Aging vs. Decay – how to stay healthy, wise and sexy as you grow old

Updated to Habits, Life on December 27, 2022.

I was in a car the other day with a radiologist and a neurosurgeon talking about hypertension. 

This conversation is actually not as unusual as it might sound. I volunteer for a local society that does trail clearing in a popular hiking and mountain bike park and many of the volunteers happen to be recently retired doctors. 

Back in the car, one of the doctors happened to mention that recently his medical partner, who is in his early 60’s, had a mild stroke. As we wound our way further up the dirt road to our work site my education continued. 

I learned that strokes are the second biggest cause of mortality worldwide and the third most common cause of disability. The scary statistics get worse. As you age your chance of a stroke doubles every 10 years after 55

There’s a checklist of health conditions that make you more susceptible to a stroke, like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. But the biggest culprit – six times out of ten – is hypertension or high blood pressure. In my books, that’s worth paying attention to.

What’s interesting is that stress, in itself, is not the direct cause of high blood pressure. It’s what we do when under stress that leads to nasty results. We eat too much, drink too much, and move too little. Basically, we deal with stress by making unhealthy choices.

For me, stress starts with worry.

Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve had a lot of worries

There is a world of problems you can worry about – take your pick. You can worry that Ukraine will be pummeled into a tiny province of rubble, or that we’ve passed the tipping point with global warming, or the tiny spot on your chin is cancer. 

Or not.

“I’ve had a lot of worries,” quipped Mark Twain “most of which never happened.” Our mind loves a good worry. Like a dog chewing a bone, we want to turn our worry around, looking from all angles, poking and prodding until it swells up into something bigger than it really is.

I used to worry incessantly before every keynote speech. I’d worry I’d miss my flight or wasn’t prepared enough, or I would be greeted by the “audience from hell.” Trust me, when you have 60 minutes to educate, entertain, inspire, motivate, and get laughs from an audience you’ve never met before, any sane person would invent a long list of worries.

It was at one of those events when a fellow speaker opened an exit door for my worries. He suggested that audiences don’t want you to fail – in fact, they want you to succeed. “They want to see you having fun—enjoying yourself. That way,” he explained, “they can enjoy the ride with you.”

When I accepted the long list of what I could never control – my flights, the audience, the speaker before me going overtime – I was free to focus on what I could control.

Enjoying the moment. 

What your life will have been

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells the story of delighting in the preciousness of every single moment.

A woman is running from lions. She runs and she runs, and the lions are getting closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds onto it. Then she looks down and sees that there are lions below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks a the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Learning what to focus on, and what to ignore, seems to be the ultimate secret to living a healthy, stress-free life. “Whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment,” writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks (a must-read for anyone over 50), “is simply what your life will have been.”

So, what are you focussing on?

What to focus on

You can learn a lot when you’re the dumbest one in a car full of doctors. I learned that strokes are a silent pandemic. And that hypertension is the leading cause of that pandemic. And I learned the leading cause of hypertension is stress. 

I was also reminded that stress is a choice.

We all have lions and tigers in our life. Maybe even a mouse or two gnawing away at something we value. Meanwhile, we have the moment.

Choosing what to focus on (and what not to) might just be the healthiest choice you can make.

Got this far? You might also like these posts:

Photo of eggs by Nik on Unsplash
Photo of Ngoc Son Temple by author
Photo of tigers by author

It’s funny how we’re so good at getting what we want today and so bad at planning for what we need tomorrow.

We happily drive our crew-cab pick-up truck back and forth to work while our bike sits rusting in the garage. We gaily spend money on new clothes and big screen TV’s but don’t have a clue how to save for our retirement.

And we abuse our body with too much sitting, over-eating, and zero exercise, then run off to our friendly doctor every time we get an ache hoping she can fix 40 years of neglect with a couple of pills.

And you’re getting older.

It doesn’t matter how much money you squirrel away, how nice your car is or how many burpees you can do in 5 minutes – your reward is the same as everyone else on this rock: you get older.

Time to face it. Time to face it now.

BTW: if you’re wondering why the hell I’m writing about getting older. “I thought the blog was about entrepreneurs and PowerPoint.!?!” Here’s the thing. It’s my blog, I host it, I pay for it, so I’m going to write whatever I damn well want to write about. Get over it.

As I’ve aged I’ve discovered there’s a decision we all need to make. It’s not about your money (although you better get that act together ASAP). The decision is simply this:

How do you want to get older?

If you are over 50, all those jokes you used to make about old people – well they’re all true and you’re the joke. Hair starts to grow in strange places, new wrinkles appear daily, your memory is shot and gravity has taken over your body.

It’s what Dr. Henry Lodge in Younger Next Year called the “immutable biology of aging.”

You should celebrate aging because most likely you’re going to get to enjoy life a lot longer than your grandparents or even your parents.

But then there’s modern life.

Enter fast food and the mall

Along with our increase in lifespan in the last 50 years from about 70 to 87 years, we’ve inherited all the questionable benefits of modern life: less need for everyday activity including physical work, fast food on every corner, cheap gas, TV, the Internet and shopping malls.

We drive 4 blocks to get our groceries, eat processed foods with too much sugar and “recreation” has become binge-watching on Netflix.

And just like email, smartphones, and selfies, sometimes too much of something is not a good thing.

“Left to their own devices,” wrote Lodge, “your body and brain will consistently and without fail, misinterpret the signals of the twenty-first century.”

Let’s look at healthy aging.

Hunt and hibernate

To understand healthy aging we have to step back a million years to your very-distant cousins, named Igor and Izzy – two sharp-dressers who did what all happy, healthy Neanderthals did: they hunted and hibernated.

Igor and Izzy didn’t have a 72” fridge with an ice maker so every day they were out hunting – using their muscles, getting their heart rate up and working up a good sweat.

Then they would come back to their one-bedroom “starter” cave and hibernate.

When they hunted they triggered a brilliant cycle of breaking down and rebuilding muscles, bones, and tissue to make the body stronger, more resilient to disease and capable of going hunting again.

That’s healthy living.

The hunt and hibernate routine response was included in the delivery of your awesome design.

And you do have an awesome design.

It might not feel like it when you haul your sorry ass out of bed in the morning, but over a million years the best of each generation went into the next generation. So we are all the result of a huge grand design created over millennia.

What’s also built into your awesome design is the ability to recover fitness, lose weight, feel healthy and vibrant and to look terrific – even in your 60’s and 70’s. And it’s all about accepting aging and avoiding decay.

Aging vs. Decay

What’s exciting about aging is we never lose our ability to change. That module was delivered with every model born on this spinning rock. You can change your thinking, your routines, what you eat and your eating habits – heck you can even change the friends you hang out with.

You can also choose to stop the decay that shows up so seductively with a lazy-boy chair, 48” flat screen, and home-delivery meals.

And when you make the choice to age, but not decay, your body leaps into action, fires up the hunt and hibernate routine and gets you results:

Aging is predictable, decay is optional.

What’s your choice?


More of my articles on choice, aging and living life well:

How you can be Younger Next Year
You already have what you need (money, time, health and sex)
How drinking tea can make you rich (and build willpower)