We all want to live a nice long time but none of us likes this getting older stuff. I see women all day long who are distressed (either a little or a lot) about their changing bodies. I totally get it–I have one of those changing bodies.
This is what I’ve learned: we don’t have an option about aging, we can only choose how well we care for ourselves while it’s happening and the perspective we have about the process. As I have said more than once – this train is only going in one direction, so let’s try to enjoy the ride!
A key part of adopting a healthy perspective is recognizing the physiologic changes that are more or less inevitable. Exactly when and to what degree these things become apparent varies from person to person, but these are universal changes:
- We all get thicker in the middle. Whether we use hormones after menopause or don’t, we all get thicker in the middle. Think of it this way – without the same levels of estrogen around, our bodies are shaped more like male bodies – straighter and less curvy. You may not gain a lot of weight, but you will have a bigger waist and usually a softer tummy. Which leads me into point #2.
- We have less muscle mass. As we age we build less muscle in response to exercise. And let’s face it – a lot of us don’t exercise as much as we used to. Even if we do, we don’t make the same kind of muscles. And when the ovarian source of estrogen declines, guess where else estrogen is made? In FAT cells! Yep. Our bodies just want to help pick up the slack….so they strive to keep a certain amount of fat around to help. Isn’t that thoughtful?!
- We have thinner, drier skin and a loss of skin elasticity. Both natural aging and sun exposure contribute to thinner outer layers of skin and loss of the sub-dermal fat layer, which helps the skin appear smoother and softer. The elasticity starts to decline gradually, which we all see when we start to notice fine lines in places where the skin was formerly smooth. This increases gradually, until one day it seems like the elasticity is just GONE, and we feel like that cute little beaded elastic bracelet we went to put on one day that had stretched out to the size of a necklace with a few beads here and there.
- We have lower libido. Libido is the internal drive for procreative activity. It’s biology telling us to go make more beings like ourselves. Well guess what? Our brains have noticed the drop in hormones and are whispering to us “Psst. You don’t need to do that anymore…” That being said, we can continue to have perfectly great and satisfying sex well into our older years. We just can’t expect to feel that irresistible urge. Sex becomes a decision we make–one we’re often happy we did!
- We have less energy. This is a sneaky one. Our energy changes so often and for so many reasons throughout our lives that at first we don’t think much of it. We work hard and sleep less than we should, and sometimes we don’t eat right or we drink too much. We even exercise too much sometimes. There’s always something else to blame our fatigue on. But gradually there’s slightly less and slightly less energy. And when we notice this declining energy, we think there’s something wrong. But it makes sense, really. We all know that, should we be so lucky and live to 85, we’re going to have much less energy than we did at 30, or even less than we do now. But we aren’t going to wake up one day, 85 years old and tired. We have to get there, gradually. And at some point we’ll notice that decline and say “Hey! I didn’t sign up for this!”
All this can feel demoralizing if we let it, but that makes as much sense as getting mad about summer turning into fall. This is life! It’s the natural progression of things. We all know it’s normal, and probably reassured our own mothers or grandmothers that it was “perfectly normal.” “You look great, mom! It’s natural – you’re getting older! Don’t worry about it!” But now that it’s us, heck no–this is not all right!
So what can we do? If you stop and think about living to be 85 or 90–it’s a LONG time! I’m sure all of us would like to have some fun during those years. Besides regular check-ups, recommended health screenings and important immunizations, there are four really basic things we can do every day to make the best of the second half of our adulthood:
- Sleep: It’s the foundation for everything else. We all need 7.5 hours minimum. Make your sleeping time and space as enticing as you can. Sleep as much as your life will allow. See what happens. Here’s more information on how and why your quality of sleep changes as you age and what you can do to improve it.
- Diet: We need to feed ourselves as well as we can. People ask me all the time what “diet plan” they should be following. Pay attention to your mood and energy. You know when something makes you feel well and satisfied and when something makes you feel lethargic and crummy. I love what Michael Pollan says: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” It doesn’t have to be complicated.
- Movement: Just keep moving! When we stop doing certain movements, we will find we are no longer able to do those movements. (Have you gotten down on the floor and back up lately?) As far as I can see, exercise is the answer to just about everything—physical and emotional. Endurance, strength, balance and flexibility are all important. Walk. Play tennis. Do yoga. Or just try a plank if you have a minute. Everyone has a minute every now and then!
- Stress: Life will always be stressful in some way or another and our challenge is to find what we need to do to manage it. Some of us just need to stop and breathe. Some need to practice short meditative exercises (try the Headspace app). Some of us need professional help to get our stressful lives under control. This is the only life you get and it rarely gets easier or less complicated….how can you be happy in it?
My final piece of advice is: find your tribe! I have found myself, and seen in the women I care for, that all this aging stuff is easier and more acceptable if we acknowledge our common woes and can share the ups and downs with our female support system – our sisters, mothers and friends. We’re all going through this. And it is a great source of laughter and relief to joke about the superficial changes we can’t avoid, support one another in our challenges and take pride in our strength and wisdom.