My mother is nearing 90, but she still likes to drive. At her home, she maneuvers her sitting lawn mower around her property at least once a week, steering clear of the landscaping on her three-quarters-of-an-acre lawn. Behind the wheel of her Pleasure-Way camper, she has made her way through the streets of Boston to meet me for dinner. Mom drove her camper on a trip across the U.S. a couple of summers ago with her friend Anne, who was a bit older (and who recently died at age 91). They wanted to see the redwoods. The two of them weren’t afraid to pull up to a campground and park for the night. I prefer to leave lawn mowing and heavy city traffic to others, but I know that when I am my mother’s age, I will be as active as she is. Mom and I are different in many ways, yet she is my role model for living fully and with a sense of joy and adventure. To quote Esther Hicks and Abraham, my formula for my later years is “happy, healthy, dead.” You are not doomed to spend your last months with an oxygen cannula up your nose. You can rewrite that story! I know you can minimize the possibility of degenerative disease and premature aging if you make good lifestyle choices. You don’t have to experience health as a temporary respite. It is your birth right. You can get out of the state of hypervigilance and stop worrying that your body is about to betray you any minute. Instead, you can reclaim your natural, harmonious relationship with your body and experience pleasure, joy, and vibrant wellness as a daily reality. Then you’ll live agelessly, with the vitality of a goddess, and your body and spirit will reflect that.
CELLULAR AGING, CELLULAR REGENERATION
Although most people don’t realize it, the body is constantly in a state of reinvention. Cells replenish themselves regularly. Old cells die and new ones are born. Of all your organs, your skin replaces itself the most quickly, but each one regenerates. You do not have the same physical body you had just a few years ago. Every cell has been replaced. In a sense, we have a shelf life. Structures on the tips of our chromosomes called telomeres, which are like wicks on sticks of dynamite, grow shorter when cells divide. When the wick gets small enough, cells no longer receive the instruction to replicate and their death follows. However, telomeres do not have to shorten as quickly as they do. Research shows that an enzyme called telomerase repairs them and extends them slightly, which offers promise that we have the power to actually reverse aging by improving our ability to repair and lengthen our telomeres. Mindfulness meditation, exercise, and thinking differently all show promise for slowing the aging process. Studies by researchers such as Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin show that mindfulness practices rewire the brain, resulting in greater immunity and improved ability to manage stress and emotions. And a recent longitudinal study lasting eight years and following people over 50 showed that as little as an hour a week of moderate exercise can cut your risk of developing chronic disease sevenfold. “Moderate” exercising is as little as an hour a week of dancing around, washing your car, or walking. And even those who had been sedentary up until the beginning of the study had outcomes similar to those who had been exercising all along. So if you want vibrant new cells in your body, nourish them by making positive lifestyle choices that include maintaining a positive attitude about yourself, your well-being, and your value.
It’s cellular breakdown that produces the physical changes we associate with aging, from wrinkles to minor aches and ailments. The physical deterioration occurs in large part because of the accumulation of toxins, which results in cellular deterioration and damage along with tissue and organ breakdown. This toxic build-up’s effect on the body is exacerbated by the development of dense fascia: that is, scarring of connective tissue caused by physical, emotional, and mental stress (more on this later). And as I mentioned in the Introduction, spending too much time sitting and lying down speeds up the aging process. That’s why you need to move your body and experience the earth’s gravitational pull through walking, pushing, pulling, and moving. One reason movement is vitally important is that your fluids can more easily move toxins to organs that process them if you aren’t sitting all day long. In fact, urinary incontinence is exacerbated by prolonged sitting (as is erectile dysfunction, which is a reason why men need to move too). If the body’s toxins aren’t processed, cellular breakdown occurs. There are toxins in our food and environment we should avoid as much as possible, but many of the toxins that contribute to the aging process are produced in our own bodies. Stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline are meant to be used by the body in the case of an immediate threat to physical safety. They give us quick energy to run for the hills or put up the fight of our lives. When these hormones are chronically elevated in the system due to unremitting emotional and physical stress, they cause cellular inflammation, and that is the primary cause of all chronic, degenerative diseases, including cancer. A friend of mine had a medical emergency, and I took him to the ER and stayed with him for hours while the doctors and nurses treated him and ran tests. His blood tests were all normal and, after a few long, stressful hours in the ER, he was sent home with pain medications. The next morning, I had gained three pounds. My body was retaining water as part of an inflammatory process that was trying to reduce the amount of cortisol and adrenaline in my system left over from the stress of the day before.
Oxidative stress is another process that wreaks havoc on our bodies over time. Free radicals, by-products of metabolism within our cells, are molecules missing electrons that travel through the system to find cells from which they can scavenge electrons. They leave those cells damaged, and the damaged cells in turn go off in search of the electrons that would return them to stability. If your body doesn’t have enough antioxidants to regularly counteract free radical damage, eventually it will not be able to repair itself. You exacerbate inflammation and oxidative stress when you reach for sugary foods that offer temporary relief from anxiety, anger, sadness, pain, and displeasure. I’m not talking about fresh fruit, which contains fibre and lots of nutrients and antioxidants. You’re probably not drowning your sorrows by indulging in a bowl full of freshly picked blueberries. The sugars we consume under stress tend to be highly refined. They’re the sugars in foods that lack the protein or fibre that would slow the biochemical effect of the sugar on the body. The quick energy from sugar may make you feel good in the moment, but the candy bar, cupcake, or glass of wine can spike your insulin, and that causes damage to LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol. The sticky, damaged LDL travels through your blood vessels and incites further inflammation until it ends up glued to the walls, forming plaques that create restrictions and, eventually, increased risk for Alzheimer’s, diabetes, arthritis, heart attack, and stroke. In addition, glycaemic stress from even slightly high levels of blood sugar results in the release of inflammatory chemicals like cytokines from immune cells, which damage blood vessel walls.Excess visceral fat (belly fat) also causes inflammation, which leads to the sorts of aches and pains that make you want to fore-go an evening walk and settle onto the couch with a bowl of ice cream. Ingesting refined sugars triggers a beta-endorphin response that dulls pain and feels good temporarily, but the sugar-and-sedentary-living habit creates vicious cycles of inflammation and oxidation. That rounded belly isn’t due to age but to sugar consumption and inflammation catching up with you.
And while the aging effects of regular drinking start to become obvious to the eye, much of the damage is happening deeper within the body. The brain’s pathways for processing dopamine, a natural pain reliever and pleasure creator, stop functioning properly. Over time, you start to feel worse sober than you did before the drinking habit took hold. “Just a glass” of beer or wine improves mood and sense of well-being temporarily, but then the cycle begins all over again. Now, having a few sugary, sweet, or alcoholic indulgences isn’t going to kill you. In fact, healthy rituals involving pleasure (like eating fine chocolate or enjoying a glass of good wine) are part of living well. But mindless overindulgence as a way to ease pain you don’t want to feel is a whole different story. Do you really want sugar, or a sweeter life? Are you seeking spirits in a bottle of vodka, or do you want to find Spirit? Do you self-medicate and suppress your “inconvenient,” difficult feelings? It’s far better to detoxify from them and release them so that you can experience sustainable joy, like a happy two-year-old! Detoxification is great. It fosters good health and reminds us of how good it feels to get the junk out of our system and return to our natural state of wellness. You don’t have to do a four-day detox that brings on a migraine and flu-like symptoms. You can simply choose to begin the process of returning to clean eating and pleasurable living, knowing that you might feel a bit under the weather for a few days as all those toxins make their way out of your body. During that mild discomfort, you can look forward to the transition from feeling bloated, achy, and low on energy to feeling vibrant again. Let go of the concept of detoxification as punishment and focus on the pleasures of taking care of yourself, tuning in to your needs, and eating fresh, healthy foods. Notice how good it feels to tackle a cluttered drawer or closet—and then enjoy the “white” space that is left. The same thing happens in your body when you clear out the gunk. All the junk you eat and all the health-eroding messages and behaviours you keep repeating will take their toll if you don’t admit it’s time to really care for and love yourself enough to put your adrenaline-fueled ways behind you. Then you will find that you have much more control over your health than you previously thought. Gerontologist Michael F. Roizen, M.D., has done research showing that you can extend your quality and quantity of life by adopting a positive attitude and even just flossing your teeth! Some of the changes may seem difficult as you try to develop new habits and fit new activities into your busy schedule, but the payoffs can be extraordinary.
NO MORE SENIOR MOMENTS
Everyone wants her health span to match her lifespan. Many women don’t just fear losing their health, their stamina, or their looks. They also fear dementia, which is the physical degeneration of the brain. It seems every day there’s another frightening report on how many older people who are otherwise in good physical health are in cognitive decline or have developed Alzheimer’s. What isn’t so apparent is that we can make many lifestyle changes to protect our brain health. There’s quite a lot of ongoing research into dementia, but rather than wait for a treatment, why not live a lifestyle now that prevents it in the first place? What we commonly refer to as stress—mental, physical, emotional, or spiritual—actually creates inflammatory chemicals in the brain and body that lead to memory deterioration. Whether that stress comes from too much sugar in the diet, chronic worry, or lack of sleep, stress leads to cellular degeneration. Fortunately, you have the ability to turn that around. You can read about how to “manage” stress, but reading about it and intending to manage your stress one of these days isn’t going to do anything. You need daily health practices that boost immunity, lower cortisol levels and inflammation, support brain health, and cause you to embody wellness and joy. These practices can include regular movement, standing up from a sitting position regularly throughout the day, enjoying meals with good friends, dancing, breathing fully, stretching your fascia (connective tissue) through yoga or other practices, calming your emotions and calming the activity of your mind through meditation, taking antioxidant supplements, or something else. There are plenty of other ways to enhance brain health, too (more on that later). If you find yourself standing in a room wondering where your cell phone is, please don’t say, “I’m having a senior moment.” Cognitive decline is not a normal part of getting older. What you’re probably experiencing is mental overload from trying to juggle too many tasks and not getting enough quality sleep (more on that later as well). Words are powerful. Don’t talk yourself into believing your brain is turning to mush just because you are over 40! Adopt an ageless and healthy mind-set so you can program your cells to be ageless and healthy too.
AN AGELESS MIND-SET
Mental habits play a huge role in our health and longevity. The famous Ohio Longitudinal Study of Aging and Retirement (OLSAR) by gerontologist and epidemiologist Becca Levy, Ph.D., found that people with positive perceptions about aging live, on average, seven and a half years longer than people who don’t hold that belief. In fact, people’s perceptions of aging had more of an effect, positive or negative, on healthy longevity than did having low cholesterol or blood pressure (which increase longevity by four years) or a low body mass index (BMI). Perceptions even had more of an effect than not smoking (which adds three years to your life). In other words, the belief in the positive aspects of aging strongly affects your biology and thus your survival. If this information were a drug, it would be unethical not to prescribe it! A different study was done with people 60 to 90 years old to determine their “swing time,” that is, the time the foot is off the ground when a person is walking. Swing time measures balance and can indicate that someone is becoming frail. Both groups in the study were told to walk so that their swing time could be measured as a baseline. Then the subjects played a simple computer game, but unknown to them, the first group’s game contained subliminal positive messages such as “wise,” “astute,” and “accomplished” and the second group’s had subliminal negative messages such as “senile,” “dependent,” and “diseased.” After playing the computer game, the second group lost swing time. They walked as if they were actually “senile,” “dependent,” and “diseased.” However, the first group’s swing time increased. The transformation seemed to be due solely to their unconscious thoughts and the immediate effect of these thoughts on their bodily functions.
How powerful are our attitudes toward aging and growing older? Harvard professor Ellen Langer, Ph.D., in her classic book Mindfulness (Addison-Wesley, 1989), recounts how she conducted a famous study of men in their 70s and 80s. She had one group live as though it were the 1950s when they were in their prime: watching television shows from that era, looking at pictures of themselves in their prime on the walls, reading magazines from that time period, and so on. A control group lived away from their daily routine, but without any reminders of what life was like in their youth. Before the study began, the men underwent tests for hearing, blood pressure, eyesight, and pulmonary function. They also had their pictures taken. After two weeks, the tests were repeated. The men who had just lived as if in the era of their prime looked, on average, ten years younger. Their hearing, vision, lung function, and other functions and measures had also improved dramatically. They had a greater sense of well-being. And when they left the venue where they had been living, they all carried their own luggage—like the healthy vibrant men they remembered they could be. The control group showed no changes. Here’s another example of research that supports an ageless mind-set. The famous University of Minnesota longitudinal study of nuns, which began in 1986 and continues today, looked at women who entered the cloistered life in their early 20s to determine what distinguished the women who developed Alzheimer’s in their 80s from those who maintained healthy brain function. Each nun had written an autobiographical essay upon entering the monastic life in her early 20s. Only 10 percent of those whose essays were rich with linguistic flourishes, energetic descriptions, and complex language structures went on to develop Alzheimer’s disease, whereas 80 percent of those who wrote plain essays did develop it. This study suggests that being vivacious and fully engaged by our experiences and enjoying our creativity protects our brain health. It’s marvellous that we have so much control over our health and well-being! And now for some really unexpected news out of that study: autopsies showed that the nuns who relished life and showed no signs of dementia had just as many plaques in their brains as the less vivacious nuns whose dementia was apparent before they died. Please reread that last sentence. It is proof that a healthy mind and spirit can exist in a body that is less than perfect. That is the power of an ageless attitude.
We are in the era of the Alpha Goddess, the premenopausal or postmenopausal woman who has come into her own. Advertisers are beginning to realize that women in their 50s and 60s are spending their money on themselves and the people they love, without apologies, embarrassment, or hesitation. Women over 50 were the first adopters of e-readers, changing the face of book publishing, and they continue to be the number-one group of book buyers. They know what they want, they’re open to trying something new, and their buying power has a major effect on the economy. Women who aren’t as well off financially are not necessarily plunking down money for a tablet or a designer perfume, but they don’t hesitate to nurture themselves, either. Self-care and self-development become priorities when a woman has entered her second spring. At wellness expos, crowds of women are exploring all the many ways they can increase their well-being. They are getting massages and acupuncture and becoming massage therapists and acupuncturists. They and their girlfriends are off to the meditation centre on Sunday mornings or to a condominium in a resort area for a weekend of talking, hiking, and wine tasting. Alpha Goddesses are finding their tribes. They know that if they don’t have anything in common with the other women they see each day at the local pool, they can simply enjoy having someone to chat with in the locker room, and they can expand their tribe of friends outward by meeting up with people in any number of ways. As the old summer camp song goes, Alpha Goddesses know how to “make new friends but keep the old”—but they only hang on to those longstanding friendships if they’re vitalizing instead of draining. Alpha goddesses are ageless goddesses.
And Alpha Goddesses feel that “this is my time.” They’re realizing that they need to give to the world without squelching their own needs, and express themselves without being afraid of hurting someone’s feelings. Their desires and passions are calling to them. They know their strength because they have experienced significant loss and come through it. The fear that they can’t depend on themselves disappeared along with the first husband or the first job they were fired from. They know their weaknesses and have come to peace with them, having figured out ways to work around their ADHD, their impatience, their shyness, their disdain for small talk, or whatever it is that they were told in their teens would hold them back from being well-liked and accepted and catching a man. As one woman put it, “I found out that even cranky women get laid.” Some Alpha Goddesses are facing serious financial issues they will have to address, but they are feeling more encouraged than ever about their ability to take care of themselves. They may look around at women who have more financial security and realize that even though it would be nice to have the mortgage-free home, paid-off cars, and retirement fund, they feel more independent, smart, and capable than they ever have. Creating what they need and want doesn’t feel like an impossible dream. They’re coming into their own power, and realizing they don’t need to achieve success according to someone else’s definition in order to feel good about themselves and their lives. Often, they find that the opportunities that passed them by and the losses that seemed huge at the time prove not to have been quite so devastating in retrospect. The cheating lover moved on to a younger woman who is now reminding him to test his blood sugar and dealing with his irritability and demands for attention. Our second spring brings a reframing of the past—and the present and future.
Alpha Goddesses are able to put matters in perspective, whether it’s a car that’s been totalled or stolen, or another encounter with that one person in every workplace or family who has to stir up a conflict to draw attention her way. The things that used to make them pick up the phone and vent to their friends or write furiously in their journal no longer faze them. Many years ago, I lost my sister in an accident. Ever since, when someone calls with bad news, my attitude is “Hey, a family member didn’t die. This isn’t so bad.” When we’re over 50, we have enough life experience to instantly recognize what is small stuff and what isn’t. Over the years, we develop a finely calibrated BS detector. We recognize that some people are not being honest with themselves about what they are doing to create their own problems. If they pressure us to rescue them, or try to make us feel guilty for not changing our plans to accommodate their latest crisis, we find it’s easier than ever before not to give into their emotional threats. Alpha Goddesses recognize that “No” is a complete sentence. How liberating!
I see this a lot in women with aging mothers or fathers who have placed far too many unreasonable demands on them. This is the time when you learn that being a good daughter doesn’t mean letting yourself become depleted by your parents. They brought you into this world and took care of you, but making your life about their needs is not necessary or healthy for you or them. Very often, what older parents really want is to feel independent and useful. When you say no and you ask them to help you out in some way, however small, you restore balance in the relationship. It’s a gift to realize you truly are on a journey separate from your parents’. Your paths intersect, but you can’t be responsible for their lives. The same is true for your adult children. Alpha Goddesses recognize their value in the “tribe.” Although our culture is less ageist than it was a generation or two ago, there’s still too much power in the old message that a woman’s value decreases when she enters menopause because she’s no longer physically fertile. That message has been drilled into us often over our lifetimes and is rooted in the belief that a woman is like an empty vessel, designed solely for the purpose of incubating and nurturing the next generation. Once we can no longer do that, what’s our purpose?
Most of us don’t actually think we have no more value once our eggs dry up, but many of us do internalize the message that our value is in what we can produce for others. Consequently, we start feeling guilty that we aren’t spending more time, energy, and money on our adult children who are struggling with their bills, or our teenagers who are having trouble navigating the choppy emotional waters of middle school. Other people’s problems keep creeping up to the top of our To Do lists because we are trying to prove our worth to ourselves and others. Without the balance that comes from rest and receiving help from others, we burn ourselves out. There’s no better way to suck up your vital energy than to try to prove to everyone that you are a good mother, good neighbour, good daughter, and so on. As Tosha Silver, the author of Outrageous Openness: Letting the Divine Take the Lead, says, “Accept yourself absolutely and unconditionally. It’s one of the most radical acts you can do in an insane culture that actually profits from your self-loathing.” As we enter our ageless years, we can also finally free ourselves from the need to prove ourselves. We look back and see that we didn’t do so badly after all. Maybe we have some regrets, and maybe we disappointed some people, but that’s part of being human. Now is our time to focus on ourselves more instead of always worrying about everyone else.
This new form of creating means seeing new possibilities all the time. Ageless goddesses aren’t jaded. They recognize that there are always new things to learn and discover, and new relationships to begin. They’re exuberant about life and they let loose their curiosity and playfulness. A friend of mine went on a cruise to a tropical island with a turquoise lagoon and was practically “drunk with joy,” as she described it. She eagerly climbed into a boat that would take the group out to snorkel in a coral reef. But two women near her, both 20 years or so younger than she was, could only talk about how they wished the boat taking them out snorkelling had a quieter motor, and how the wind was too strong, and how the waves were going to be hard to navigate once they jumped into the water. Hello—you’re in a sparkling tropical lagoon communing with the fish! If you can’t enjoy that, you need to reconnect with your spirit and earthly pleasures so you can participate in the creative process of the earth herself. Blades of grass will push up through a brick patio even if there is a foot of gravel underneath the brick because nature is determined to push outward, upward, and forward in the act of creation if it has to. Vitality is our natural state. I’m all for exercise and healthy eating, but forcing yourself to go to a badly lit basement gym and work up a sweat on an elliptical machine while staring at a concrete wall or a depressing 24-hour news channel, and avoiding all of the foods you really love, is not going to make you ageless. Don’t “battle” aging when you can dance with life, moving your body joyously. The perfect combination of weight training, low-impact aerobics, and interval training isn’t going to do it either. If you have a passion for tweaking your workout routine, by all means go ahead and do that, but don’t think you have found the magic formula.
Although the divine feminine is often associated with women and how we perceive, think, or behave differently from men, it’s absolutely part of men’s lives too. The hearts of men feel very deeply, and most men are hardwired to serve and protect those they love. If you look at the symbol for the Tao, which represents the balance between the male and female principles, you find that there’s some feminine energy in the masculine and vice versa. You can see this balance reflected in our bodies’ hormones: both men and women have the male hormone testosterone and the female hormones estrogens and progesterone. Now we need that balance in our communities. Women have to work with men to bring forth new life—and together, we have to invent new ways of relating to each other and working together. The values of patriarchy—or what scholar Riane Eisler, author of The Chalice and the Blade (HarperCollins, 1987), calls a “dominator culture”—have to be balanced by feminine values that support life and collaboration. We need to learn to reconnect with the divine feminine and be like the moon, which waxes and wanes. Our bodies are connected to this mysterious, beautiful orb that was worshipped by the ancients. But we think that if we are to be good people and valuable to society, the sun can never set on our generosity and hard work. We have to be on call constantly. For thousands of years, we’ve been expected to produce more and more whatever the cost, driving ourselves relentlessly. Instead of collaborating, cooperating, and creating, humans have been competing. Now that the human population has topped 7 billion, we’re going to have to come up with some plans for sharing the planet’s resources and living together healthfully and harmoniously into the future. Today, it’s relentless progress without reflection and competition without collaboration that are “old school.” Fuelling ourselves with adrenaline, sugar, and caffeine is no longer sustainable for anyone. Fuelling ourselves with thoughts of “I’d better get mine before someone else grabs it” or “I’d better try to reverse aging or some younger person will beat me to the job or take all the good romantic and sexual partners” isn’t working either. We have to know when to rest, recharge, and begin envisioning what we want to create next—together. Whether your life force is draining because you are constantly trying to please others, or gobbling down fast food, or not nurturing your soul, it’s time to get off that stressful course that leads to exhaustion and degenerative disease. Exercise your goddess-like power to renew and rejuvenate yourself through joyful, pleasurable everyday practices that are crucial to mental, emotional, and physical wellness. Get rid of the idea of health as the absence of illness—as a temporary respite from the discomfort of the body’s decline—and instead see it as the natural expression of your innate divinity. The divine force is loving and joyous. It has the power to repair, restore, and fortify your body. However, we can access it only if we allow ourselves to experience what has been denied women for millennia: guilt-free pleasure, self-love, and joy.