Keeping young

My first trusteeship was back in 1987 for what is now Age UK. The charity now includes more than 150 local Age UKs throughout England as well as the national bodies in each of the devolved countries. Age International works similarly in some of the world’s poorest countries. Each charity is dedicated to help older people enjoy later life. For most of us that means remaining independent, living in our own homes and keeping doing the things in life that we love the most.

For most of us, enjoying later life means remaining independent, living in our own homes and keeping doing the things in life that we love the most.

Age UK researches how cognition changes with age and how to protect our mental faculties in The Disconnected Mind project.  This is based on 70,000 Scottish eleven year olds taking an IQ test seventy years ago: and then repeating it every three years.  It’s important to study the period of cognitive decline because this precedes dementia… the second childhood when someone whose mind is failing reverts to behaving like a child. It’s an unkind metaphor – one might as well use the medical term: senility.

My medical research charity Autistica is working with Newcastle’s Institute for Ageing to study what happens to the autistic brain as it ages.

For all of us, ageing includes physical, psychological and social changes.  Vision and reaction time may degrade with age.  Knowledge of world events and wisdom may expand.  Hearing goes – especially of high frequency sounds.  And cognition is on the decline from the mid 20’s.

Female fertility also declines and most people start to need reading glasses and hair thins and changes colour.  Later, it’s common to have joint diseases though only one in five affected people report pain.  The negative progression is inexorable.

Ageing is among the greatest known risk factors for most diseases; recovery slows with age and two thirds of all deaths are from age-related causes.

Ageing is among the greatest known risk factors for most diseases; recovery slows with age and two thirds of all deaths are from age-related causes. 

But there are also some good things about being old. What women look like becomes less of an issue.  Everyone eventually gets the face they deserve – frown lines or laughter lines – and we stop wanting to do the things we can’t.  So I feel that I’m in a too-old body, leading the lifestyle of a woman 20 years younger.  Surely, I’m as old as I behave.

The only real wealth is health and so age is more a state of mind rather than physique. Mark Twain also believed that age is an issue of mind over matter. “If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter” he wrote.

In remission from cancer and having had two heart attacks, I am now on my second Pacemaker.  But remain busy with living, with intensified passions – the same as I’ve always been, but more so.  I no longer suffer from mental health issues and looking after my physical health is just a bore that has to be done with increasing frequency.  I keep my energy levels up by swimming regularly.  It’s like bathing in the classical Fountain of Youth.

Now well into my 80s, I have done what is in me to do and am comfortable with my own mortality.

Dame Stephanie Shirley
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