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
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
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
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 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:
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)