The Blog

A Clue About Aging and the Mind (Part 4)

The people who age the best, as studies frequently show, aren't those who had an untroubled life but those who met their troubles with resilience, who bounced back after encountering difficulties.
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Only a few decades ago mainstream medicine had almost nothing to say about the link between aging and the mind. Today there is a fad for all things related to the brain, and therefore the mind has come in the back door. With a larger array of drugs that can affect brain function, doctors make the rough-and-ready assumption that they are treating the mind. From another perspective this isn't so. We all know that we have a mind, and it's obvious that the brain is intimately involved in it. Beyond that, many mysteries lie. It could be that the brain is the receiver of thoughts, the way a radio is the receiver of music. Only rank superstition would hold that a radio composes music, that it appreciates beauty, or that it mechanically produces music through the "hard wiring" of its components. For the moment, such assumptions are made about the mind by leading brain scientists. In practical terms, what this means is that each of us is responsible for our minds, even though medicine is becoming more and more skillful at treating brain disorders. If the brain malfunctions, a doctor is usually the only recourse. but aging isn't an isolated disease that can be treated with drugs; it isn't a disease at all. For the moment, while we await deeper insights into why we age and how genes can be manipulated, possibly, to offset the aging process, using your mind to combat aging makes sense. Let me expand on a few areas where the most good can be done. 1. Emotional health. We know almost with certainty that being emotionally healthy provides physical benefits. Exactly why isn't known. Diseases tend to be specific while emotional health is non-specific. For a while researchers grew excited about finding the so-called "cancer personality." For example, patients who were emotionally repressed seemed to be more susceptible to cancer, particularly if depression was a factor. But this research ran into a dead end when it was found that emotional repression, along with depression, can't be isolated as a carcinogen. Such people are more susceptible to a wide range of disorders, not just cancer. The lesson to be drawn, however, is encouraging. If you take emotional health seriously, which means dealing head on with depression, anxiety, past traumas, childhood abuse, and repressed pain, your body will reward you. The aim should be what's called psychological resilience. This is the ability to withstand even the most difficult traumas and challenges without becoming emotionally damaged. No one can avoid psychological blows, since life is unpredictable and full of potential pain. But the people who age the best, as studies frequently show, aren't those who had an untroubled life but those who met their troubles with resilience, who bounced back after encountering difficulties. 2. Self-image and perception of one's personal situation. People age badly who expect to age badly, and vice versa. The role of beliefs and expectations is hard to pinpoint, and yet there is a whole constellation of factors that prove relevant. Do you think that you are a victim? Do you deserve to be happy? How much, or little, do you expect to achieve? How happy are you with who you are? These are basic questions about being human, and your body is listening in to the answers you give. For almost everyone the positive expectations of youth tend to crumble with age. In a culture that prizes youth, beauty, fame, and money. Old people find themselves sliding down the scale as the years progress. The secret to maintaining high self-worth starts early. Instead of buying into social norms for evaluating yourself, you must develop personal norms. What makes someone worthy for the rest of their lives? The belief that you are lovable, which is the root of being loved and giving love back. The belief that your work is valuable. Holding to a set of moral values that you are proud to uphold. These inner factors survive far beyond the external values imposed by society. 3. Stress reduction. Stress is a hackneyed term by now, but over-use hasn't led to advances in stress reduction. Americans lead faster, more stressful lives than ever, with external demands that steadily lead to physical and mental deterioration. By subjecting themselves to external stress (noise, deadline pressures, lack of sleep, over-work, etc.) people are constantly creating hormonal imbalance in their bodies. So-called stress hormones like cortisol are found in a wide range of damaging lifestyles, from high-pressure jobs to night shifts, from the battlefield to households where domestic violence occurs. In the face of such obvious factors, Americans too often resort to bravado. We hear of people who thrive on stress, and high-performance figures like athletes are lionized in their peak years while turning a blind eye to the price they pay off the field as their bodies age. But in fact no one thrives on stress; we are all hurt by it. If put on the front lines of war long enough, every soldier will succumb to shell shock and battle fatigue. Thriving on stress has to do with reacting to stress. Some people are tougher, more resilient, and more used to blocking out stress than others. In and of itself, this doesn't make stress "good." You have to look deeper and realize that stress is never completely external. How you react to stress is equally important. This is the inner factor that creates a feedback loop between yourself and your environment. In one family there may be plenty of noise and seeming chaos, for example, but if the atmosphere is loving and happy, these external factors won't be stressful. On the other hand, in a tense atmosphere of repressed fear and anxiety, even a small amount of disorder can be felt as a major stress. What this means is that the mind plays a primary role in determining if you are suffering from stress. Stress reduction isn't a simple matter of moving to the country where everything is quiet and slow-moving, albeit that such a lifestyle has been correlated with longer life. Stress can be managed in the midst of a busy urban life by looking closely at a few decisive factors: --Random stress --Unpredictable stress --Uncontrollable stress If you can minimize the extent to which you are subject to these three things, you will boost your psychological resistance to stress. I will go into detail about how to accomplish this in the next post. (to be continued)