The Process of Aging
In all my probings of the biological reasons for getting older, I’ve found that the process of aging is, to a large degree, negotiable. The point we all need to grasp, finally is that we have considerable room to modify our experience of aging.
Genetics plays a part. The chronology of our years can’t be changed. But these are only two among many factors that determine just how we age and how long we live. The disease and the decrepitude that have previously made the idea of aging intolerable are not inevitable. Rather, they are often the result of the misuse and the disuse of our bodies.
For better or worse, all that’s come before begins to add up in mid-life – our eating habits, our exercise patterns, whether we smoke, the way we’ve generally lived our lives.
Our generation inherits a whole mythology of aging that prescribes an early obsolescence for women, heaving us over the hill at forty, removing us from the flowing mainstream of life. We are to have no worthwhile contribution to make to our society. We are to believe it’s too late to fulfil or to reshape our life’s goals, whatever they may be. We are led to expect an inevitable and swift decline in our physical, psychological, and intellectual well-being which means becoming unhealthy, emotionally bereft, and mentally dull.
Often, the fear of being discarded for “younger models” in our jobs and in our relationships with the men pressures us into denying our age – not only to others but to our selves as well. But when we take up the exhausting burden of denying our age, we are also denying who we are. To the extent we succeed in passing as younger, we abandon where we’ve been. We rob ourselves of genuine pride in the years we’ve really lived. And we separate ourselves from the women who may show signs of aging more quickly, at a time when closeness with other women can give us strength, solace and validation. Our lives end up consisting of three phases: being young, pretending to be young, and old age. The whole rich middle period is lost. As an actress I can tell you Act Three can be pretty shaky when Act Two is missing.
The Double Standard
For a man, the middle years are his prime, a time when he is more likely to be at the peak of his career. His self-worth and his sexuality derive from his full participation in life. These are not tied to the state of his physical being or, more narrowly, to his reproductive organs as they are from us. His attractiveness is not in question. His sexuality is above suspicion.
While a woman’s face, like her body, is valued as long as it remains smooth and unchanging, a man’s lines are the product of experience. The changes in his appearance become additions to who he is as a person, whereas those same changes in us become liabilities.
Paul Newman gets silver hair and becomes distinguished. I get gray hair and am told I’d best dye it. My pal Redford gets furrows and character lines. I get wrinkles and crow’s feet. It aint fair!
All of the myths and misperceptions about middle-aged women in this society are on a collision course with new realities. Some may already be familiar to you:
- There are more of us than ever before
- We’re entering the middle years physically stronger than ever before
- And all of this is occurring at the same time that women of all ages are reexamining their place in society and discovering the real potentials that exist from them.
The Body Mature: The Skin
The skin is our body’s envelope, the wrapping that delivers us to the world. Though we all play lip service to the dictum “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” we tend to judge a person’s age and state of health by the quality of her skin. If as we grow older we expect to be able to keep our skin just as it was in our youth, we’ll be doomed to frustration. If, on the other hand, we understand how the skin functions in midlife and adjust our goals and life-styles appropriately, we’ll be surprised how much better we can look.
A few basics first. The skin is composed of two layers The innermost is the dermis, which contains the nerve endings, blood vessels, sweat glands, oil glands, and hair follicles. The outer is the epidermis, the layer of our skin that’s constantly renewed. Cells on the underside of the epidermis continuously divide and slowly migrate to the surface, where they dry out, flatten, and die, and are then washed, rubbed, or blown away. Both the dermis and the epidermis are supported by a deeper layer of fat cells and a network of collagen and elastic fibers that give our skin its strength and elasticity. Collagen is the body’s most abundant protein and the principal support not only of the skin but also of the blood vessels and connective tissues or our cartilage, tendons, and ligaments.
Certain changes occur in this infrastructure or our skin as part of the natural aging process. To some extent there is nothing we can do about them but they can certainly be slowed and minimized.
- Drying – The sweat and oil glands that are important natural moisturizers for the skin slow down with age, largely as a result of hormonal changes, especially after menopause. With less moisture and oil, in addition to years of accumulated exposure to the elements, the skin dries.
- Wrinkling – Some people think this dryness causes wrinkles. That is not exactly the case, although dryness certainly accentuates them. Wrinkles are primarily caused by the aging process known as “cross linking” As a a result of cross-linking, unwanted bonding occurs between molecules in the skin’s collagen and elastin, which then shrink and tighten. As a result, the skin gradually toughens and loses its elasticity and we begin to notice wrinkles and sagging.
- Sagging – The skin’s underlying cushion of fat cells also shrinks as we get older. And because the skin itself is less elastic, it can’t so easily conform to the face’s smaller dimensions. Like a balloon from which some air has escaped, excess skin begins to sag.
- Thinning – With age, fewer skin cells are produced and there is little turnover in collagen. The skin becomes thinner as a result.
Remember protect your skin when in when in the sun!
My Skin Regime
I’m often asked what “beauty secrets” I practice, what creams and lotions are best to buy in search for the perfect cosmetic formula for smooth, youthful skin. I think women are surprised when I respond that I have no special secrets – of that kind. It’s not that I haven’t tried virtually everything.
But after many years, I have found no basis to advertising promises that we can have beautiful skin by using just the right skin care product.
Of course, proper cleansing and moisturizing are essential, and some products are better than others; I’ll talk of that later. But for me, the truest, most reliable beauty potion is regular vigorous exercises combined with good nutrition. These are the most important things you can do for your skin. If your budget is limited, you’d do better to invest your money in a regular, sweaty, speed-up-your heartbeat exercise program than in a lot of expensive hormonal creams, masks, facials and the like, who’s effect will be at best temporary and superficial. Exercise, on the other hand, increases the circulation and brings a rich flow of nutrients and oxygen through the blood to the skin’s cells.
Consistent, strenuous exercise appears to retard every aspect of the skin’s aging that we’ve discussed, including sagging, and loss of elasticity. It can rejuvenate unhealthy worn-out skin. The whole process of normal cell breakdown and production is tuned up and the connective tissues become stronger and less vulnerable to damage. If you’ve ever been in a dressing room with a group of professional dancers changing clothes, as I have, you’ve probably been struck by the quality of their skin. I first noticed this when I studied ballet in my early 20’s. I made a pont of noticing skin and found almost all of them had beautifully even skin tone. Subsequently, of course, doctors have given a scientific explanation to my observation: dancers, like athletes, have more collagen in their skin – it’s thicker!
During a workout, the skin’s temperature can rise from 86 to 90 degrees or more. This is thought to stimulate an increase in the production of collagen, which, together with other positive effects of exercise, thickens the skin – making it firmer, less wrinkled and better toned.