What is normal ageing? The human body undergoes a variety of common physiological changes over the course of our life. As we move through the second half of life, the felt-meaning of time changes, and we become more acutely aware of age-related change in our body. The physical changes we experience also influence our thoughts, ideas, and feelings. The normal course of ageing alters our body as well as our sense of meaning, purpose, and identity.
What will normal ageing do to me?
Ageing is the universal ground of life. To be alive is to experience ageing. Like the air we breathe, we are immersed in the invisible surround of ageing. We are all destined to experience certain kinds of physiological changes that lead to our eventual disappearance.
The relentless trajectory of age-related change eventually ushers in a keen sense of our own mortality. Our passage into the second half of life begins when the processes of normal ageing begin to reveal our vulnerability to primal forces that are completely out of our control.
The period known as midlife occurs when our relationship with time begins to change. Mechanical clock-driven time gives way to the natural rhythms of biological time. This deep inner change in feeling of time symbolizes the beginning of our journey into the second half of life.
The underlying pulse of time is impermanence. As time marches on, we become more intimate with our physiological vulnerabilities. We recognize that our body feels different now. A core discipline of optimal ageing is successfully adapting to the increasing levels of physical and emotional vulnerabilities that naturally arise along the way.
Normal ageing expresses itself through diversity. No two people experience ageing in exactly the same way; the expression of normal ageing varies from one person to another. The presentation of ageing is improvisatory, it is not a pre-determined one-size-fits-all process.
In this sense, each one of us is a unique variation on the theme of ageing.
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 (bio-gerontology). Ageing and impermanence are biological imperatives of all life.
Senescence is a harsh reality to lean into. It is strange to find ourselves here in a vessel that is destined to deteriorate and disappear. The physical realities of normal ageing can become a source of anxiety, fear, and suffering.
The normal course of ageing will change the body in a number of ways. The physical expression of age-related change is diverse. There is an improvisatory and mysterious quality about normal ageing that defies easy generalization. However, a typical range of possible effects are often described:
- 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: Ageing changes our sensory perception. In general, our senses do experience a gradual decline in their sensitivity over time. Awareness of this process is essential in adapting to the changes it causes in our life.
- Functional Decline: Most systems of the body experience a gradual decline in their ability to function. It is poignant to consider that functional decline is an unavoidable reality of normal ageing. Areas affected include the cardiovascular system, skeletal system, muscular system, and the urinary system.
There are a number of good resources available that describe the physiological changes of normal ageing. I recommend:
Changes in the body are always reflected in the mind. The normal course of ageing gradually increases our physical and emotional vulnerability over time. In the second half of life, we begin to sense the fragility and finite nature of life with greater clarity. This emerging frontier inspires a deep conversation with the core elements of our existence – meaning, purpose, and identity.
Ageing is not a disease
Normal ageing causes a typical range of physiological change; it is not pathology. Although we become more exposed to the possibility of contracting an age-related disease, ageing is not a disease.
For example, dementia is not an aspect of normal aging. “Age-associated memory impairment,” or forgetfulness, is a normal part of the ageing 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.
A disease can negatively impact the process of ageing at any point in life. As we get older, the body becomes less resilient; we simply do not recover from adverse health situations as efficiently at age 75 as we did at age 25. The ageing process can be complicated by the presence of a disease, especially as we move into elderhood.
The distinctions between normal ageing and the pathology of disease are important.
We do ourselves a great disservice by characterizing elderhood as a time of disease, deterioration, and death. A more realistic and compelling vision of elderhood is desperately needed. One of the basic requirements of this vision is to separate normal ageing from pathology.
What’s normal about ageing?
The expression of normal ageing can shock and startle us.
Ageing is a child of impermanence. Normal ageing means that our time here is destined to be finite and uncertain. Senescence means that our body is biologically destined to be impermanent. Our movement into elderhood and eventual disappearance is an expression of the natural flow of life.
Normal does not mean easy.
The normal course of ageing presents significant challenges during the second half of life. We cannot stop ageing and freeze ourselves in time; we can learn to inhabit its harsh terrain in vital and resilient ways.
Can ageing be abnormal? An abnormality is a deviation from what is common, usual, or expected. In one sense, abnormal ageing can occur through the presence of a disease. The pathology of a disease can alter the normal course of ageing.
In another sense, anti-ageing is a form of abnormal ageing. The anti-ageing industry is founded on the denial of normal ageing. Living a healthy lifestyle is a basic need; the obsession to preserve a youthful facade is an immature modern addiction. The puffed-plastic face is now the contemporary symbol of our own fears and insecurities about ageing.
To be “anti” is to be opposed to or against something. The idea of being opposed to or against ageing is self-defeating. To be opposed to ageing is to be opposed to the natural and universal cycles of life.
The normal process of ageing constantly makes time disappear. As we become more intimate with the functional decline of our own body, our thoughts, ideas, and feelings are imbued with a new sense of urgency. The meaning of being in the world is different at age sixty than at age twenty.
Every aspect of our lives is touched by ageing. It is a universal experience that is simultaneously physical, emotional, behavioural, social, cultural, and environmental. The search for pure authenticity is the essence of ageing in the second half of life.
Normal ageing is an adventure that inspires personal growth and transformation. In this sense, ageing is a crucible for personal expression, creativity, and the attainment of wisdom. As our physical and sensory vulnerabilities increase, we must adapt and pursue meaning, purpose, and identity in new and perhaps more authentic ways.
Eventually we realize that the normal course of ageing leads us directly into the realm of elderhood, when we consciously choose to cultivate the development of vital capacities of being including resilience, benevolence, generosity, stewardship, conservancy, and wisdom.