I turn 70 next year. I’ve already noticed a significant hearing loss. With a couple of treatable chronic illnesses that won’t go away but are not debilitating, I now carry pills. It’s harder to put on a sock while standing on one foot, but my mind is still ready to tackle new challenges, like learning to play bridge and winning three championships after the age of 60.
Still, the path to old age appeared daunting up until seven months ago. That’s when I met Kevin, my Lyft driver. Kevin’s mother had died rather early, which sparked, for him, an interest in health care, about which he wrote a book. “Human bodies are built to last 250 years!” he told me.
Born in the United States, and part Japanese and part American Indian, Kevin believed in a healthy lifestyle. He drank matcha tea and, even at 64 — though he looked 20 years younger — “ran up the hill” a few times a day.
However unreal Kevin’s words sounded at the time, they have stayed with me. I now ask myself: If I still had two-thirds of my life ahead of me, how would I think and live?
When I was 35 I started coloring my hair, and I needed contact lenses for driving. That was depressing. Today, I need no contact lenses to see into the distance, and enjoy how my hair looks with highlights. At 45, caffeine late in the day started keeping me awake at night, but now I can have a cup of tea in the evening and then sleep like a baby. At 55, I started getting aches but core-building exercises have alleviated my lower back pain, which got me into physical fitness.
Even though some earlier health issues related to aging turned out to be non-permanent, or were minimized when I learned how to deal with them properly, the fact that those signs were not the beginning of the end did not sink in until I met Kevin. I realized that I needed a new mindset in order to live a long and productive life.
Then Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker article, “Younger Longer,” introduced me to George Church’s research. A professor of genetics at Harvard University, Church believes that there is “no upper limit to human age.” He claims that, with the CRISPR tool for editing DNA, it is possible to edit out aging genes and significantly increase the human lifespan.
Life expectancy in the United States over the last 100 years has increased by approximately 60% and, though we’re currently in a period of some decline, is expected to continue climbing over the long term. It is not unimaginable that humans will live up to 150 years. Aging is a phenomenon that cannot be denied, but its definition has changed. Humans can overcome physical challenges and thrive, but this requires new strategies and wisdom to combat the side effects of getting physically old.
The foundation of wisdom
Older people have long been considered wiser, but there’s some data to back that up.
According to Harvard Health Publishing, brain imaging reveals that the aging brain grows additional connections to become better at capturing the big picture — “perhaps the foundation of wisdom.”
As we grow older, we can better connect the dots of experiences: We combine idealism with pragmatism; we stop striving for platitudes and start doing the right things; and we become more contemplative and less impulsive, delivering better results.
One generation today is experiencing what used to be two generations of evolutionary progress due to longer life spans. If we can stay productively engaged throughout, that can have a compounding effect on human progress.
So let’s set new goals and aspirations that recognize the productive, purposeful years to come. Let’s create our own full lives in addition to being parents and grandparents, sisters and brothers. Let’s be the providers rather than seekers who need to be taken care of in old age. This will reduce the economic and emotional burden on the next generation, and on society at large.
Forty-year-olds I know are frightened by the idea of death and how they might process their emotions. At 60, we reluctantly warm up to it and start absorbing retirement messages coming at us. This starts us on a declining path when we might just be at our half-life.
A year ago, I was thinking about just making it and getting by; now I’m focused on aspiration living right up until the very end. A year ago, I faced my 91-year-old mother’s peaceful death and started setting expectations of my own mortality — and then I met Kevin.
Vinita Gupta is a writer, bridge champion, and retired technology entrepreneur. Silicon India magazine credited Vinita for being the first woman of Indian origin to take her company public in the United States.