January 19, 2020

In defense of aging

“When nine hundred years old you reach, look as good, you will not.”
-Jedi Master Yoda

My patients occasionally ask me “do you have something that will make me younger?” Sometimes they’re just joking and want to complain a bit about some indignity of getting older. But frequently they’re serious and would like me to reverse some ravage of time. What I find fascinating is that they don’t ask “Do you have something for wrinkles?” or “Can I have a medicine for erectile dysfunction?” or “My hot flushes are terrible. Can you do anything for them?” They blame their symptoms on their age and have decided they’ve had enough of aging.

I hope I’m not the first to break this to you, but your age is just the elapsed time since you were born. The only way to be younger is to be born later. If you’re unhappy with when you were born, take it up with your parents. But if you’re unhappy that you’ve gotten old, I’d like to try to change your mind.

Lots of my older patients are nostalgic about their youth. And many are much less healthy than they were a decade or two ago. And seen through the haze of imperfect memory, it’s tempting to romanticize the past. But would any of us really want to relive our youth? Would we give up the wisdom and experience that we’ve amassed over decades in exchange for painless joints? Would we trade the deep committed relationships we have now to fall in love for the first time again? If we could get rid of every one of our chronic illnesses to reenact all the mistakes we made in our twenties, would we?

I hope not.

We live in a youth-obsessed time in a very youth-obsessed place. But like youth itself, this phase must pass. All philosophies that have stood the test of time and all civilizations that have lasted more than a few generations venerate their elders. Movements that celebrate youth are either shallowly materialistic or radical revolutions. Eventually both consumers and hippies grow up and the bubble bursts. Pete Townsend, who wrote the lyrics “Hope I die before I get old”, turned 70 this year, and I hope he has many happy healthy years ahead of him.

In Los Angeles, patients are likely to be exposed to many types of quackery. There’s the chronic Lyme disease quackery, the intravenous vitamins quackery, and the homeopathic herbalist quackery. But the quackery that makes me saddest is anti-aging quackery. It’s just as ineffective as any other form of quackery, but it’s sadder because it’s based on a double lie. It preys on patients’ irrational fear of aging, and rather than convince them otherwise, it sells them hormones and supplements and other nonsense. There’s never been a better time to be old. I’m a pro-aging doctor; if I do my job well my patients get older.

My oldest patient is 101. I saw her this week. She walks without a cane. She’s mentally sharp. She’s happy. Her biggest complaint is that her friends are so much younger than her. She’s never asked me to make her younger.

I wish my Jewish patients and readers a sweet and healthy year. And I hope that all of us, Jew and gentile, get a year older.

“Live long and prosper.”
Vulcan benediction

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” target=”_blank”>Meditations (Marcus Aurelius)