- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 28, 2005

Florence Ashby could have retired several years ago, but the 70-year-old math professor is not ready to slow down yet.

“I have to feel like I’m contributing,” says Ms. Ashby, who has been teaching at Montgomery College in Rockville for 39 years, “and I love teaching.”

Saul Lilienstein is also well beyond the traditional retirement age, but the 72-year-old says he’s far from ready to quit giving lectures and commentary on classical music.

“When will I quit doing this? I guess I will quit when I have to use notes,” Mr. Lilienstein said after a recent lecture on 19th-century music in Vienna at the Smithsonian’s S. Dillon Ripley Center.

To Mr. Lilienstein, Ms. Ashby and many other seniors, being 70 is not much different from being 50. They have full-time jobs, they travel, they exercise and get together with friends. Does that mean 70 is the new 50?

In some ways, yes, says Dr. Gene Cohen, author of “Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life.”

“I would say 70 is probably not that different than 50 experienced post-World War II,” Dr. Cohen says. “There has been a staggering change in life expectancy. It was less than 50 at the turn of the last century, and that’s increased by 50 percent,” he says.

The average life expectancy for Americans in 2003 was 77.6 years, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. For white women, it was 80.5.

However, that number factors in death during younger years from such causes as accidents and violent crimes. The average life expectancy for those who reach age 65 is about 85, says Dr. Joanne Crantz, an internist and geriatric specialist at Inova Fairfax Hospital.

“There is no question that people don’t even consider 80 old anymore,” she says. “And a 70-year-old? In my eyes, they’re a baby.”

Age, she says, is just a guideline. A 70-year-old who has multiple health problems can seem and look older than a healthy 90-year-old.

“It’s not so much a matter of age as it is a matter of function,” she says.

Mary Barnard, 71, who works full-time at a lingerie store in Friendship Heights, says she recently saw this phenomenon firsthand when she went to a high school reunion.

“One man was as active as ever. He had a new sports car, a sailboat. I remember thinking, ‘He’s done well for himself,’” Mrs. Barnard says. “Then there was a woman who’d had a stroke. She looked and acted more like 90.”

Part of the reason for chronic conditions can be genetic, says Deirdre Carolan, a geriatric nurse specialist at Inova Fairfax Hospital. However, much of a person’s well-being is a product of lifestyle, she says.

“The ones who are active, mentally and physically, and who stay connected and engaged will be successful in aging,” Ms. Carolan says.

Monitoring and managing chronic conditions are important factors in successful aging, she says.

Dr. Cohen agrees and takes it a step further, suggesting that seniors can do more than maintain mental and physical fitness. They can excel.

“After midlife, there is a great sense of liberation and experimentation,” he says. “It’s a time to discover and tap into hidden potential.”

Body, brain health

Steve Slon, editor of AARP the Magazine, says seniors’ wish to focus on potential rather than just on the aging process is reflected in his magazine.

“People in their 70s still care about how they look, about social networks, about new products. … They’re dealing with the same weight problems as younger people,” Mr. Slon says.

Current issues, for example, feature stories on credit problems, Rod Stewart, Social Security and fitness — former couch potatoes turned athletes in older age.

Dr. Crantz says the guidelines for physical fitness are about the same for seniors as for the general population.

“But anyone with heart disease should be cleared by their physician first,” she says.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all adults participate in 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity five or more days a week. An exercise schedule could include the following: aerobic activity for 30 minutes three to five days a week; stretching every day; and strength-building exercises two to three times a week.

Dr. Crantz, however, cautions seniors to start out slowly when using weights and participating in certain circuit-training programs.

“I’ve seen a lot of injuries with the use of weights,” she says.

Ms. Ashby, the mathematics professor, says she exercises several times a week. She walks and takes aerobics classes. Mrs. Barnard, who is almost the same size now, at 112 pounds, as when she was 20 years old, says she doesn’t exercise much but that her job is physically active.

It’s also important to stimulate the mind.

Dr. Cohen recommends activities such as crossword puzzles, traveling, book clubs, volunteering and taking educational courses.

“The fastest-growing group of college graduates are those over 50,” Dr. Cohen says.

Feeling connected and needed also are important components in a senior’s well-being, which can help explain why so many continue in the work force, he says.

“Making a contribution, having a sense of purpose, are very important. People don’t want to feel obsolete,” he says.

When AARP did a survey of baby boomers, 77 percent of them said they had no intention of retiring at age 65, Mr. Slon says, although for some who need the income, retirement isn’t a choice.

“Part of it is the identification of work as one’s persona — who I am is what I do,” Mr. Slon says.

Ms. Ashby, for example, says she intends to work full time at least another year and then go part time.

“I think it would be much too stressful to quit completely,” she says.

The older, the better

While younger people often dread old age, “young” seniors, such as 70-year-olds, often relish it — if they’re in good health, Dr. Cohen says.

“People are more comfortable with themselves,” he says. “At 70, people have the same sense of experimentation and exploration as teens do, but without the peer pressure. Among 70-year-olds, there is no need to conform.”

While 70-year-olds often know more people who are seriously ill or have died than younger generations, they have less fear of dying than people in midlife, Dr. Cohen says.

“Studies have shown that dread of death among healthy people is the highest in midlife, around 40,” he says.

Up to that point, he says, there is no sense of mortality. When it comes to 70-year-olds, however, that fear is gone.

“Death is on their minds, but it’s not a dread,” he says.

The overall perception — even among younger people — of what it means to be 70 is starting to change, he says.

“People are starting to feel less petrified about aging,” he says. “Part of it is because the baby boomers are the first group in history who have parents who are doing very well at an advanced age.”

Joan Kugler, 75, a volunteer at the Smithsonian Institution who recently attended a lecture by Mr. Lilienstein, agrees that the view of seniors has changed.

“The little old lady in the rocking chair would have to be 90 and paralyzed by a stroke [to sit there],” Mrs. Kugler says. “People I know, who are my age, are on their toes.”

The lecturer himself is a good example.

“I think everything gets better with age,” Mr. Lilienstein says. “Everything becomes more precious. It’s wonderful. I’d like [life] to just go on and on, like love and music — things that last.”

But, of course, it doesn’t, and sometimes signs of aging, when you feel so good, can be unwelcome, even shocking, Mr. Lilienstein says.

“When I’m teaching, I always feel like I’m the youngest one in the room,” Mr. Lilienstein says, “but then, when I pass a mirror, it’s a shock, like central casting has made a mistake. Who is that old man?”

More info:

Books —

• “Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life,” by Dr. Gene Cohen, Perennial, 2001. This book shows how life after 50 can be at least as active and creative as in younger years. It describes ways in which seniors can continue to challenge themselves intellectually through reading, writing and word games, how they can tap into their creative side and how they can improve their overall sense of well-being.

• “Aging Well,” by George Vaillant, Little, Brown, 2002. This book talks about the importance of loving relationships, years of education, lack of tobacco and alcohol abuse, as well as maintaining healthy weight with exercise as predictors for successful physical and emotional aging.

• “Successful Aging,” by John Wallis Rowe and Robert Kahn, Dell, 1999. This book, citing scientific research, debunks some common negative myths about aging, such as that illness increases and mental capacity diminishes with age. It then outlines key components of successful aging, including an active engagement with life. It says lifestyle choices are more important than heredity.

Associations —

• AARP, 601 E St. NW, Washington, DC, 20049. Phone: 888/687-2277. Web site: www.aarp.org. AARP is a nonprofit, nonpartisan membership organization for people age 50 and older. Its Web site, magazine and other publications feature articles on how to stay healthy physically and mentally while aging.

• Center on Aging, Health and Humanities, George Washington University Medical Center, 10225 Montgomery Ave., Kensington, MD 20895. Phone: 202/895-0230. Web site: www.gwumc.edu/cahh. The center aims to stimulate, coordinate and conduct research on the problems and potentials of aging. Its goal is to improve the quality of life for older adults and their families. On its Web site is a list of 91 children’s books with positive images of old people.

• American Federation for Aging Research, 70 W. 40th St., 11th floor, New York, NY 10018. Phone: 888/582-2327. Web site: www.afar.org. This nonprofit organization supports research that furthers the understanding of the aging process. One of its Web sites, www.infoaging.org, is tailored for the general public and offers information on various age-related issues.

Online —

• 70up.org (www.70up.org) is a multimedia project consisting of texts and photos of 30 women who are 70 and older. It aims to highlight older women’s productivity and contributions to society and family as well as to reframe the way society looks at aging women. The photos and texts were shown at the Museum of the City of New York in 2003.

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