childhood shortens your life by permanently stressing you out. But while you could probably guess that you can stave off dementia by giving your brain stuff to do that's more challenging than clicking the TV remote, you might not realize what a direct correlation there is between staying in school and staying with it.

English and Finnish researchers have found that every additional year of education reduces the risk of dementia by 11 percent. So there you go, all you perpetual students: You're not just improving your minds, you're preserving them. Still, I'm not sure I trust this finding. It can be very hard to tell the difference between a Ph.D. and a dementia patient.

Soda prematurely ages you, because everything you find mildly enjoyable -- sunshine, beer, Dr Pepper, cigars, smiling -- prematurely ages you. Researchers at Harvard discovered this by giving phosphates (the mineral that gives fizzy drinks their tang) to mice until they began signing up for bus tours.

Carbonated beverages have been linked to "brittle bones, pancreatic cancer, muscle weakness and paralysis," according to The Week, which is why I avoid soda and stick with bourbon.

The final "surprising new fact" is indeed a little bit surprising. It is this: "Thinking about falling over makes you fall over."

An Australian study has shown that subjects between 70 and 90 who were at a low risk for falls -- but worried about falling -- fell as much as subjects at high risk.

You will notice that thinking about flying doesn't make you fly, and thinking about losing weight doesn't make you slimmer. Oh no. That would be helpful.

I suppose that's typical pessimistic, beaten-down, middle-age thinking; I should look forward to getting old. I can go back to school, order my Scotch neat and dance around without letting the idea of tripping even cross my mind. It's like being young again. Except you get to be happy.

I'm feeling more waterproof already.

Samantha Bennett, freelance writer:

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