Who are you calling old? It's only a state of mind

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Posted: Sunday, November 17, 2013 12:00 am | Updated: 1:06 pm, Fri Sep 19, 2014.

“I’m too old for that.”

How many times do you think or hear this from others? We’ve all got ideas about what is appropriate as we get older. Everything from what to wear to health care seems fair game for the “I’m too old” judgment.

But stop before you think “I’m too old.” Definitely stop before you say it. Lots of research tells us thinking “too old” and definitely talking about yourself as old is a bad idea. Believing you are too old for something actually may risk your health and your ability to do the things you want to do.

Meet my friend Judy. I am not going to tell you how old she is because age is relative. It doesn’t matter how old you are — it’s how old you THINK you are.

More and more, Judy talks about herself as “old” — “I’m so old” or “I am too old for …”

Fill in the blank and Judy thinks she is too old for it. Judy is worried her age means all sorts of things are not for her. She thinks she shouldn’t or can’t do so many things. I’ve lost count of what Judy has crossed off her list.

I am telling you now, Judy’s at the wrong end of the stick. In fact, when she talks about herself as old, she may be creating more problems.

Age is a relative idea. Remember when you were in grade school and the kids in middle school seemed so old? When it comes to old age, that relative sense of young and old remains true. What is old in one situation is young in another.

For example, think about how long you can expect to live in different countries. In America, we don’t have the longest average life expectancy in the world but we do pretty well. Our life expectancy is now almost 79 years. As a result, what is old in America is sort of young in places like Macau in China where average life expectancy is quite a bit longer at 84.5 years and older than in some Eastern European countries where life expectancy is only 75 years or so.

Myth: We know what old is.

Because your age by birthday doesn’t have much to do with your health or well-being, trying to label what is old is not useful. Your health is much more about how your body and mind work and whether you have chronic problems like arthritis or cancer. But still we hear people talk about “old” all the time. People start calling themselves old pretty regularly when they think they’ve hit middle age. Might be 40, might be 50, but they say it all the same.

The use of the word “old” usually means something other than old. It is code for feelings, worries, fears about who we are and what we can do. Sometimes, it’s a joke, too. But I find most people who say they are joking are at least half-serious when they say “too old.”

Sometimes, saying “I’m so old” is a way of saying I’m tired, worn out, ready for a break. It’s better and more straightforward to admit to being tired or in need of a rest. Old is not tired.

Making old code for tired builds that tiredness into something it is not. There’s pressure these days to be busy and productive all the time. We miss the chance to realize the good that comes from taking care of ourselves and finding time for rest and for a change of pace — no matter what our age.

If we are speaking about what younger people are doing — especially if it is about computers and technology — old often means “I really don’t get that and feel like I am out of touch with people younger than me.”

Generations have their identity, I admit. But tools and technologies shouldn’t be the domain of one generation or another just because that technology — like the Wii or Twitter — seems to be part of that generation’s identity.

If you want to try out using a computer, social media or some other technology made hip by a younger generation, do it. Put your own stamp on it.

When it comes to health, “old” stands in for worries and fears. We worry about being ill and dependent on family and friends or fear having a condition that can’t be fixed or might only be fixed at too high a price. Commonly, these worries and fears come from our experiences when we were young watching someone we love deal with the same problem we have now.

But our memories of what happened back in the day miss two big points. First, one person’s experience is definitely not everyone’s experience. Second, health care is different and better now. A good example is surgery.

Many patients tell me “I’m too old to have surgery.” When we start talking, I easily see that they are remembering past experiences with loved ones and don’t know that health care has changed.

Surgeons — thanks to the help of anesthetists — now can operate on people in their 90s and older with tools that help them look into the body rather than opening it.

If your doctor is recommending surgery or another treatment for you, the best thing to do is to make an informed choice, not one based on your birthday.

Myth: Old means that you should not or cannot do certain things.

The example of surgery brings me to say this loud and clear: Your birthday is something you celebrate more and more as you get older. Your birthday does not determine what you can or cannot do.

We’ve known for a long time that your birthday does not determine what activity is right for you. But most people still believe older people cannot do certain physical activities.

In fact, a study reported a few years ago showed that age doesn’t limit what we can do physically. Ten people older than 90 were asked to do high-intensity weight training, something we don’t associate with very old folks. Lifting those weights worked like a charm. Everyone who completed the study gained strength, added muscle and walked better. Good stuff, no matter how old you are.

There are great stories about remarkable people who are very old — the college graduate with a great grandchild, the octogenarian marathon runner, the world-traveling couple who have been married for more than 60 years.

We think of these people as one in a million. I think they represent so many people in their later years doing all sorts of things to make for a full life every day.

There is no age limit for activities, health or relationships. If you want to do something that you think may be affected by your health, check with your doctor or nurse practitioner, and get a plan together. But please don’t say, “Well, I’m just too old ….”

Myth: It helps to know when you are too old.

Wrong! I know what you are thinking — we’ve all been told “act your age.” That’s all about behaving right in the right place.

For instance, it’s never going to be OK — regardless of your age — to wear super-short shorts to church. Right and polite is ageless; do what feels right for who you are now all the time. You should not discriminate against yourself on the basis of your age or exclude yourself from something because of the years you have lived. Doing so will only get you in trouble.

That’s right — trouble with a capital T. There are several studies showing people who think of and — most importantly — talk about themselves as old are putting themselves at risk. Talking about yourself as old may affect your physical and mental health. You could put your health at risk if you think you are too old to do something. And, if you believe you are too old, activities as simple as walking might become harder for you.

I joke with my patients not to talk about being old until they reach 100. Then I say I specialize in care of older people but I don’t discriminate on the basis of age so I’ll still take care of them. While teenagers don’t think my joke is funny, their parents and grandparents do. So, go ahead. Joke about your age on your birthday and laugh when you get that funny card announcing your age to the world. But please — as I tell Judy all the time — stop calling yourself old. Go do what you want to do. You’re not too old.

Have some thoughts on this or other aging issues? I’d love to hear from you. Email me at mythsofaging@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @SarahHKagan. Until next time, be well and stay active!

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