Healthy aging is a topic I’ve been contemplating quite a bit lately. I just passed a “round birthday,” as my family calls it. In entering a new decade of life, I’m seeing evidence of this progression throughout my personal and professional life.
For example, as a professor at the University of North Florida, my students now speak in a vernacular where I have to google some of their colloquialisms, I am now teaching individuals who weren’t born when 9/11 happened, and I have a few pieces of clothing in my closet that are older than my students.
Aging looks different for everyone. We have typical things we expect to see, but these happen slightly differently and at slightly different times for everyone. While we say “normative aging” we know that there is no one “normal.” Everyone has their own life mountain to climb with different hills and bridges that challenge and support healthy aging.
But another critical aspect of aging is that it is part of natural development. We often associate development with growth, but it is actually a series of gains and losses. As we age, we will see more losses than gains, but many losses that frustrate us are normal. This is what I repeat every semester to my students, so how do I relate it to my personal experiences?
Luckily, I’ve recently found a Sherpa whose experience and wisdom is helping me up the mountain that is aging as I relate what I teach to what I am living. I happened upon a good friend through a 91-year-old COVID-penpal-turned-coffee-buddy, Jim. He can’t climb my life mountain for me, but I have found inspiration is seeing what he has done that might help me also be successful.
Not surprisingly, what he shares with me aligns almost perfectly with what I know from research on aging. For example, one thing he has noticed is that people who seem to be doing well understand that loss is inevitable in aging, but they focus more on the gains.
What is in my loss column? That on-the-tip-of-the-tongue moment of forgetfulness creeps up on me more during teaching. What is that word I was thinking of? I cannot do some of the physical things I used to with the same result, my skin looks different and I’m seeing more gray hairs and wrinkles. I’ve lost friends who have passed away and am witnessing my parents’ generation age.
Gains? Too many to list. Seeing my girls start to do things that I can no longer do. Being more comfortable in who I am. Having greater empathy and compassion and being able to handle stress with more grace. Growth in the number of students I see moving on to contribute in positive ways towards society and knowing I contributed in small, incrementally important ways.
My friend Jim says it comes down to gratitude and love. Over coffee, we often find ourselves pondering how to have a fulfilling and happy life. Even with the 51-year span between us, we always end up back at the same general themes — gratitude, love, optimism, continued curiosity and learning, openness to considering new/different ideas and a willingness to be grateful for the gains over the losses. Grateful for the day-to-day over the noise around our lives that can feel overwhelming. Grateful to have people we can learn and grow with — to laugh about the losses and celebrate with the gains.
This question of successful aging has doubly impacted my professional life, as I am the site-Principal Investigator for a large study, Preventing Alzheimer’s With Cognitive Training, or PACT. The National Institutes of Health has funded this study to see whether computerized brain training exercises can reduce the risk of cognitive impairment and dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease. We need 1,000 healthy volunteers from the Jacksonville community to join our fight against Alzheimer’s disease.
As I navigate my personal aging journey, I am honored to be a part of such a study. Alzheimer’s and dementia have touched everyone — it is such a pervasive phenomenon that disrupts healthy aging and tips the scales so dramatically that the losses of development can no longer be balanced by the gains.
While it directly impacts those with the disease, it can negatively impact healthy aging for those who are caretakers of their grandparents and parents suffering from the disease. It is estimated the number of people suffering from this disease will triple by 2050, but there is a ray of hope, as research into prevention can reduce this number by almost 40 percent.
I am encouraged by the thought that there are Alzheimer’s researchers across the world, like me, whose work collectively will allow more people in our society to have more years of healthy aging — and their loved ones to enjoy more years with them.
Jim is teaching me how to be an expert shark tooth hunter, something I somehow neglected to ever try in my first nine years in Florida. As we comb the sand, he tells me tricks that I’m sure I’d get after years of being in the sport, but I am grateful to have people to learn from, instead of having to learn on my own. Wait until the tide is right; look at the sand when the wave recedes; the teeth have a different sheen or if it can break, it’s not a tooth.
I hope as I navigate successful aging, I can acknowledge and move past the losses in full gratitude towards the things I have in my life that would not exist without age — like the ability to cultivate friends with twice as much life experience and advice as me.
The PACT study is recruiting volunteers age 65 and older with no signs of cognitive impairment or dementia. More information is available at PactStudy.org, or by calling (904) 620-4263.
Dr. Jody Nicholson-Bell is a psychology associate professor at the University of North Florida.