NUMBERS ARE IMPORTANT to Jan Sirota, a retired investment banker who lives in Sarasota, Florida. Sirota just celebrated 11 years of marriage, he cycles 40 miles per day, mentors four high school students and races cars 150 miles per hour in High Performance Driver Education events. The number that doesn’t seem to matter? His age.
“I’m 75, and it’s irrelevant to me,” Sirota says. “There’s no reason to say that I’ll slow down because I’m getting older.”
Many older adults do slow down, however, when faced with chronic disease, disability or isolation. So why is it that some people, like Sirota, can escape that fate and live vibrantly later in life? “Certainly genetics play a big part in this, and then of course luck. However, I don’t want anyone to think we can’t fight destiny a little bit,” says Dr. Patricia Harris, a geriatrician and professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.
Some change is inevitable. We lose muscle and bone mass as we get older, and we experience a decline in sex hormones, kidney function, mental sharpness and reaction time. Cartilage in the joints often wears away and causes pain, digestion slows, balance becomes impaired and vision and hearing may decline. Chronic disease may also develop, such as cardiovascular disease or Type 2 diabetes.
A shift in social connections can also affect us in older age. Our children grow up and move away. We no longer see co-workers when we retire. People close to us – friends, siblings, a spouse – succumb to illness or dementia. This can lead to loneliness, isolation or depression, and a downward spiral.
“Loneliness is one of the biggest problems I see,” Harris says. “It leads to depression and a loss of motivation to manage health. People become sicker and frailer, which keeps them from getting out and socializing. It increases the risk for an early death.”
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