I’ve never been old before. Like many of you, I’m in the process of thinking and feeling my way through it. Knowing how my brain works is actually turning out to be an increasing comfort as new learning and discoveries unfold every day. Apparently, I’m not alone in my getting-oldness: turns out there are over 76 million of me – people born between 1946 and 1964 – The Silver Tsunami.
Even with the adverse effects that poverty and trauma can work in the early years, and even with HAROLD messing with my brain, much of old-age can be hormetic if we hold to that possibility and creatively implement actions intended for it to happen. It would be great, of course, if hormesis had been a perspective and possibility imbued from conception, but I’ll take what I can get where and when I can get it. For those of you who haven’t met this word before, it mostly means: becoming stronger in response to stress.
Does Whatever Not Kill Us Really Make Us Stronger?
Not all stressors necessarily serve a hormetic function, of course. When I could no longer get up every day and do the work I’d done for 25 years (housebuilding), that loss of livelihood seemed to present a clear threat to my survival. The result was an increase in stress hormones that compromised already marginal cognitive functioning. I thought it was going to be a simple task for me to pick up and transition to the life of a stock market daytrading desk jockey. Well, the evaporation of several hundred thousand dollars along with my marriage confirmed that my brain was simply not functioning in a clear and integrated manner. Unfortunately, I knew very little about my brain and the effects of stress upon it at that time. Long after the fact, when untenable mounting stressors sent a good friend of mine to prison for murder, I began to get a clue, however.
Hormesis with the Brain in Mind
What might have made the stress of a career-transition hormetic for me? Professionals of all stripes and colors have this issue to deal with as their careers come to a close. Judging by how many professional athletes end up broke and beaten at the end of their careers (and too many hits to the brain pan is a frequent contributor), the capacity for stress to make us stronger has not been very extensively explored. Here are three things that I think can begin to move us in that direction:
One – We have to awaken to, and hold out for hormesis as a possibility. In her wonderful memoir, 100 Names for Love, naturalist Diane Ackerman recounts the struggle she had with the rehab team tending to her husband after a stroke. The whole team continued to express expectations for recovery that Diane refused to let them or her husband live down to. When the team seemed unable to take her high expectations seriously, she brought her friend Oliver Sacks in to give the rehab team a good talking to. It apparently worked: her husband’s recovery far exceeded the rehab team’s expectations. Were it not for her mother, Jill Bolte Taylor might have suffered a similar, low expectation rehab fate. The lesson: monitor the expectations and beliefs you bring to any party.
Two – The Golden Rule of Social Neuroscience invites us to surround ourselves with people like Oliver Sacks, people who refuse to accept the status quo and who are open and enthusiastic about the creative potential for old age to be generative and extraordinary. These would be people who promote the possibility that aging, even with its aches and pains and capacities that are simply different than they used to be, brings with it enormous gifts. A happy disposition seems to be one benefit for many of us if you believe researcher, Laura Carstenson at the Stanford Center for Longevity. But in order for that to be true for us, we probably will be required to orchestrate our lives so that anxiety doesn’t kill our social status!
Three – In his provocative book, Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb presents the possibility of my Silver Tsunami years transforming me into a sage. One path for me to do this, he suggests, is to become “someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into information, mistakes into initiation and desire into undertaking (pg. 156).”
And if you can’t do any of the above, consider … stem cells.