Food & Fitness After 50: Don’t Let the Old Man In

In Food & Fitness After 50 we discuss food and fitness, of course! But, we also have a section on being well and the importance of managing stress, getting sufficient sleep, and enjoying social connections. Another aspect of being well is our attitude or mindset toward aging. As May is Older American’s Month it is a good time to consider an attitude adjustment. In this post, Dr. Bob Murray presents the case for “not letting the old man (or woman) in!”

This post was written by Dr. Bob Murray, co-author of Food & Fitness After 50.

During a golf outing in 2018, when country singer Toby Keith asked film legend Clint Eastwood what keeps him going strong at age 88, Clint responded, “I get up every day and I don’t let the old man in.”  Toby soon turned that response into a song.

The opening lyrics are these: old man

I want to live me some more

Can’t leave it up to him

He’s knocking on my door

 And I knew all of my life

That someday it would end

Get up and go outside

Don’t let the old man in

 Many moons I have lived

My body’s weathered and worn

Ask yourself how old you would be

If you didn’t know the day you were born

(Toby Keith, ShowDog-Universal Music, 2018)

Is slowing down the aging process simply a matter of keeping a young mind-set, not letting the old person in?  Happily, there is evidence that this might just be the case.

In a 2014 article in the New York Times, writer Bruce Grierson addressed the question, What if aging is nothing but a mindset?  Grierson highlighted the work of Harvard psychologist Dr. Ellen Langer who devoted much of her career to studying how our minds affect our bodies.  In one unique study, eight men in their 70s spent five days living in an environment that evoked 1959, a year when the men were in their 40s and 50s.  Their housing had no mirrors and the furnishings, television shows, movies, magazines, and clothing were all vintage 1959.  Measures taken before and after the men’s five-day stay showed improved flexibility, manual dexterity, and better eyesight compared to a control group of men in their 70s who led their normal lives.  Dr. Langer observed that the men had “put their mind in an earlier time and their bodies went along for the ride.”

It turns out that our mind-sets about aging develop far before we become older adults.  When we are young, we all develop perceptions of aging that we carry with us throughout life, refining those perceptions as time goes by.  Once we reach whatever we consider “old age”, we accept those stereotypical mind-sets without ever questioning their accuracy.  To make matters worse, we and others can be guilty of reinforcing and perpetuating those long-held perceptions through seemingly innocent comments such as:

  • “Oh, I must be having a senior moment,”
  • “You look much younger than that,”
  • “Hey, I’m still sharp.”

old womanA 2002 study on 660 people ages 50 to 94 reported how negative perceptions of aging affect longevity.  The researchers reported that older people who had positive mind-sets about aging lived an average of 7.5 years longer than those who harbored negative perceptions of aging. If positive mind-sets about aging can truly prolong life expectancy by over 7 years, that is an incredible incentive for all of us to reevaluate how we have allowed ourselves to think about our own aging.

Dr. Manfred Diehl from Colorado State University is an expert on how perceptions of aging affect the aging process and his notion of successful aging is one that combines a low risk of illness and disability with high mental and physical functions and an active, positive social life. (For a PDF of Dr. Diehl’s slide presentation on Optimimizing Successful Aging, click here.)

Dr. Diehl also notes that successful aging involves not only maintaining a positive mind-set but also being physically active every day, learning new things, eating healthfully, avoiding or at least minimizing bad health habits (e.g., smoking, inadequate sleep, over-eating, etc.), and staying connected with friends and family.

A positive mind-set might not mean everything when it comes to successful aging, but it surely means a lot.  And successful aging is not simply a matter of feeling invincible because that mind-set can lead some—young and old—to avoid a visit to the doctor when one is absolutely necessary.

Perhaps the best news in all of this is that a positive mind-set about aging costs us nothing more than changing whatever negative perceptions we might have been harboring.  When scientists, a movie star, and a country music singer all agree that it helps not to let the old man in, that advice seems good enough for all of us.

Copyright © 2019 [Christine Rosenbloom]. All Rights Reserved.