Late-life renewal can reward those who do 'right thing' at the right time
Like a car, our bodies gradually deteriorate and fail mechanically despite various operations, replacement parts and repairs. We eventually wind up in the scrap heap, also known as the funeral parlor.
This analogy, portrayed in the book “With Wings as Eagles” by Dr. Perry Gresham, holds out little hope or expectation of a better future and exemplifies the theory of entropy — that all material things eventually decline, degrade and collapse.
Another image dating back thousands of years is that of a tree or vegetation that changes with the seasons. There is initially youth in the springtime, maturity in summer, old age in autumn and death in winter.
Again, this organic determinism is just as fatalistic as mechanical determinism. This analogy also describes a preordained, unwavering decline that is inevitable.
Might there be a less pessimistic or better aging analogy or model? Gresham thinks so. In his 60s, he experienced a new burst of energy and creativity best described as “regeneration” of body and mind.
I too, starting in my 60s, have had a similar renewal. Rather than the inexorable degradation with aging, implicit in the car and tree analogies, I have experienced a period of renewed vitality, even though I am, at times, painfully conscious of my own aging and ongoing entropy.
This renewal phenomena was actually described more than 2,700 years ago by the prophet Isaiah when he wrote, “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary; and they shall walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:31).
Gresham referred to this late-life renewal as the “eagle-wings aging theory.” Ironically, for many years, this verse was a mantra for me to suppress pain and fatigue during athletic endurance events like the Ironman triathlon in Kona, Hawaii. I desperately wanted to “run and not be weary and walk and not be faint.”
It was in my early 60s, however, when I finally appreciated what Isaiah additionally meant by “renewed strength.” Life can be a series of “renewals” rather than irreversible decline, even in one's 60s and 70s.
I discovered that “to wait upon the Lord” simply means, as best we can, to do the “right thing” at the right time — morally, physically and spiritually. Embracing religion, meditation, a strong family unit or a set of guiding principles can reduce stress and thereby improve longevity and mitigate many of the chronic diseases associated with aging.
Regular exercise prolongs healthy longevity and prevents common diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cognitive decline. It also is the most effective antidepressant.
Finally, it means to avoid excess in all things.
There are those such as Ponce de Leon who search incessantly for the fountain or elixir of youth but are doomed to failure. By subscribing to the eagle-wings aging theory, I truly have experienced the “renewal” described by Isaiah. I continue to find new projects, challenges and commitments, both in and outside of medicine, and cultivate stimulating friendships.
The good news is you, too, can choose a healthy diet, commit to regular exercise and better manage stress through prayer, meditation, yoga, etc., in order to have the best chance at a longer, healthier life. Search for the renewal and creativity within oneself, make better choices now and strive to do what is right.
I am not delusional about the oncoming day of my final exit or when the various diseases I confront daily in my neurosurgical work may suddenly strike and “breath becomes air.” Unexpectedly in the fourth quarter, however, I am more creative, empathetic and enjoying life more than anytime before. I am reaping the fruits of lifestyle choices early on and with renewed strength, and wings as eagles find neurosurgery and my relationships more fulfilling than ever.
Dr. Joseph Maroon is a Health Now contributor and a consultant to dietary supplement providers GNC and Prevention.