Feature Archive

Aging Ain't What It Used to Be

Time marches on, but age may be slowing down, which is why today's 50-year-olds often look and feel much younger than their parents did at age 50.

By Peggy Peck
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario

Time marches on, but age may be slowing down, which is why today's 50-year-olds often look and feel much younger than their parents did at age 50.

Is 50 the new 30? Probably not, but 50 may be the new 40. "It's hard to quantify. What we do know is that people are living longer and more vigorously. And they appear younger," says Jesse Roth, MD, FACP, professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and geriatrician-in-chief of the North Shore University Hospital/Long Island Jewish Health System.

Photographic Proof

A good reality check on this statement is the family album -- especially a family album that includes pictures of several generations. Roth tells WebMD that most family albums that contain pictures dating back 50 years will reveal photos of 50-year-olds "who look old," which often means gray hair or no hair for men, signs of wrinkled and sagging skin -- a worn-out look. The differences are even more striking if one looks at pictures of 60-year-olds taken 20 years ago vs. today's 60-year-olds, he says.

But while "pictures don't lie", they can sometimes fib a little. And that may explain some of the differences between family portraits of grandparents from the Leave it to Beaver era and today's grandparents.

Clothes, hair style, and makeup are a big part of the younger look, a point that is driven home by television shows like The Oprah Winfrey Show, where daughters routinely nominate their mothers for makeovers to "update" tired looks. Men, too, are no longer dressing like their grandfathers or their fathers. Mark Bloom, a 50-plus editor based in New York, points out that "when my father was my age, he was old. It's the clothes."

Appearance may be a factor, says Michael Freedman, MD, director of geriatrics at NYU Medical Center and the Diane and Arthur Belfer Professor of Geriatric Medicine at New York University School of Medicine. For example, Freedman tells WebMD that most of the grandparents in photos from the '60s and '70s did not have their own teeth. Today, on the other hand, most people keep most of their own teeth into their 70s and beyond.

Hazel Thompson, an 88-year-old living in Cleveland, is a testament to improving dental health. Ms. Thompson has all of her own teeth, which a smile reveals as white and even -- though worn down.

Having teeth means that one can have them whitened, a process that cosmetic experts say is a "must do" for those who want to shave years off their appearance.

Antibiotics Changed the World

Freedman says that beyond improved dental health, he thinks the biggest contributor to a slowing of the aging process was the advent of antibiotic therapy in 1945.

"When a person is 19 years old, he or she has a tenfold reserve in every organ system -- heart, lung, kidney, and so on. With every year, that reserve is diminished by about 1%, so theoretically it would take 100 years to use up the reserves and everyone would live to 120," he explains. But the body uses these reserves to fight disease -- the longer the fight, the more reserves are needed, much like an army in war. "Before antibiotics, bronchitis could send a person to bed for three to four weeks, which used up significant reserves. With antibiotics, the body needs to call upon fewer reserves, and the disease is overcome much faster," he says.

So as antibiotics turned serious, life-threatening illnesses into short-term, acute episodes, humans have been able to hold onto natural reserves for longer periods -- a medical breakthrough that not only adds years to life but makes aging a gentler process, Freedman says.

Roth says another major factor is work. Earlier generations, he says, worked mostly in "industry where they were exposed to a number of toxins and were regularly at risk for accidents. Steel mills, coal mines and factories were not healthy or safe environments." And it wasn't much better in rural areas, where life on the farm meant many hours exposed to the elements. "Hours in the sun and wind age a person very quickly," says Roth.

Worn-Out Women Didn't Work Out

While there is general agreement that both men and women are aging differently than their parents and grandparents, the differences may be more apparent in women, says Freedman. "Up until the late 1960s, almost all women were iron deficient. That changed when we started fortifying foods with iron." The symptoms of iron deficiency include fatigue, headaches, and weakness. "Back then, women didn't exercise because most of them couldn't exercise -- they were too tired."

The ability to exercise and the time to do so have really changed aging, says Colin Milner, executive director of the International Council on Active Aging, a Vancouver, British Columbia-based trade group that represents 4,000 organizations catering to senior fitness. He tells WebMD that about 15 million older adults in the U.S. exercise regularly at senior fitness centers.

Milner says that while a big component of aging is attitude -- "I have a 13-year-old daughter who thinks like she's 40 and a 92-year-old grandmother who thinks like a 21-year-old" -- exercise and fitness are a big component of healthier aging. "Society in general has changed over the last several decades," he says. Now the population not only wants to live longer but wants to live healthier and more active "and has the resources to support that lifestyle." Moreover, for boomers who have "grown up" paying dues at health clubs, "they don't question continuing that practice even if they retire."

Milner adds that medical advances, from cosmetic surgery to Botox injections to replacement knees and hips, also help "turn back time."

While Looking Good Is Important, Feeling Good Is Better

Phoenix author Suzy Allegra, whose latest book is How to Be Ageless: Growing Better, Not Just Older!, says that "boomers" at 50 are like their parents were at 35 because boomers are a truly adaptable generation that "had changed with every decade that we've gone into, and we're doing that with our aging." Aging, she says, is mostly a matter of attitude adjustment -- an area where boomers excel.

David Sands, MD, associate professor of Maharishi consciousness-based health care at Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, tells WebMD that better health care and better nutrition are the main contributors to the slowing down of the aging process. But he builds on Allegra's mind-over-sagging-body approach, saying that "the practice of transcendental meditation reverses the unnatural acceleration of the aging process that is caused by stress." So while a simple "don't worry, be happy" attitude may help a bit, incorporating eastern practices like yoga and meditation may be more effective.

Bruce Van Horn of Spring Valley, N.Y., agrees that yoga and meditation can "actually slow down the metabolism," which means that one can age more slowly. Ten years ago, Van Horn was a high-stress CPA who was plagued with ulcerative colitis. Rather than continuing his high-stress lifestyle, he tells WebMD that he decided "to go the holitistic route," which is how he morphed from a CPA to a yoga instructor, who is now giving classes in yoga and tai chi at senior centers in the greater New York City area. While he says the change makes him feel at least 10 years younger than his chronological age -- 42 -- he says there are some drawbacks. "My kids were mortified when I was standing on my head at the town pool. They want me to act like other parents."

Published May 12, 2004.