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The Key to Aging Gracefully Is to Stop Worrying About Aging Gracefully

Just let it happen, brah

“Everyone is getting older,” Alan Castel, a professor of psychology at UCLA, tells me when I call to talk about his new book, Better with Age: The Psychology of Successful Aging. He’s right, of course: Literally speaking, every single person, from the moment they’re conceived to the moment they die, is getting older. And yet, in spite of the universality of aging, it’s always been easier to dance around the topic than to talk about it directly.

It’s something I noted in my article on how to dress your age — there’s a reason why the nearly $300 billion industry promoting eternal youth is referred to as “anti-aging,” rather than “how to age well.” As I wrote back in July, “For every one article written about embracing your wrinkles or appreciating your salt-and-pepper hair, there’s at least 10 written about some new serum that uses a baby’s foreskin to keep your face looking younger.”

This conundrum is what makes Castel’s research — which is less concerned with how to stop aging or how to turn back the biological clock than it is with how to age gracefully — so interesting. “Many people think of aging in negative ways,” says Castel. “But our attitude about aging can actually predict how well we’ll age.”

So what are some other, slightly more positive ways to interpret the daily reminder that you’re one day closer to dying?

Aging Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Misery

“We can dispel some common myths. Some people think it’s dreary, but if you’re healthy and active, aging can be positive,” says Castel. “Happiness reaches an all-time low around the age of 40 to 45 then spikes up again. If we’re doing things we like, old age can be something that we’re actually looking forward to.”

The Key to Aging Well Is Balance

“The famous UCLA basketball coach John Wooden told me the two most important things in life were love and balance,” Castel says. “Find who and what you love, and have balance in your life, both mentally and physically. He lived to age 99!”

In practice, “This can mean having balance between working in a stimulating job, being social and some level of physical activity — walking and dancing,” says Castel. “One study found that people who walked three times a week for 40 minutes showed an increase in the size of their hippocampus [a key brain area involved in memory]. This part of the brain typically declines after the age of 50, so an increase means improved brain health and better memory. Most people think you should do crosswords puzzles, but there’s not great evidence that helps with brain health.”

Physical Activity Doesn’t Mean Killing Yourself

Bill Clinton used to eat McDonald’s, then go run a marathon,” says Castel. “Now he walks more regularly, and he eats a vegan diet. He has more balance in his life. Also, walking means less pressure on your joints — the effects of wisdom is knowing your limits. A two-mile hike can give you the same cognitive health benefits as a 15-mile run. It’s called metacognition — being more aware of how our mind works and how we work. As we get older, we may not be pulling 14-hour work days, but we still get a lot done in six or seven hours.”

As You Get Older, Small Social Connections Become More Meaningful

“For men, these social connections will be in the workforce: That’s where they get the majority of their social stimulation — conferences, business trips, etc.,” explains Castel. “But when men retire, often their social network disappears. Even though it was a lot of small talk, that’s important — that can have health benefits. Even being a regular at a coffee shop or exercise class, having consistent interactions and not necessarily deep conversation is very important. Someone you can talk about politics or sports with. Those small conversations can be very meaningful.”

How You Attribute Things Becomes Increasingly Important

“We think of old age as 70 to 80,” says Castel. “But when you’re in your 20s and 30s, let’s say you just forgot a question, it’s no big deal. But if you’re 60 or 70, you think, ‘I’m forgetting more stuff because of my age,’ and that’s not always true. Our attribution becomes really important. How you interpret these things matters.”

Don’t Worry So Much About Looking Older

“People tend to feel subjectively younger (about 20 percent younger than they actually are),” says Castel. “When you turn 50 you might not feel like you’re 50 — instead, you might feel like you’re in your early 40s. That doesn’t mean you should behave younger. People are concerned about getting older because they look older, not because they feel older. That disconnect is the cause of a lot of concern for most people.”