Married by a judge, should’ve asked for a jury

Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, remarked, “There are no boy philosophers.” Fortunately, most of us do get wiser as we age. However, it’s never been a top priority of mine to rush into old age so I could be a wise, elderly, medical journalist philosopher. Could I be wrong? Consumer Reports on Health says there are several good things about aging. So I had to read on.

It appears I was wrong on one point. I’ve always believed that the elderly suffered from more depression than younger people. After all, they see old friends die, illnesses become more frequent, their wife runs away with the local preacher, and it’s not as much fun to look in the mirror. But according to the prestigious Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rates of depression actually go down after age 60.

The Doctor Game

This fact is confirmed by several other sources. For instance, a study of 340,000 people, published by the National Academy of Science, reports that those in their 60s and 70s were less troubled by negative emotions.

Dr. Laura Carstensen, professor of psychology at Stanford University, agrees this is the “paradox of aging.” She says that, as people grow older, they worry less about the future than younger people and focus more on the here and now. And if they’ve just recovered from a coronary bypass operation, and are happy to have survived, they’re more likely to stop worrying about the small stuff and smell the roses. (Maybe she’s right. But I vividly recall that after my bypass surgery, I decided I’d better sit by the lake watching birds, and after half an hour I decided I’d had enough!)

How do marriages and relationships fare as we age? Groucho Marx, the comedian, once joked, “I was married by a judge, I should have asked for a jury!” Today, since 50% of marriages end in divorce, there’s an element of truth in Groucho’s remark. I doubt if a judge or a monkey could have a poorer batting average in choosing mates.

Socrates, another Greek philosopher, realizing marriage was a game of Russian roulette, counselled, “By all means marry. If you get a good wife you’ll become happy; if you get a bad one you’ll become a philosopher.”

The good news is, if they’re lucky and stay together, couples enjoy better health and quality of life than their unmarried peers. In 2011, the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships reported that elderly couples, even when they quarrel, have more positive experiences with their partners. Researchers at the University of California added that, when recalling spats, older people even tend to rate their spouses more positively. This may be due to the fact that they begin to acknowledge their own mortality.

Consumer Reports states that satisfaction with social relationships also grows as we age. Seniors have a smaller, but closer circle of friends. Unfortunately, it’s also a time when we see close friends departing. (How true! I’ve just returned from my 67th reunion at The Harvard Medical School. Just a few of us are left! We wondered which of us would be the last one standing!)

But since we cannot stop getting older, researchers also suggest several medical keys to healthy aging. They’re concerned that more than 70% over age 60 exhibit hypertension and suggest weight reduction and smoking cessation. Starting a sound lifestyle at an early age, they confirm, is the prudent move.

Lastly, seniors must cultivate new social contacts, but this is not easy. Aristotle stressed that to have a good friend, “you must take the requisite amount of salt together.” Good friends are not born overnight. It’s usually history that binds people together.

Maybe in the end, whether a comedian or a Greek philosopher, we all in our own way become philosophers.

Next week, how I became the oldest person to descend on a rope (rappelling) from the top of Toronto City Hall. My wife was not amused. But it was an experience I will never forget.  Why did I do it?

— W. Gifford Jones, MD  To comment: