What is normal aging? Aging means that the human body undergoes a variety of natural physiological changes over the entire course of our life. As we move through the second half of life, we become more deeply aware of age-related change in our body. The physical changes we experience influence our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Normal aging alters our body and, as a result, the feeling of being alive.
Most people believe that aging is normal but nobody defines what normal aging is…
The way you think, the way you behave, the way you eat, can influence your life by 30 to 50 years. Most people believe that aging is universal but there are biological organisms that never age. Most people believe that aging is painful and we know that pain is from diseases that are preventable, not from aging.
People have to change their concepts of aging…
(Veronica Hay, “An Exclusive Interview with Deepak Chopra,” A Magazine of People and Possibilities
We use the word “aging” to describe the process of becoming older. We know that aging creates a physiological trajectory of functional decline that reduces the resilience of the body and makes us more vulnerable to age-related-disease. And we know that aging is the essence of our mortality.
Normal aging, however, is a biological process we do not fully understand. As Deepak Chopra points out, the scientific community has not reached consensus on what normal aging is. One group of scientists may presume that it is a disease, while another group claims the opposite. Chopra presumes that aging is not a disease, and that we can have a positive influence on our experience of aging through intention.
My work presumes that aging is a mysterious phenomenon that we do not yet fully understand. Is aging a definable biological process and mechanism? Or is aging an emergent phenomenon resulting from the interaction of many processes? Regardless of the perspective we choose, it is clear that normal aging cannot be reduced to simple definition.
What will normal aging do to me?
In our youth, aging feels like a process of growth and expansion. As our body begins to mature we are simultaneously becoming more independent and self-sufficient. The human brain, for example, is considered to reach full maturity around age 25. Generally speaking, the human body is considered to reach its peak between the ages of 25 and 30.
After age 30, aging changes course and we begin a gradual process of functional decline.
If we assume average life expectancy to be age 80, then approximately 60% of our lives is the experience of age-related decline. From age 30 to 40, the effects of functional decline are less apparent, but as we move into the second half of life age-related change becomes more obvious and influential in body, mind, and spirit.
The middle passage, or midlife transition, is a controversial issue. In The Middle Passage, James Hollis describes the middle passage as an integral phenomenon of age-related change that heightens our sensitivity to our location in time. Somewhere in midlife, our mechanical notions give way to the biological rhythms of time. In other words, the biology of aging changes the feeling of time, or more specifically, the time of our life.
Is the midlife transition strictly a chronological event? Perhaps not. Some of us do not experience a significant shift into the second half of life. Midlife may also be understood as being in the midst of life; that is, we reach a certain depth of experience in life that causes a seismic shift in the feeling of being alive. In this sense, the middle passage is an integral phenomenon of body, mind, and spirit that can alter, change, or transform our orientation to life.
One thing is certain: normal aging demands places each one of us on a collision course with impermanence. The feeling of being embodied changes over time. Normal aging, senescence, and functional decline increase our physical vulnerability without exception. This is a harsh truth from which there is no retreat. No one escapes the mental and spiritual challenges of aging.
Finally, no two people have exactly the same experience of aging. In other words, normal aging is an underlying theme, while every human life is a unique variation. Other than some generalizations and commonalities, there is no one expression of normal aging. The ways in which we think, eat, and behave have a direct impact on our health and wellbeing, and therefore a dramatic influence on our life expectancy.
In the end, normal aging is a creative force that conjures a vast diversity of experience.
Senescence: The biology of growing old
Senescence (from Latin senescere meaning to grow old) is a term used to describe the range of normal physiological changes that occur in the body as we grow older; it is the science of programmed biological deterioration. Aging, or senescence, is the biology of impermanence.
For some scientists, aging and senescence are synonymous. In his article “What is Aging?” João Pedro de Magalhães offers a number of interesting perspectives on the nature of aging:
- Although everyone is familiar with aging, defining it is not so straightforward.
- Aging is one of the most complex biological processes…
- …the term “aging” refers to the biological process of growing older in a deleterious sense, what some authors call “senescence”…
- …the collection of changes that render human beings progressively more likely to die…
- …one hallmark of aging in humans and in many other species is an age-related increase in mortality rates shortly after maturity…
- Aging can also be defined as a progressive functional decline, or a gradual deterioration of physiological function with age.
- …human aging is associated with a wide range of physiological changes that not only make us more susceptible to death but limit our normal functions and render us more susceptible to a number of diseases.
In a biological sense, normal aging is synonymous with senescence and therefore a process of physical decline that make us increasingly more susceptible to age-related disease and increased mortality.
Aging doesn’t just place a limit our our lifespan, it also constantly alters the physical, emotional, spiritual, and social context of being alive.
In this sense, aging is a medium, a total surround, of our experiences in life.
Age-related Change in the Second Half of Life
In “Aging: What to Expect,” the Mayo Clinic Staff identify a number of common age-related changes. Three prominent areas of age-related change include:
- Brain, Thought, Mind, Memory: While some of the neural pathways within the brain are lost with age, the brain retains neuroplasticity (the ability to generate new neural pathways) throughout life. This means that we can learn new things throughout our entire life course.
- Perception, Senses, Interaction: Aging changes our sensory perception. In general, our senses do experience a gradual decline in their sensitivity over time. These changes will challenge our ability to creatively adapt to decreases in our sense of sight, hearing, touch, smelling, and tasting.
- Functional Decline: Most systems of the body experience a gradual decline in their ability to function. Functional decline affects the cardiovascular system, skeletal system, muscular system, and the urinary system.
Aging is not a disease, or is it?
Whether or no normal aging is a disease or not remains controversial. There are two basic perspectives on the relationship between aging and disease. One perspective is based on the premise that aging is a kind of disease that can be “cured.” A second perspective is based on the premise that aging is not a disease, but it renders the body progressively more susceptible to age-related disease over time. Here are two examples of the debate:
The problem is focused on our ideas of “normal” and “disease.” Normal aging implies an absence of disease. Age-related diseases are abnormal conditions that impair and threaten normal aging. As a disease, however, the implication is that a solution can be found. This means that normal aging as a disease can become a significant course of research funding.
In “Normal Aging vs. Dementia,” The Alzheimer Society of Canada states that “age-associated memory impairment,” or forgetfulness, is a normal part of the aging process and is often not cause for concern. Dementia, however, is a group of symptoms that present themselves as memory disorders, personality changes, social interaction problems, and impaired reasoning. Alzheimer’s disease is the most well-known form of dementia that causes a horrific deterioration of mind.
What’s normal about aging?
The word “normal” means standard, expected, typical, or usual; it does not mean “easy.” Normal aging means that certain aspects of aging are universal. From a biological perspective, there are two fundamental features that are universal to the experience of aging:
- Mortality: Normal aging culminates in death; it eventually renders our body uninhabitable. Senescence imposes increasing levels of functional decline over time until our body can no longer support life. Normal aging means that mortality is unavoidable.<.li>
- Vulnerability: Normal aging gradually renders us more vulnerable to age-related diseases and chronic illness. The biological imperative of aging imposes a gradual loss of vitality and resilience over time. Normal aging means that we all must adapt to the complications of functional decline.
- Immersive: The physical experience of normal aging influences our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. In other words, the influence of normal aging is not limited to biology. In an important, sense, aging is a form of communication with nature and the primordial forces of life.
We can confidently expect that every aspect of our life will be touched by the direct felt experience of aging. Normal aging makes time increasingly precious. As a form of communication, aging inspires a conversation with time, impermanence, and the great flow of life that we are immersed in.