It’s Time for Women to Rewrite the Narrative on Aging.

May 18, 2024

It’s Time for Women to Rewrite the Narrative on Aging.

May 29, 2023

We’re at the dawn of a longevity revolution unlike any in human history, and women are leading the way, living an average of six years longer than men. It’s an exciting time, with many upsides, but there’s still work to be done, as our longevity bonus currently has a huge downside. According to an analysis of data from the World Health Organization’s Global Health Observatory, the average woman in the United States will spend the last 12 years of her life in a cascade of poor health. Our healthspan and lifespan are out of sync, and it’s seriously and unnecessarily limiting our physical, mental, financial, and social-emotional well-being as we live longer lives.

The good news is there’s a lot we can do about it. We can heavily influence our healthspan, brainspan, and even lifespan with the choices we make. In fact, Google’s Calico Labs, a biotech firm focused on the biology that controls aging and lifespan, recently asserted that 90 percent of our health and longevity is controlled by our lifestyle and environment and only 10 percent by our genetics. I’ll take that math any day!

Living a long life is a privilege and those of us who get the opportunity should embrace it and even rewrite the script. One of the most powerful places to start is by changing our own attitudes toward living longer and growing older. As I explain in my new book, Ageless Aging: A Woman’s Guide to Increasing Healthspan, Brainspan, and Lifespan, you can use advice and tips from leading experts in health and longevity to create your own holistic recipe to age with greater health, purpose, and vitality. Of course, the foods you eat, the exercise you do, and how you sleep can help you age more agelessly, but your attitudes about aging can also have an enormous impact on your longevity. Studies have shown that feeling positive about your own aging can add up to 7.5 years to your life. 

To change our personal and societal attitudes toward aging and embrace the upsides of long life, we have to first confront the pervasive and pernicious ageism that seems to be our last widely accepted -ism. To a great extent, ageism is programmed by our popular culture with messages and images that glorify youth while portraying older people as somehow “less than”— less vital, less smart, less able, less valued. 

Oprah Winfrey, 70 years old as of this writing, describes it like this: “We live in a youth-obsessed culture that is constantly trying to tell us that if we are not young, and we’re not glowing, and we’re not hot, that we don’t matter.” Dr. Imani Woody, a nationally recognized thought leader on aging (and MEA alum), describes it as erasure and says it’s worse than what she has experienced as a Black woman and a lesbian. These can be serious headwinds.

Although our culture absolutely shapes our views on growing older, each of us helps perpetuate ageism both in the world at large and in our own minds. If you’ve ever said, “I just had a senior moment,” or “I’m too old to change my ways,” or “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” you’ve associated being older with being somehow impaired. 

I admit, I participate in ageism, too. Every time I give a presentation, I tell the crowd how old I am. I do it to show that this is what 74 can be like. I feel vital and energetic, do what I consider important work, and pursue purpose every day. But by bringing my chronological age into it,  I am also playing into the ageist perception of what a woman my age is stereotypically supposed to look and act like. 

More than 20 years ago, I had the great honor of spending time with Betty Friedan, who was 72 at the time. I asked her what motivated her to write The Feminine Mystique. She said she wanted women to realize they shouldn’t be measured by the metrics of men. Then I asked her about her newest book at the time, The Fountain of Youth. Her answer was similar. She wanted people to see that as we get older, if we measure ourselves by the metrics of youth, we’ll always be playing a losing game.

Betty was right. We need to measure ourselves by new metrics and, in doing so, liberate ourselves from the idea that youth is the pinnacle of life. Yes, vitality and youthfulness are goals. You do want to prevent, minimize, or delay physical and mental decline—or the hallmarks of biological aging—and that’s within your power, But to really change your experience of personal aging, you also need to focus on what you’ve gained as you’ve lived—loving relationships, lessons learned, values, perspective, and emotional intelligence. The incomparable Jane Fonda, an ageless octogenarian, puts it this way, “We’re still living in the old paradigm that age is a pathology. But a more appropriate metaphor for aging is a staircase—the upward ascension of the human spirit, bringing us into wisdom, wholeness, and authenticity.”

So, how can you rewrite your own script? How can you envision your own aging as an ascent? Start by very intentionally shifting away from the stereotype that 50, 60, 70, or 80 is over-the-hill. Find new ways to reinvent yourself: take on a new career direction, travel to an exotic location, make new friends. And because you have this one body and one brain to carry you on the journey, take better care of yourself. Add one new ingredient to your own recipe for ageless aging—something as simple as a daily walk or eating more plants. One change will motivate more, and one changed life will inspire others.

-Maddy

Maddy Dychtwald is the co-founder Age Wave and author of Ageless Aging: A Woman’s Guide to Increasing Healthspan, Brainspan, and Lifespan which was published on May 14. 

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