Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Impressions of aging

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An interesting contrast between my recent visits to Sweden and my childhood experiences is my impression of aging and life expectancy:

Both my grand-fathers died when I was quite young (and they comparatively so at 61 resp. 69, or thereabouts). Most of the old people that I encountered were in poor shape, be it through lack of exercise or through sickness, often diabetes. One old man in particular made a lasting impression on me: He was so weak that he did not even risk sitting down in deep chairs, lest he be unable to get up again. Old? Probably not that old.* Later, my paternal grand-mother spent a significant part of her 70s lying in bed in an old people’s home, usually with a confused mind, before dying at a somewhat respectable 80. My maternal grand-mother actually managed to reach 88 (or 87, depending on exact month of death), but she had a bout of severe problems in her 60s, during my later childhood, and she did not look set to reach even 70. Indeed, many of the people that I encountered as a child were already weakened in their 50s.

*Finding out how old is hard by now, but he was my paternal grand-father’s brother-in-law. Said grand-father died at 61, and this weakness was either already present then or manifested within just a few years afterwards. There might well have been a bit of age difference between them, but an age estimate beyond “early 70s” is unlikely, and “late 60s” is certainly more likely than “early 80s”. His problems might, going by very vague recollections, have been partially related to a stroke.

During my visits, I found (among others) a step-father at 71* who still shoveled snow, climbed ladders, and was otherwise physically active; his mother at 103, who still had the energy to serve coffee and cookies (and who emphatically spoke of not baking herself only for fear of burning herself on the oven); an uncle at 73 who walked six miles a day and looked in better shape than some others at 60; and a father** who was still going somewhat strong at 67.

*All ages estimated at the time of my visits. I might be off by a year here or there.

**I would not call him healthy or in shape, because he is not, but he is better off than many of the old or “old” people from my childhood; and as a teen I honestly thought that he would be gone in a heart-attack by 60. As is, he will likely live well into his 70s. He is not (or “not yet”) a good example in absolute terms, but he has done quite well relative the expectations of young me.

Excursion on my mother:
My mother is, unfortunately, already dead, but her death (ALS) was not related to age and, unlike many of the problems that I saw in my youth, not self-caused.

Excursion on the reasons:
Apart from the general upward drift in life expectancy and health in old age (e.g. due to a greater “health consciousness”) there are other factors that can have affected the difference in impressions, including that my own family had a history of disputable eating on both the paternal and the maternal side, that many of the old people were encountered at the Salvation Army*, where a disproportionate number of lonely or sweet-toothed visitors was likely, and possibilities like my step-father’s family having unusually good genetics for aging well. It certainly appears that modern trends have not so much moved the cap on the human life-span as it has increased the proportion that approaches the cap. (But note that the topic of this text is not so much differences in aging as differences in my perception of aging.)

*My parents used to be officers there and several other family members were involved in one capacity or other. I suspect that the function of the Salvation Army in Kopparberg, where I lived as most of these early impressions were formed, was more social than religious—an opportunity for the old and lonely to meet others over coffee, cookies, and singing.

Excursion on actual drop in ability:
The drop in physical ability in those who try to stay in shape is potentially surprisingly small, unless or until medical complications occur. For instance, going by Wikipedia on masters athletics, the age-80 world record for the 100 meters is currently 14.35 s, roughly the overall world record + 50 %, despite a far smaller pool of athletes, lesser monetary rewards, etc. Similarly, the record for the 800 meters is given as 2:48.5, which is better than most 20-something office workers could do, I suspect.

Written by michaeleriksson

October 25, 2019 at 1:30 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , , ,

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