Tagged Age, Chronological

Talking to Younger Men About Growing Old

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For Robert Goldfarb, 85, resisting the decline of old age goes beyond the treadmill.

For Robert Goldfarb, 85, resisting the decline of old age goes beyond the treadmill.Credit

An electronic display on the treadmill in my local gym reminds me I’m not only running on the machine, but out of time. Its graph comparing changes in the runner’s heart rate to that of peers goes no further than age 70. I’m 85, and find it ominous that the machine presumes that anyone that old shouldn’t be on the thing.

Reminders that I’m now officially one of the old-old appear with greater frequency. Some are subtle, like the treadmill display; others are more jarring, like my daughter’s approaching 60th birthday. Most reminders are well-meaning: a young woman offering her seat on a bus, an airport employee hurrying over with a wheelchair, happily telling me I won’t have to walk to the gate or stand in line. I graciously decline their kindness, struggling not to protest, “But, I’m a competitive runner!” That I feel robust doesn’t matter; the man I see and the man they see are two very different people.

I recently read something the philosopher Montaigne wrote over 400 years ago: “The shorter my possession of life, the deeper and fuller I must make it.” His words inspired me to seek a path through old age without surrendering to it or ignoring its reality.

I began by fighting memory lapses. Rather than substituting “whatever” for an elusive word, I now strain to recall that word, even if means asking others to bear with me for a bit. I avoid phrases that suggest the end of things, like “downsizing” or “I no longer do that.” I subscribe to internet memory games. To recapture the excitement I felt in long-ago classrooms, I began rereading books I read in college.

I also decided to reach out to men my age to learn how they navigate through growing old. Like most of the men I began speaking with, I’m a product of the 1950s and its pressure to conform, to avoid risk, to shun anything that marked one as “different.” Many young people then were warned by parents that signing petitions bearing words like “protest” or “progressive” would get them rejected for a job or fired when they grew up. Men in my platoon didn’t embrace when we parted after serving in the Korean War. Closer than brothers, we settled for a handshake, knowing that’s what men did.

Almost immediately, I found conversations with men my age awkward. Attempts I made to discuss aging were met with jokes about the alternative. With few exceptions, those I spoke with regarded feelings as something to be endured, not discussed. It quickly became clear I was free to contemplate growing old, but not with them.

My wife suggested I meet with younger acquaintances to learn if they would talk with me about aging. I did, and found that men just 10 years younger spoke openly about changes in their minds and bodies. No one joked or changed the subject when one of them confided, “My father had Alzheimer’s, and I’m beginning to forget the same things he did,” or, “My firm’s managing partner said I was slowing younger associates and had to retire.”

It puzzled me that they felt so much freer to discuss feelings than men born just a decade earlier. Could it be because they were shaped by the ’60s, rather than the ’50s? Growing up, they protested what we accepted, challenged authority we obeyed, celebrated their individuality while we hoped to be one of the men in a gray flannel suit. They were the “me” generation, defined by Woodstock and rock ‘n’ roll, while my generation found comfort in Eisenhower’s paternal leadership and listening to soothing ballads like George Shearing’s “I’ll Remember April” and Margaret Whiting’s “Moonlight in Vermont.” Separated by a sliver of time, the two decades seem an eternity apart.

As I seek to reinvent myself, questioning what I do out of habit and what I’m not doing that could be liberating, it’s the voices of these younger men that I hear as I run on the treadmill today. That and the voice of Frank Sinatra from the ’50s, crooning a line from “September Song” that captures what I’ve been feeling: “But the days grow short when you reach September.” It’s realizing that I’ve reached November that presses me forward, ignoring the treadmill’s display, hoping I can lead a deeper and fuller life before I run out of time.

Robert W. Goldfarb is a management consultant and author of “What’s Stopping Me From Getting Ahead?”

At 100, Still Running for Her Life

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100 and She Just Won’t Stop

She is a national champion, a former activist and a centenarian. And she runs.

By NOAH REMNICK and ERICA BERENSTEIN on Publish Date April 22, 2016. Photo by Elias Jerel Williams for The New York Times.

On a cloudless Sunday afternoon in April, a 100-year-old woman named Ida Keeling laced up her mustard yellow sneakers and took to the track at the Fieldston School in the Bronx. Her arrival was met without fanfare. In fact, no one in the stands seemed to notice her at all.

It is possible the spectators were distracted by the girls’ soccer game taking place on the field. Or perhaps they were simply unaware that Ms. Keeling is a reigning national champion.

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Ms. Keeling, 100, holds a record for the 60-meter dash for American women ages 95 to 99.

Ms. Keeling, 100, holds a record for the 60-meter dash for American women ages 95 to 99.Credit Elias Jerel Williams for The New York Times

When she runs, Ms. Keeling occupies a lane all her own. She has held several track-and-field records since she began racing in her late 60s, and she still has the fastest time for American women ages 95 to 99 in the 60-meter dash: 29.86 seconds. In the week to come, she plans to compete in a 100-meter event at the Penn Relays in Philadelphia, where she hopes to establish a new standard for women over 100 years old.

“You see so many older people just sitting around — well, that’s not me,” said Ms. Keeling, who is barely 4-foot-6 and weighs 83 pounds. “Time marches on, but I keep going.”

Ms. Keeling was not always such an accomplished runner. As a child growing up in Harlem, she preferred riding bikes or jumping rope. With Title IX half a century away, there were few opportunities for girls, let alone black girls, to play organized sports. When she did run, it was always to race, never to exercise.

“I was pretty fast as a girl,” she said. “What makes me faster now is that everyone else slowed down.”

When the Depression hit, Ms. Keeling’s athletic inclinations receded into memory, supplanted by a series of jobs washing windows and babysitting for neighbors. Her family, who for years lived in cramped quarters in the back of her father’s grocery, was forced into even more humbling circumstances when the store went out of business and her father began peddling fruits and vegetables from a pushcart for a living.

“I learned to stand on my own two feet during the Depression,” she said. “It taught you to do what you had to do without anyone doing it for you.”

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Shelley Keeling, left, and her mother, Ida Keeling, on a balcony in the Riverdale section of the Bronx.

Shelley Keeling, left, and her mother, Ida Keeling, on a balcony in the Riverdale section of the Bronx.Credit Elias Jerel Williams for The New York Times

Ms. Keeling’s resilience only deepened with time. After her husband died of a heart attack at 42, she was left to raise their four children on her own. She moved the family into a one-bedroom apartment in a Harlem housing project and took up work sewing in a factory, all the while contending with the abuses and indignities endured by black women in mid-20th-century America. As the civil rights movement took shape, Ms. Keeling became an active demonstrator, shuttling her children to Malcolm X speeches and boarding a predawn bus for the 1963 March on Washington.

“I always understood from mother that you die on your feet rather than live on your knees,” said her daughter Shelley Keeling.

Over time, that resolve was gravely tested. While serving overseas in the Navy, Ms. Keeling’s older son, Donald, developed a crippling drug addiction that he struggled to shed even after returning home to Harlem. His habit ensnared his younger brother, Charles, who had served in the Army. Ms. Keeling watched in horror as both boys, barrel-chested charmers who friends joked looked like superheroes, withdrew into the world of drugs.

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Ms. Keeling stretched her legs in her daughter’s living room in the Bronx last month.

Ms. Keeling stretched her legs in her daughter’s living room in the Bronx last month.Credit Elias Jerel Williams for The New York Times

In 1978, Ms. Keeling received a call from the police informing her that Donald had been hanged. Around two years later, the phone rang again: Charles was dead — beaten in the street with a baseball bat. Both killings were suspected to be drug-related; neither was ever solved.

“I’ve never felt a pain so deep,” Ms. Keeling recalled, her voice lowering to a whisper. “I couldn’t make sense of any of it and things began to fall apart.”

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A stretch to improve Ms. Keeling’s blood flow and flexibility.

A stretch to improve Ms. Keeling’s blood flow and flexibility.Credit Elias Jerel Williams for The New York Times

As Ms. Keeling fell into a deep depression, her health began to falter. Her blood pressure shot up, along with her heart rate. The image of her once-vital mother in such despair shook the younger Ms. Keeling. A lifelong track-and-field athlete whose trophies fill an entire room of her apartment, she intervened with the means of healing most familiar to her: running.

“It was trial by fire,” recalled Shelley Keeling, 64, who has coached track and field at Fieldston for 21 years. “Based on where she was emotionally, it just had to be.”

After some coaxing from her daughter, Ms. Keeling, then 67, registered for a five-kilometer race through Brooklyn. It had been decades since she had last gone running. The two women took off together, but the younger Ms. Keeling soon darted to the front of the pack as her mother drifted far behind. After a suspenseful respite, was relieved to see her mother scamper across the finish line, barely out of breath.

“Good Lord, I thought that race was never going to end, but afterwards I felt free,” Ms. Keeling recalled. “I just threw off all of the bad memories, the aggravation, the stress.”

So began the sunset career of Ida Keeling, at a time when most of her peers were settling in for a future of seated yoga or abandoning athletics altogether. In the decades since, she has traveled across the world for competitions. She often races alone, the only contestant in her age group.

“Now I’m just chasing myself — there’s no one else to compete with,” she said. “It’s wonderful, but it feels a little crazy.”

Running gives Ms. Keeling a sense of serenity, she said. Her sinewy arms urge her body forward, each stride stronger than the last as she picks up momentum. Though she has developed arthritis and occasionally relies on a cane while walking, Ms. Keeling betrays none of her ailments as she runs.

To maintain her health, Ms. Keeling adheres to a stringent regimen of diet (“I eat for nutrition, not for taste”) and exercise (“I’ve got to get my hour in every day”). On a recent afternoon, Shelley Keeling led her mother through a routine that included push-ups, wall sits, shoulder presses and sprints back and forth on the balcony of her apartment in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. Ms. Keeling lives alone and says that self-sufficiency is a key to her longevity.

“I don’t beg nobody for nothing,” she said. “I wash, cook, iron, scrub, clean, mop and shop.”

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Ms. Keeling exceeded the five push-ups that her daughter had asked of her.

Ms. Keeling exceeded the five push-ups that her daughter had asked of her.Credit Elias Jerel Williams for The New York Times

Ms. Keeling eschews food products with preservatives, favoring fresh grains and produce, along with limited portions of meat. Desserts are rarities, and a tablespoon of cod-liver oil supplements breakfast most mornings. Despite her exceptional discipline, Ms. Keeling allows herself one indulgence. “This is putting gas in the car,” she said before downing a tall shot of Hennessy.

There are days when Ms. Keeling battles a surge of arthritis or a hint of melancholy. “I never want to go backwards,” she said. “I’m a forward type of person.”

As she navigated the track at Fieldston, a nasty cramp shot up her right leg, hobbling her gait. For a moment she seemed to hesitate as she let out a deep sigh and slowed her pace. But then Ms. Keeling dispensed with the pain the only way she knew how. She ran through it.

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Exercise Makes Our Muscles Work Better With Age

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Credit Getty Images

To keep our muscles healthy deep into retirement, we may need to start working out more now, according to a new study of world-class octogenarian athletes. The study found substantial differences at a cellular level between the athletes’ muscles and those of less active people.

Muscular health is, of course, essential for successful aging. As young adults, we generally have scads of robust muscle mass. But that situation doesn’t last.

Muscles consist of fibers, each attached to a motor neuron in our spinal column by long, skinny nerve threads called axons. The fiber and its neuron are known as a muscle unit.

When this muscle unit is intact, the neuron sends commands to the muscle fiber to contract. The muscle fiber responds, and your leg, eyelid, pinky finger or other body part moves.

However, motor neurons die as we age, beginning as early as in our 30s, abruptly marooning the attached muscle fiber, leaving it disconnected from the nervous system. In younger people, another neuron can come to the rescue, snaking out a new axon and re-attaching the fiber to the spinal cord

But with each passing decade, we have fewer motor neurons. So some muscle fibers, bereft of their original neuron, do not get another. These fibers wither and die and we lose muscle mass, becoming more frail. This process speeds up substantially once we reach age 60 or so.

Scientists have not known whether the decline in muscular health with age is inevitable or whether it might be slowed or altered.

There have been encouraging hints that exercise changes the trajectory of muscle aging. A 2010 study of recreational runners in their 60s, for instance, found that their leg muscles contained far more intact muscle units than the muscles of sedentary people of the same age.

But whether exercise would continue to protect muscles in people decades older than 60, for whom healthy muscles might be the difference between independence and institutionalization, had never been examined.

So for the new study, which was published last week in the Journal of Applied Physiology, researchers from McGill University in Canada and other schools contacted 29 world-class track and field athletes in their 80s and invited them to the university’s performance lab. They also recruited a separate group of healthy but relatively inactive people of the same age to act as controls.

At the lab, the scientists measured muscle size and then had the athletes and those in the control group complete a simple test of muscular strength and function in which they pressed their right foot against a movable platform as forcefully as possible. While they pressed, the scientists used sensors to track electrical activity within a leg muscle.

Using mathematical formulas involving muscle size and electrical activity, the scientists then determined precisely how many muscle units were alive and functioning in each volunteer’s leg muscle. They also examined the electrical signal plots to see how effectively each motor neuron was communicating with its attached muscle fiber.

Unsurprisingly, the elite masters athletes’ legs were much stronger than the legs of the other volunteers, by an average of about 25 percent. The athletes had about 14 percent more total muscle mass than the control group.

More interesting to the researchers, the athletes also had almost 30 percent more motor units in their leg muscle tissue, and these units were functioning better than those of people in the sedentary group. In the control group, many of the electrical messages from the motor neuron to the muscle showed signs of “jitter and jiggle,” which are actual scientific terms for signals that stutter and degrade before reaching the muscle fiber. Such weak signaling often indicates a motor neuron that is approaching death.

In essence, the sedentary elderly people had fewer motor units in their muscles, and more of the units that remained seemed to be feeling their age than in the athletes’ legs.

The athletes’ leg muscles were much healthier at the cellular level.

“They resembled the muscles of people decades younger,” said Geoffrey Power, who led the study while a graduate student at McGill and is now an assistant professor at the University of Guelph in Ontario.

Of course, this type of single-snapshot-in-time study can’t tell us whether the athletes’ training actually changed their muscle health over the years or if the athletes were somehow blessed from birth with better muscles, allowing them to become superb masters athletes.

But Dr. Power, who also led the 2010 study, said that he believes exercise does add to the numbers and improve the function of our muscle units as we grow older.

Whether we have to work out like a world-class 80-year-old athlete to benefit, however, remains in question. Most of these competitors train intensely for several hours every week, Dr. Power said. But on the plus side, some of them did not start their competitive regimens until they had reached their 50s, providing hope for the dilatory among us.

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