5 Reasons why anti-aging is anti-life

In our culture growing older is not something to embrace. It’s something to fight tooth and nail, something to defy.

Ads for anti-aging products, photos in the tabloids, and geezer birthday cards hammer home the message that aging is decline—replete with wrinkles, cellulite, grey hair, incontinence, hearing loss, and worse.

As a person ages, all functions— physical, mental, and sexual—deteriorate rapidly and irreversibly. It’s bad for men, worse yet for women, who are regarded as having an appreciably shorter shelf life.

The anti-aging pitch

So we’ve created an arsenal of anti-aging weapons. It starts with pricey over-the-counter creams, like Lancome Genifique Youth Activating Concentrate, which purports to “boost gene activity” whatever that’s supposed to mean. But there’s only so much that face cream—no matter how expensive— can do. So, as in any losing battle, one may need to escalate.

At some point (maybe around 40 or 45), people are encouraged to seriously consider plastic surgery. And they do, even though it’s risky (as is any surgery), incredibly expensive, and can produce strange, unnatural results.

If it were just a matter of selling a bunch of ineffective products or procedures, the anti-aging pitch would be harmless enough. But it’s not; anti-aging harms people of all ages. At its heart, anti-aging is anti-life, and here’s why:

1. Anti-aging is a denial of the cycle of life

For nearly all living creatures—fruit flies, squirrels, robins, and so on—life begins with conception. A sperm fertilizes an egg, which sets off development of a baby creature. When the time is right, the baby is born or hatches.

It may look like a miniature version of its parents or entirely different. It may be a maggot which will metamorphose into a fruit fly.

Again when the time is right, the young creature mates, continuing the cycle of life. It grows old—which in the case of fruit flies may be in a matter of days—and eventually dies.

This is life on earth and has been even since there was life on earth. Do you suppose that fruit flies look back on their lost youth as maggots, crawling about in rotting fruit before they were transformed into wondrous winged creatures?

Or closer to home, do women ever yearn for a repeat of middle school or high school? Complete with pimples and cramps and “mean girls”? Or the analogous horrors for men.

2. Anti-aging presupposes that when youth ends (at 35 or so), steep decline follows

The focus is on what is lost rather than what may be gained. And seeing the end of youth as the beginning of decline is one reason that people deny and dread growing older. This is sad for many reasons, if only because the first thing to decline a bit—namely the good looks of youth—is so superficial.

Personally, I’ve got nothing against good looks, and I had my share back in the day. It’s obvious that young  people with good looks and high fertility do a great job of perpetuating the human race.

But here too I have a sense of done-that-been-there. Who wants to have another go at trying for years to avoid getting pregnant and then trying to get pregnant and then getting pregnant but having a miscarriage and, finally, being pregnant with a very large baby who’s two weeks overdue and in a breech postion?

This is life (part of my life, actually), and I accept it. The point is that youth has its challenges and disappointments as well as its joys and accomplishments.

3. The message of anti-aging is that old people aren’t good enough the way they are

They don’t look good, they can’t learn new things, they are Letting Themselves Go, and they can’t or won’t change because they are Set in Their Ways.

The geezer birthday cards tend to portray males as “dirty old men” with poor control over bodily functions. Sometimes they have dementia, sometimes, not. Sometimes they are nearly blind or deaf or both.

It’s the sort of stuff that 8 and 9-year-old boys find hilarious, but they grow out of it.

Note: Shown is one of the more tasteful such cards my search turned up. The others were really brutal.

4. The view of aging as steep decline becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy

If we believe that aging equals steep decline, that you really can’t teach an old dog (or person) new tricks, you may think that it’s hopeless to try to learn something new. So you may not try at all or you may not try very hard.

So when you don’t do so well—which is likely if you’re not trying very hard—you say to yourself, “See, it’s true. I’m just too old to learn this stuff.” Thus the belief becomes the reality, and that harms people of all ages.

5. By focusing only on decrepitude, anti-agers miss the blessings of old age

Every stage of life brings opportunity, accomplishment, and joy as well as challenges and difficulties. Growing old may bring deteriorating health but also blessings, such as grandchildren or new love.

Take, for example, my friend Ed, aged 85, who’d been a widower for many years. When I ran into him in the supermarket one day, he introduced me to the woman with him and told me that he needed to have a knee replacement and a pacemaker for his heart and one other thing. He and his companion were planning to be married.

What about you? Are you afraid of growing old? Do you avoid thinking about it? What part of it concerns you the most? What have you learned from seeing your parents grow older? What can you do to be as healthy and happy as possible in your old age? I would love to hear from you.

photo of woman at rail by gillpenney, photo of grandmother and grandchild in kayak by savannahgrandfather

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Maggie 07/27/2011, 5:29 pm

    You really do have a point with everything that you say. I never thought about those anti-aging creams in that way! They are expensive beyond belief and as to whether they do really work?…I don’t think so. I’m not so worried about growing old, but if there’s one thing that frightens me the most, it’s all the possible health problems that I might run into for having lead such an unhealthy lifestyle in my youth. Even though I’m trying my best is to healthy and live healthy, it’s probably something I should have done back in the day when I was in my teens!
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    • Madeleine Kolb 07/27/2011, 8:39 pm

      Welcome, Maggie
      Your comment is a big part of why I’m writing about aging. Your health at 50 or 60 or beyond is definitely affected by things you did when you were younger. Two prime examples of behaviour which jeopardizes your future health are smoking and spending too much time in the sun. On the other hand, there’s a great deal of evidence that it’s nearly never to late to improve your health by changing some of those old, bad habits. So now is a great time to focus on being as healthy as you can be at any age!

  • Sophie Lumen 07/17/2011, 12:57 am

    I always enjoy your right-to-it style! Refreshing :)
    Thank you Madeleine!
    Sophie Lumen
    Anti ‘anti-aging’ w/a visual twist-

    • Madeleine Kolb 07/17/2011, 2:00 pm

      Sophie, It’s so great to hear from you. Thanks for the link to your video. We seems to have a similar–and highly negative reaction–to the idea that we have to fight aging tooth and nail.

  • Madeleine Kolb 03/29/2011, 3:59 pm

    I agree that balance is the key. I stay as healthy and active as I can but don’t worry so much about growing old. I like to look good but stopped dyeing my hair a few years ago and think it looks fine. Part of the balance too is keeping active mentally–trying new things and continuing to do things I’ve always loved, such as reading. There is much to savor at this stage of life.

  • Bonnie McFarland 03/29/2011, 3:23 pm

    Thanks, Madeline, for this post. I’ve been uncomfortable with zealous anti-aging but haven’t articulated why, even to myself. You make some great points here.

    For me, I aim for a balance, some moderation. I do some things to slow the signs and symptoms of aging (face cream, eye cream). I also work to accept growing old and dying are a natural part of the life cycle, battles against these can’t be won. And I do my best to savor each moment, each day.
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