Whether you are a Gen Zer entering the workplace or a boomer entering retirement, there’s no denying the fact that you aren’t getting any younger.
But does the thought of growing old sting? Even though aging often has a negative connotation, it doesn’t have to.
Western culture tends to define aging as a gradual physical decline — associating it with aches, pains and a foggy memory — and becoming out of touch with a fast-paced society (e.g., the internet meme “OK boomer”). We are led to believe that our best days are a summit that will pass us by.
But when we look at the science of aging, fundamental pieces of this negative narrative start to vanish.
Alan Castel, a professor of psychology at UCLA, is an advocate for aging victoriously. “Our own attitudes about aging do influence how we age,” Castel says, “so if you think positively about what can happen as you get older, then you might be active and healthier, and you might live longer.”
In his book Better With Age: The Psychology of Successful Aging, Castel cites a study in which researchers used Catholic nuns’ diary entries from when they were in their 20s to determine their levels of happiness. Of the most cheerful nuns, 75% lived to age 80, but only 40% of the least happy nuns lived that long. The happiest nuns lived about 10 years longer than the least happy nuns.
Castel uses this example to support his view that there are things you can do today — whether you’re 25 or 65 — to live a happier, healthier and longer life.
In Better With Age, Castel interviews role models who have thrived in their later years, including Maya Angelou and legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, to show how you can age victoriously, too.
What is the secret to health and longevity? According to Wooden, there are two essential ingredients: love and balance.
“Find who and what you love, and have balance in your life, both mentally and physically,” Wooden told Castel. And research backs up this advice.
Tip 1: Find who you love
Loneliness has become a public health crisis. Social isolation leads to numerous mental and physical ailments that can take form at a young age and lead to premature mortality. And according to the UCLA Loneliness Scale, nearly half of Americans feel lonely, with Gen Z reporting the highest loneliness score. For those who are older, Castel says loneliness “poses as large a risk to long-term health and longevity as smoking cigarettes and may be twice as harmful for retirees as obesity.”
However, those with strong social connections have a 50% lower risk of dying early. Older adults who stay socially active are less likely to develop dementia and have stronger immune systems. “Staying sharp involves staying connected — and not to the internet,” Castel says.
Are you experiencing loneliness? If so, you’re not alone. There is a community waiting for you — including one at UCLA.
Tip 2: Find what you love
Do you have a dream that you haven’t dared to explore, like making a career change? Or it could be a far simpler action, such as signing up for a painting class.
Castel’s research and interviews with superagers tells an encouraging story. “Things like wisdom and creativity can blossom in older age,” he says. “Frank Gehry, the architect, designed conventional structures early in his career and now designs creative buildings he would only dream about when he was younger.” Examples of a late-life creative bloom abound. In fact, it wasn’t until Claude Monet was 73 that he began to paint his treasured water lily masterpieces.
It’s never too late to find what you love and pursue it. This psychological realignment will give your life meaning and lead to happiness and vitality.
Tip 3: Have balance in your life
There are two aspects of balance that pay near-instant dividends.
Physically, it is important to start balance training early in life and continue it as you get older. By the time you’re 50, falls often lead to hospitalization. But you don’t need to buy a yoga mat to improve your balance. You can train at home or at work — all you have to do is stand on one leg for a minute, then switch. Once you get good at that, try it with your eyes closed.
Like the rest of your body, your brain is a muscle that also should be exercised for balance. Mental balance helps us deal with life’s many priorities and unexpected events. Mindful awareness meditation has been proven to reduce stress, improve attention, boost the immune system, reduce emotional reactivity and promote a general sense of health and well-being. And it’s easy to get started. You just need to find a quiet place, sit and listen.
Aging doesn’t have to be a drag. As you get older, you can grow in happiness, creativity, even strength and mental resilience. But what about memory? That’s going to fade away regardless, right?
Well, it depends, because there are many different kinds of memory.
“Some types of memory, like episodic memory, might decline as we get older, so you might be more likely to forget what you had for breakfast two days ago,” Castel says. “But the brain adapts and compensates by providing other benefits.”
Our brain adapts to aging by focusing less on inconsequential information. At the same time, we develop more sophisticated or personal tactics for remembering what is truly important to us.
“In many ways, our metacognition, or our ability to selectively remember information and notice when we don’t, may improve as we get older,” Castel says. “As a result, we may use strategies such as writing things down to ensure we’ll remember important things in the future.”
But there’s more: “Semantic memory might get better with age, meaning we can rely on prior knowledge and experience,” he says. Older adults might use their knowledge base and their curiosity to enhance their memory.
Past experiences can blossom into newfound creativity and wisdom, and this evolution can apply to all sorts of life experiences and people.
There’s at least one more benefit to having a more selective memory as we age.
“A selective memory can also help improve mood. Many older adults in their 70s and 80s report greater life satisfaction and happiness than in their midlife,” Castel says. “As an added bonus, these later decades tend to be made of happy memories, because a selective memory helps people focus on the things that are most important to us.”
You can choose to rethink aging and, in the process, add years of happiness to your life. Instead of a gradual decline, view life as an upward climb. Once we get over the hill, we go up the next one. With effort, we can appreciate each view as different, but equally meaningful.
If you’re looking for a new hill to climb, look no further than your community. There’s always something happening at UCLA, such as local events or UCLA Extension courses. Now is the time to grow with knowledge.