As my late grandmother used to say, “One day you’ll look at yourself in the mirror and say, ‘when the hell did this happen?’”
“This,” of course, is the aging process—the signs of usage that our bodies begin to display as we clock more hours on Earth.
Maybe it’s a wrinkle in the corner of your eye you didn’t notice earlier, or possibly the trigger came in the form of your hair stylist pointing out a new grey hair sprouting in your bangs. Or maybe your existential finitude was impressed upon you by the inexistence of something you once had—like a patch of barren space where the grey hairs used to grow that have since fallen by the wayside.
Whatever the cues may be, or wherever they come from, these age-related changes remind us that our body is breaking down. And there is no question about it—it is breaking down and it will die.
Barring those currently alive, 100 percent of the human beings who have come before us on this planet have perished. In life, few things are as certain as death; even taxes are something many Americans unlawfully evade every year. But death is one of those certainties we just can’t avoid entirely.
Knowing this reality, academicians across a variety of disciplines devote time and resources to study a broad category of research optimistically called healthy aging.
Objectively speaking, however, the phrase healthy aging is an oxymoron since aging is defined in Merriam-Webster as the actual loss of good health. In other words, linguistically speaking, the combination of the words “healthy” and “aging” can’t truly exist since they are opposing concepts, at least as far as the physical part of the aging process is concerned.
Sadly, the best we can hope for is a molasses-esque slowing of the aging process studied under a more scientifically and linguistically accurate heading like, “Research on How to Die More Slowly.”
Now, although currently there is no such area of study by this name, there are researchers who have done extensive work on the psychology of death—which just so happens to have substantial applicability for our understanding of what “healthy aging” looks like in practice.
The results of some of this research suggest that “health” in older adults may in fact be spurred by contemplating the most extreme form of a lack of health—namely, death.
Specifically, a group of these death researchers published a study in The Journal of Psychology in 2009 which explicated the impact that contemplation of mortality has on individuals’ inclination to engage in health-promoting behaviors.
What they found may seem counterintuitive: specifically, older adults who were told to contemplate death reported more health-promoting behaviors than did people in the control condition who did not think about death. In short, thinking about death promoted healthy behaviors in older adults.
This study, and the more general line of research on mortality salience in social psychology (often referred to by the name of the theory it is based upon; i.e., Terror Management Theory), may, strangely enough, be just what you need that the doctor didn’t order.
So take a piece of wisdom from my grandmother and take a look into that mirror, stare your finitude in the face, ask yourself how the hell it happened, and reap the benefits of healthy aging that come from it.
Or if you’re more of glass half empty kind of person like me, just take solace in knowing that although thinking about death will not stop you from dying, at the very least it may help you die a bit more slowly. . . .
Bozo O, Tunca A, and Simsek Y. The effect of death anxiety and age on health-promoting behaviors: A terror-management theory perspective. The Journal of Psychology (2009); 143: 377–389.