Prodded By Science

We reference here, first of all, what we will call a new scholarship of empowerment. The by-now-long-since embedded realisation that millions of us, at the moment of once conventional retirement, have another twenty years+ of healthy living to fill has stimulated a new wave of self-help literature. It comes mostly from the US.

What is the salient feature thereof which concerns us most? To paraphrase Bette Davis : getting old is not any longer for wimps or sissies. If you try The DNA Restart by Sharon Moalem or The Telomere Effect by Elizabeth Blackburn or Cracking the Aging Code by John Mitteldorf, the same message cracks like a starting pistol on Groundhog Day : ageing properly is a seriously demanding business that requires constant focus, determination and sacrifice. Rather like an Olympic sport.

One’s genetic inheritance is indeed to wither and die. But this inheritance can, so it is now being argued, be dissolved. The lifestyle recipes that are offered by (what we might pointedly call) the jesuits of extreme ageing invariably involve a cocktail of:
· Fasting and rigorous control of food/drink intakes and choices
· Consistently fierce and regular exercise : self-imposed, purposeful hardship

Naught for your comfort. We can catch the flavour in this quote from Dr. Mitteldorf:
“When an animal is unthreatened by bacteria or parasites, when life is easy, plenty of food, little exertion, a warm, clean environment, you’d expect it to do well and live a long time. Instead, we find that it does well and lives a short time. Life span is shortest (sic) when conditions are ideal!”.

And a taste of Dr. Moalem:
“… Too much red meat kills – it’s as simple as that. …You’re also going to cut out all processed meats… Reducing your red meat consumption is not going to be as difficult as, say, having to deal with breast or colorectal cancer…
…If you stop moving intensely (sic), what you’re telling your body is that it’s time to stop being a burden on others – it’s time to die”.

Living With Intensity

Now, meanwhile over at the World Health Organisation, the recommendations made for over-65s do not involve cushions or hot stair-lifts. Notice the uses of the word “intensity” in the following text. We quote directly from the WHO website:

“In order to improve cardiorespiratory and muscular fitness, bone and functional health, reduce the risk of NCDs, depression and cognitive decline (sic):
1. Older adults should do at least 150 minutes (sic) of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity throughout the week or do at least 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity throughout the week or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity activity.
2. Aerobic activity should be performed in bouts of at least 10 minutes duration.
3. For additional health benefits, older adults should increase their moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity to 300 minutes per week (sic), or engage in 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity per week, or an equivalent combination of moderate-and vigorous-intensity activity.
4. Older adults, with poor mobility, should perform physical activity to enhance balance and prevent falls on 3 or more days per week.
5. Muscle-strengthening activities, involving major muscle groups, should be done on 2 or more days a week.
6. When older adults cannot do the recommended amounts of physical activity due to health conditions, they should be as physically active as their abilities and conditions allow”.
Of course, not that many over-65s are going to spend time reading heavy popular science about genetic re-setting or surfing the WHO for lifestyle advice. But, progressively, as basic messages about the role of exercise and diet (in pursuit of mastery over ageing) seep into the Western consciousness so irreversible cultural shifts can be expected.
This leads us, specifically, to the mighty lever that is Sport.

Gaming The Third Age

In 2017, the 30th National Senior Games were held in Birmingham, Alabama. Some 10,500 athletes – some in their 90s and even beyond – performed in a full programme of track-and-field, chasing records, trophies and, of course, elite status. As we write (2017), the European Masters Athletics Championships have just concluded in Aarhus. Many other sport-specific happenings for the over-65s dot rather than illuminate the landscape. In general, they attract little publicity, weak media coverage (social and commercial), small crowds, skeletal sponsorship – but also extremely determined, accomplishment-hungry and highly competitive athletes. The term Rinkli Funstaz is hardly appropriate here. No plucky geriatric Corinthians at these outings. Not a bit of it. Prikli Winnaz, more like.

To our point, our forecast, our advice. In staccato:
· Exercise is no longer adjectival to the business of successful ageing.
· But few will want such exercise to be an asceticism – hence the compensatingly surging need for glory, contest, victory. Pain needs gain.
· Substantial sports sponsorship and coverage will follow a) the presence of genuinely gladiatorial conflict b) the reality of serious competition and therefore an uncertainty of event outcomes c) spectators who, in numbers, far outstrip participants d) the emergence of star performers (personalities, celebrities, controversialists, hate-figures) and e) the active presence of bookmakers…
· The Paralympics, the Special Olympics, the Invictus Games, Women’s Football (UK, US…) … show / prove how sport can colonise courage and innovation; transform the definition of heroism; reveal the performance heights of new tribes of athlete. Yesterday’s sporting backwater is tomorrow’s Mo & Usain Show.

Soon, there will be reality TV shows focusing – rather in the manner of, say, The Biggest Loser, The Real Housewives of Atlanta, Survivor / Endurance – on Western octogenerarians as they struggle to come first, stay cool, be hip-and-happening (rather than hip-replacing). Veterans’ football and tennis and cricket will find formulas (rule adjustments, venue variations…) to allow them to compete for mainstream broadcasting space. Eventually, some of the principal global Olympic-size sponsors will break for the border and, perhaps gingerly at first, put their neon logos on Third Age sports championships in the name, initially, of diversity and, thereafter in due course, for profit. Opportunity will thicken soon enough here.

Unlocking The New Imagery

Language and conversation will carry newethics and etiquette; this is already happening. In an imminent tomorrow, nobody is ever going to say to a sexa-septua friend worried at the prospect of retirement : “You have had a good long innings… time to put your feet up and take it easy…”. For there will no slob worse than an old slob. Sofa will be the new shroud. Ageing will tilt to extremes.
Once upon a time, a representative commercial pictorialisation of old age was a nice grey-haired couple gently cuddling as their cruise-liner dipped in and out of the sunlit fjords. Soon it will be two bald bantamweights slugging it out for place in the semi-final of the live Seniors at Wembley. Watch. For it will be so.