So you never thought it would happen to you: you're watching yourself grow old. All of a sudden, 25-year-olds, once your peers, look like kids. Then, 25-year-olds are your kids. It seems like a few more wrinkles permanently visit your face each year, and that collection of gray hairs you've tallied up is just about worthy of an award. Then, to top it all off, you hear people 10 years younger than you complaining that they're getting old.

Sure, no matter what you do, your body is going to age, but there's no doubt that the mindset you hold towards aging has a tremendous influence on how well you will age. The most recent studies on longevity to come out of Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York show that genetics have only a 30% influence on the length of our lives; the remaining 70% depends on one's lifestyle. The bottom line is: if you have the right attitude, stay active and continue doing the things you love, you can not only live a higher quality of life as an elder, but you will most likely live a longer one as well.
Kelly Ferrin, gerontologist and author of What's Age Got to Do with It? (ALTI Publishing, 1999), points out that although 65 is the marker of old in our country, that marker was established in the late 1800s when the life expectancy was only 47. "If you talk to most people, especially people over the age of 55, they don't think 65 is old," states Ferrin. "And when life expectancy is pushing 80 today, how can we possibly call 65 old?" She is also quick to point out that 50% of the functional losses that occur in individuals after the age of 50 are attributable to lack of exercise and non-activity. "So don't you dare blame it on age," she scolds. "I'm tired of people doing that."

Of 127 medical schools in this country, only one has a geriatric medicine division, and only 13 even offer a course or rotation in geriatrics. There are probably fewer than 500 trained geriatricians, as opposed to around 65,000 trained pediatricians. Ferrin feels that this shortage reflects our general negative attitude towards old people in general, and hopes that soon it will begin to change. When one considers that older adults comprise the largest group of healthcare consumers, the lack of trained geriatricians is frightening, she says.

Ferrin adamantly believes that we've got to start taking a look at what's right with age, instead of just focusing on what's wrong with it. "Not only are people living longer lives, but they're living better, much healthier, longer lives," she says. "Unfortunately, because we've never had this healthy older adult population before, and all the studies on elders have been on the sick and the frail, we have a real attitude problem [towards age] that we need to overcome. If people believe that their later years can be a time of good health and vitality and productivity, then they are going to incorporate the lifestyle behaviors that will make that happen."
As we see more and more old people living healthy, fully enjoyable lives well into their 80s, 90s and even 100s, it will become easier for us to discard those automatic, negative associations we have toward being old. For her book, Ferrin gathered 103 people between the ages of 67 and 122 with inspiring stories of what they have accomplished, or are accomplishing, in their later years of life. The stories demonstrate elderly people enjoying the full range of individual successes, including 90-year-olds (or older) performing amazing physical achievements, running their own businesses, or doing volunteer work with children.

Take Ben Levinson, who will turn 105 in March. He noticed he was starting to have trouble getting up out of a chair, so he started strength training at the age of 100, and has been doing so ever since. One woman decided she wanted a new adventure for her 90th birthday, so she went sky diving. Many of the people in the book, particularly the ones who have done physical feats, were never health-conscious or even involved in physical activities at all when they were younger.

"It's never too late," says Ferrin. "I saw consistently, in all the people's stories, a sense of spirituality and faith of some type. That was a key element as well."
Researchers tell us that of the 10 leading health problems of people over 65, 80% of those conditions are lifestyle-related. Once we realize this, we can start taking a more active role in coloring the quality of our health, and in keeping those "age-related" health problems at bay. "That's when you come into diet and exercise and volunteerism, staying involved in being healthy and social, and having a positive attitude," says Ferrin. "I think we all know that exercise is good for us, but what we don't know is how bad it is if we don't do it. When we get older, two things happen to our bodies physiologically: one, we lose bone density, and two, we lose muscle mass. These are the only two things that can be reversed or stopped, not by medication, not by surgery, but by people moving their bodies."

Of course, when we're older, we do need to identify the best types of exercise for our bodies, as every body at any given age is at a different level and has different needs. Exercise need not be limited to structured, planned exercise routines-it can mean simply being in motion as much as possible. For instance, Bert Morrow, 87 years old and five-time record breaker in the Senior Olympics in track and field, says that whenever he has the option, he'll take the stairs instead of the elevator in order to reach floors of five stories or less.

Over 61,000 people in this country are over the age of 100. "Just like we're seeing more and more millionaires, we'll be seeing more and more centenarians," says Ferrin. When centenarians are asked about how they've achieved such longevity, they generally mention the same four key elements in their lives. The first is being optimistic and having a positive attitude. The second is engagement; this is the degree of passion one feels for life, how connected one feels to it, and retaining, or discovering, a sense of purpose. Engagement can be achieved by continuing to do the things in life one loves and feels strongly about. The third element is being active and mobile: being able to move, function, and maintain independence by exercising and staying active. And fourth, but not least, is adaptability to loss, and resilience. The better one learns how to deal with and adapt to the difficulties of life, the happier and stronger he or she will be. "We stress about certain things. Centenarians will tell you to deal with it initially, but then let it go."

If you're one of the many age-fearers, it might be a good idea to take to heart that old, tired-but-true adage-life is what you make of it. The same applies to age. If you think age will hold you back, then your negative beliefs about it will prevent you from experiencing it as a positive thing. It's important to keep the focus off, "How much longer we have left to live?" and to instead divert it to, "What we can do to make the best of today ?" After all, now that we have longer life expectancies than ever before, doesn't it make sense to expect more out of those later years of life as well?

For more information or copies of the book, What's Age Got to Do with It?, contact Kelly Ferrin at or visit

-Amy Sorkin is a freelance writer living in Hollywood.