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A Look at the Dirty Word

From the time you turned 21, you probably began to realize that you’re not growing up any longer, you’re growing older. Maybe it was that first job out of college. Or suddenly, you found you couldn’t sprint quite as fast as you did when you were in high school, but heck, you’re still doing a lot better than those 30-year-olds out on the basketball court.

Then, you turned 30. And gosh, the clock was suddenly set on fast forward—every minute meant another drop in the bucket, and that bucket was sure filling fast. If you’re a woman, you gave a double-take when fresh-faced waiters started calling you "ma’am." If you’re a guy, your heart might have fluttered when you looked in the bathroom mirror and saw some thinning going on up there. Aging becomes a race, a sprint against that cruel dimension called Time, and deep down, you always know that Time will win. But regardless, you pile on the face and body products, you try to hit the gym, you down vitamins upon vitamins, you even go into denial. "I don’t feel my age at all! I feel 25!"

The joke, it seems, is that by the time you’ve come to terms with aging, you’re already too old. When you are young and vibrant, you don’t really want to settle with the idea that you are going through senescence—the gradual deterioration of body parts. We think that somehow we can stay 25 forever. Could this be the reason why a majority of Americans are still completely unprepared financially for retirement? Could this also be behind the fact that more than 60 percent of us don’t regularly exercise? Is it why plastic surgery is more common among people over 50?

Why do we age? Why can’t we be like sea anemones that live indefinitely (barring some awful accident, such as a whale chomping it into bits)? Or why can’t we stay 11 years old, the age when our regenerative capacity is strongest? Some scientists figure that if we maintained 11-year-old bodies throughout our lives, we could live 1,200 years, barring any significant diseases or accidents!

It could be that aging is Mother Nature’s way of urging us to reproduce. Imagine a world in which nobody aged. Would we delay having children or not even bother at all? Think of the problems if Grandpa decided he wanted to keep working forever, thereby creating a log jam of employees as each generation matures. Scientists experimenting with caloric restriction on animals and insects—one of the proven ways to slow aging—have found almost all the subjects invariably lose their ability to reproduce. Or at least, their fertility is vastly diminished.

Aging is one of the least understood processes in science. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some perfectly sensible and likely theories, and very possibly you’ve heard one or two. Like the theory that our cells get hit over time by oxygen radicals (oxidants) that eventually damage our organs (which is why you hear so much about eating foods rich in anti-oxidants). Or that our genes control aging, switching on and off sequentially through the course of our lives. Even just the conventional "wear and tear" theory, which hypothesizes we’re built like machines whose vital parts eventually just wear out and die. Nobody knows for sure what causes aging.

Just because we don’t know exactly why we age doesn’t mean aging is a hopeless endeavor. In fact, aging is something we have surprising control over. There are things you can do right here and right now that will help play the odds in your favor between a short and suffering life or a youthful and vibrant one.

Think that your life span is primarily determined by what you do from the moment you are born. Your genes, though incredibly powerful and complex, account for roughly 30 percent of how long you’ll live. The rest is up to you.

We owe much to our genes, but it’s really the environment that creates who we are, how long we live, and whether we die at 55 from a heart attack or at 102 peacefully in our beds. Incredibly enough, as our knowledge of genetics grows, we see ever more clearly how small a role genes play in our development.

Take diseases. Contrary to what most people think, people are not involved in a game of Russian roulette by which cancer or coronary heart disease strikes at random moments. Even for people with the Type 1 diabetes gene and who possess a family history of diabetes, the probability of developing the disease is only 25 percent. Think of it the other way—you have the genetic predisposition, your family has a history, and you still have a 75 percent chance of never getting Type 1 diabetes. Whether you develop the disease depends entirely on how you live. Think if we told you that for the rest of your life, you’d have a 75 percent chance of winning the lottery. You’d probably stop by the 7-Eleven store every day after work to buy a ticket, wouldn’t you? The odds are that good. The same goes for your health and aging well. What you do now will make a huge difference later on. It’s not about Lady Luck. It’s about being diligent and taking care of your body, mind, and soul so that you fall on the right side of the odds.

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