My new year’s resolution is to start integrating more personal reflections into the blog. No better place to begin than a BBC News story that came my way last week about a link between youthful looks and longer lives. Studies show younger-looking twins in both Denmark and the UK outliving their siblings. As ever, it’s a dance between genetics and environment. Worn faces probably reflect harder lives, and those subjects also had shorter telomeres (pieces of DNA that protect the ends of chromosomes from deteriorating). Science backs intuition: “Perceived age … is a robust biomarker that predicts survival among those aged over 70,” said researcher Professor Kaare Christensen.
What do Swedish twins have to do with me? I look young for 57. Gravity is sucking at cheek and jowl but I’m pretty unwrinkled (for which I credit decades of hat-wearing). Except for a smattering of white hairs, welcomed as evidence that it’s not dyed, my hair is brown. (Genes.) Menopause was easy, sparing me hot flashes and its most disheartening hallmark: “thickening.” (A man must have coined that term.) Luck and risk-taking have played a part: healthy children, enough money, recreational pharmaceuticals and the concomitant recreation, a much younger lover, the perils and indulgences of self-employment.
I’d like to think I’d be writing about old age no matter what, and the subject tugs with such force that I think that’s the case. But my looks insulate me in certain ways, at least for now, and that insulation is welcome. For example, I’m part of a project at the Guggenheim museum by Tino Seghal that divides participants into four age groups. All the people I know are in the 62+ cohort, while I was assigned to in the 30’s-and-40’s group. I’m not smug about it, but it pleases me. That’s only human, but it’s deeply problematic.
“When I began this project, ‘How old do you feel?” didn’t sound like a loaded question.” I wrote that almost exactly two years ago, in a post about what I dubbed “youth creep.” Now I understand just how loaded a question it is, and “How old do you look?” feels like its evil twin. Despite — or perhaps because of — the allure of airbrushing and cosmetic surgery, it’s important to acknowledge how old we actually are. Chronological age is a handy yardstick, especially for politicians and demographers.
Yet, like nature and nurture or the chicken and the egg, appearance and the biological destiny it portends are inescapably intertwined. Two 70-year-olds — even if they’re Danish twins, it turns out — can look very different. Likewise a 21st century 70-year-old is likely to be significantly healthier than her 19th-century counterpart, and to appear so. Pegging appearance or attitude to calendar years is a mistake. When I’m jumping around at a club, I sometimes wish everyone knew my age just to rattle their preconceptions. The fact that my age usually surprises people makes it easy to tell the truth, but I wouldn’t lie. (I don’t think I’d dye my hair either, though that’s shakier ground.) Sooner or later, that surprise won’t be there. Bit by bit, like everyone else, I become more invisible in the culture at large. It’s dumb to aspire to youth or to deny the years under my belt. But it makes sense to look as good as I can, to take pleasure in it, and to try to live up to it.