How to avoid emotional predators that age us
Emotional health — and the steps we take to improve it — play as big a role as physical health in aging well. Just as we can choose to improve our physical health with better nutrition and exercise, we can make conscious choices to improve our emotional well-being: practicing gratitude and forgiveness, connecting to people, learning positive thought patterns. As with physical health, the earlier we make good choices, the better. But it is never too late to change.
Dr. George E. Vaillant’s “Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life From the Landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development” (2002) followed more than 800 people for longer than 60 years. Vaillant headed the project from 1973 to 2003, but when it began in 1938, it was a new type of prospective study, starting with healthy people and seeking to identify factors that helped them age well.
The study subjects were “selected as teenagers for different facets of mental and physical health … and studied for their entire lives.” Participants represented different socioeconomic groups and a range of educational attainment.
Vaillant’s guideposts are surprising because they show that how people react and adapt to life’s challenges and changes better predict longevity and health in later life than do physical parameters. Finding include:
• It is not the bad things that happen to us that doom us; it is the good people who happen to us at any age who facilitate enjoyable old age.
• Healing relationships are facilitated by a capacity for gratitude, for forgiveness and for taking people inside. (By this metaphor I mean becoming eternally enriched by loving a particular person.)
• A good marriage at age 50 predicted positive aging at 80. But surprisingly, low cholesterol levels at age 50 did not.
• Learning to play and create after retirement and learning to gain younger friends as we lose older ones add more to life’s enjoyment than retirement income.
These elements of successful aging all focus on relationships with others, from intimate love to friendship and broader social connections.
Dr. Dean Ornish, the first clinician to develop a scientifically proven program for preventing and reversing heart disease with lifestyle modification, has taught for decades that besides addressing the epidemic of physical heart disease, we must pay attention to the cultural epidemic of “spiritual heart disease: loneliness, isolation, alienation, and depression.” His work in this area has the same scientific validity as the diet and exercise prescriptions resulting from his earlier research.
“I am not aware of any other factor in medicine that has a greater impact on our survival than the healing power of love and intimacy,” he writes. “Not diet, not smoking, not exercise, not stress, not genetics, not drugs, not surgery.”
“Younger Next Year” (2004) is a gem in successful aging literature that also describes connection and commitment as necessary to our survival as a species and to aging well as individuals.
The authors, Chris Crowley and his physician, Henry S. Lodge, M.D., write alternating chapters about the new science of aging that shows how we can eliminate most of the decline we used to attribute to “normal” aging through our 80s, sometimes beyond. Crowley’s chapters, humorous and rich in metaphor, talk about turning back the clock on his own aging, and Lodge explains the science behind it.
Lodge says that all of our cells are coded for decay. This may seem like a sentence of doom but it is a biological fact that helps us heal and repair. But even normal cells are continually replaced so every individual represents a circle of life, with decay triggering rebirth. To live vitally through our 80s or beyond, renewal must overcome decay.
“The keys to overriding the decay code are exercise, emotional commitment, reasonable nutrition and a real engagement with living,” Lodge writers.
Like Vaillant and Ornish, Crowley and Lodge emphasize that we must connect to survive. They ask why human connections matter to us as a species and look to evolution to explain the “biology of social connections.”
Mammals in general and humans in particular evolved as pack animals. Somewhere along the way we learned that we were more likely to survive if we worked together in social groups. Our brains developed to respond positively to love, joy, caring and commitment.
If you think this means you have to be a social butterfly, constantly flitting from one appearance to another, think again. Just as extroverts need quiet time, introverts need human connections. Developing strong connections with others is equally important — and equally doable — no matter where you land on the introvert-extrovert spectrum.
And yes, we can change. Sometimes with a little help from our friends, sometimes with more directed interventions and professional help. Dr. Lodge says, “cognitive therapy, the science of teaching people how to train their thoughts into more positive patterns, is as effective as medication in treating depression, and with a lower relapse rate.”
Chronic stress, isolation and loneliness are emotional predators that can kill and certainly age us. Social connections, commitment to people and ideals, love and friendship drive the predators away.
Angelyn Frankenberg is a wellness coach and writer living in Carbondale. She has a master’s in physical education and an undergraduate degree in music. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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