Last fall, when I started writing a blog on this fascinating stage of life, one of my goals was to investigate what I call the "skills of retirement."
I'm talking about the soft skills, mostly psychological, that help us better cope with transitioning away from the full-time working life and, gradually, gracefully, inevitably into a well-adjusted old age (while having the time of our lives along the way).
One of those skills is being open to change. And a sub-skill of being open is being willing to question our assumptions.
When we keep asking questions, we are less likely to get stuck in certainty, which is a trap like any other trap.
Change feels almost binary. Half of us seem to dislike it. The other half seem to relish it. Change-avoiders probably are in the majority.
Change is uncomfortable for most people, as is questioning ourselves. Maintaining order amid the chaos of life relies on having convictions. We stand on our beliefs as if they are concrete underpinnings.
But what if they aren't so solid after all? What if we find out that long-held assumptions have lately proven incorrect? That happens to us all repeatedly.
At this stage if life, is it too late to change? Is a familiar myth preferable to an unfamiliar truth?
My opinion: being stuck is just as hard on us as adjusting to change — maybe harder. There's no easy escape from a closed mind.
So questioning our assumptions, no matter how long we've held them, is a way to stay nimble, in case we have to jump to another conclusion when reality doesn't fit any longer.
Below are three short pieces on recent findings that might surprise you. They might even loosen your assumptions. They have mine.
Adjustments to follow.
Diseases of the Mind
I read this in the comments section of an article in the New York Times this week: "the natural broadening of the waist and narrowing of the mind comes with old age."
As we age, many of us calcify. Body and mind. The "tubes" — as my wife put it recently — of our bodies narrow (and calcium often plays a role). Our minds do more closing than opening because we get comfortable with our worldview. And it takes work for many of us to change our minds — emotional work. We often identify with our opinions. They are part of us. There’s security in that.
Or is there?
Opening, or at least maintaining openness of mind, invites novelty, challenge, growth, and the possibility of being ready for something better if it comes along. Change is the road to better.
In the least, change can make life more interesting. At best, it can save our lives.
Two stories: one about Alzheimer’s disease, the other about ulcers.
A while back, a friend sent me a link by email that took me to a fascinating 15-minute interview on Quirks & Quarks, a weekly science show on CBC Radio. Here's the nut of it:
Dr. Robert Moyer, a neurologist at Harvard University, has upset the world of Alzheimer’s research with a radical new theory. He believes that the plaques commonly thought to overwhelm the brains of Alzheimer’s sufferers are really there for a purpose — as fighters of infection and inflammation — and if we address the purpose, we might be able to avoid the plaques.
Many of Dr. Moyer’s colleagues in neurology are resistant to his theory, perhaps because their version of why the plaques exist has been held for at least two decades. It’s part of their life’s work. Dr. Moyer is upsetting the apple cart. (He says that his papers aren’t published as often as they should be because of the resistance.)
How does that apply to you and me?
If Dr. Moyer is right, and we eat an anti-inflammatory diet, we might address a vital part of the problem in our own bodies. We might avoid a terrible disease.
That’s a big deal… if we are open to it.
There’s a precedent: ulcers.
The vast majority of ulcer specialists disdained a theory put forward in the early '80s by two Australian researchers — Robin Warren, a pathologist from Perth, and Barry Marshall, a senior research fellow at the University of Western Australia. Warren and Marshall discovered that most ulcers were not about excess stomach acid as was commonly believed, but were actually caused by a bacterium called Helicobacter pylori, which can often be subdued with antibiotics.
They were open. Their field of research was closed. They faced withering resistance but remained undaunted.
Twenty years later, in 2005, Warren and Marshall won the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for their breakthrough and their dauntlessness.
Open isn’t common. It can be humbling. And among many other benefits, it can save our lives.
Where Do You Stand on the Sun?
Revision of long-held medical opinions is so prevalent these days it makes the head spin. The effect is one of being unmoored, of losing that assurance in knowing something you thought was inviolable, of counting on something and basing your actions on it, possibly for most of your life, only to find out that the experts were wrong all along.
We all know the list of things that for years were regarded favorably and have fallen gradually or abruptly from grace, including margarine and trans fats, sugar, sodium cyclamate, health supplements in excess, salt, eggs, meat, and, now, possibly, sunscreen.
If you haven’t read this article on sunscreen and feel like having a tightly held conviction loosened, here it is: “Is Sunscreen the New Margarine?”
And here's a taste:
It was already well established that rates of high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and overall mortality all rise the farther you get from the sunny equator, and they all rise in the darker months. Weller put two and two together and had what he calls his “eureka moment”: Could exposing skin to sunlight lower blood pressure?
Sure enough, when he exposed volunteers to the equivalent of 30 minutes of summer sunlight without sunscreen, their nitric oxide levels went up and their blood pressure went down. Because of its connection to heart disease and strokes, blood pressure is the leading cause of premature death and disease in the world, and the reduction was of a magnitude large enough to prevent millions of deaths on a global level.
...perplexingly, outdoor workers have half the melanoma rate of indoor workers. Tanned people have lower rates in general. “The risk factor for melanoma appears to be intermittent sunshine and sunburn, especially when you’re young,” says Weller. “But there’s evidence that long-term sun exposure associates with less melanoma.
More sun (short of burning) could very well be good for us not bad. Tanning might be protective not foolish.
What do we do with this?
Do we get to our seventh and eighth decade of life and just throw our hands up in the air, continuing with whatever habits we've layered into place over the years? Or do we open to a new possibility that feels distinctly uncomfortable?
Another Story to Retire
Fruit juice. A big glass of 100% freshly squeezed orange juice tastes like good health itself. But it's not. Consume enough fruit juice, and it might lead to... cancer.
That's the conclusion of a large, high-quality French study of sugary drinks, including fruit juices. The fact itself isn't remarkable. A British professor rang the alarm bell about sugar as a toxin in 1972. What's remarkable is that more than five decades have passed, our consumption of sugar as a society has risen to epic highs, and most of us either don't care about how much sugar we consume, or we consider it a treat.
Sugar has never appealed to me in quantity. Now I see avoiding it as another retirement project.
What about you? Are you likely to see the risk, make the change, and alter your course?
Or does another story kick in? What's the story? And how do your stories either help you or hinder you at this stage of life?
Here's a common story: "You can't trust anyone anymore. One day it's this, the next day that. I refuse to be bounced around." Here's another one: "I read something last week that said juice is healthy." And: "I'm to old to care at this point."
I find this stuff fascinating. On the surface, it's about what we eat, what we drink, and what we rub on our skin.
Underneath, it's about us.
We are creatures of story. They affect almost everything we do. We think our stories are fact. Then the facts can dissolve, like sugar.
Then what? Do you throw up your hands or roll up your sleeves?