Facing my fears

You don’t have to be a shrink to figure out that one of the reasons I tackled this project was to face my own fears about aging and death. And guess what? It’s working.

Some credit goes to last night’s panel, “90 is the new 50: The Science of Longevity”, the concluding event of New York’s inaugural World Science Festival. Harvard’s David Sinclair declared that “We can easily extend the lifespan of organisms,” while LifeGen’s Richard Weindruch countered the myth that living longer means adding diminished years at the end of life. “The biology of aging does not support that,” he declared. “We could add years of healthy life.” And this afternoon, at the Age Boom Institute, I’m listening to Daniel Perry of the Alliance for Aging Research, talk about the importance of biogerontology research: modifying the aging process to benefit our species.

 

This feels a little like happytalk, and I’m the type who prefers the gory details to rose-tinted glasses. But the more I learn about aging, the less terror it holds, and my experience holds true across the population. That’s not conjecture, it’s science! It’s one conclusion from a2004 survey conducted by AARP and researchers at the University of Southern California: “Less knowledge about aging is associated with greater anxiety about the aging process.” Most respondents (89%) were aware that older Americans can learn, are either working or want work to do (88%) and feel healthy (79%). But misconceptions abound. But more than two thirds thought that the majority of older people are “senile,” “pretty much alike,” and “have no capacity for sex.” Yikes — no wonder they’re nervous!

 

Americans who are most likely to feel anxious about growing old are less educated. This makes sense in view of the fact that the risk of dying prematurely is on the increase for Americans with less than a high school education, as reported in the Washington Post. It’s part of an ominous trend toward worsening health and earlier death in disadvantaged segments of the population.

 

The survey also found that people “project many more problems onto older people” than older Americans actually report, and that the more problems someone is wrestling with (like being in debt, or lacking health care, or stuck in a dead-end menial job), the more anxious he or she is likely to be about growing old. That makes them the most likely to benefit not just from better social services, but from factual reporting about what aging in America actually involves.

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