Aging is an inevitable part of life. We all go through it, yet many of us harbor a deep-seated fear of growing old. Is it the wrinkled skin, the white hair—-certainly not the wisdom that accompanies age that frightens us!? In the vast corridors of our minds, there lies a complex interplay of neurobiology, psychology, and society that fuels our apprehension about aging. Let's journey through some current neuroscience to unravel the enigma of this fear of aging.
The Biological Conundrum
First and foremost, it's essential to recognize that our brains are wired to seek novelty and change. Neuroscience tells us that a portion of the brain (hippocampal region) thrives on novelty and new experiences, releasing a feel-good neurotransmitter called dopamine when we encounter something fresh and exciting. This may explain why we often fear aging – it's perceived as the antithesis of novelty. But our primitive brain, a creature of habit, prefers the comfort of the familiar (like staying safe), and aging represents a potential dearth of novelty in life.
The "Plastic" Brain
But, what if I told you that the brain is a lot more flexible than we think? Neuroscience has also shown us that the brain is "plastic," meaning it can adapt and rewire itself throughout life. This plasticity allows us to continue learning, growing, and experiencing new things, regardless of age. So, why do we still dread the passage of time? One possibility is that society's perception of aging often overshadows the brain's potential for adaptability. We're told that with age comes decline, which can become a self-fulfilling prophecy if we choose to listen to such nonsense.
The Memory Maze
Memory, or the fear of its decline, is another fascinating aspect of aging. As we age, we tend to forget things more often, misplace our keys, or struggle to recall names. Neuroscientifically, this can be attributed to changes in the structure and function of the brain, particularly the hippocampus, which is crucial for memory formation. But let's not forget that memory is a selective process. We remember the past not as it was but as we want it to be, often painting a rosier picture of youth and neglecting the struggles. Perhaps, in our minds, aging often becomes synonymous with forgetfulness, forgetting that our memories might not be as reliable as we think. And even in our younger years, too many thought processes at once can have us finding our keys in the freezer!
The Social Stigma
While neuroscience offers insights into the brain's inner workings, the fear of aging is also heavily influenced by society. The relentless bombardment of anti-aging products and images of youthful perfection in the media contributes to our fear of growing old. The brain is a sponge, absorbing the messages around it, and the pervasive notion that aging is undesirable takes root in our minds. Wisdom tells us to look deeper than the cover of the book.
Yep, the fear of aging, despite its inevitability, is a complex interplay of biological, psychological, and societal factors. While our brains are wired to seek novelty, adapt, and maintain plasticity, societal stigma and the memory maze contribute to our unease about aging. Fear of aging is not an intrinsic flaw but exposes limiting beliefs that are rooted in our biology, psychology and choices in what we choose to immerse ourselves in; stories we tell ourselves. So, while the brain may be reluctant to embrace aging, there's a wealth of wisdom and beauty in the process that we can learn to cherish. After all, it's just another chapter in the ever-evolving book of our lives, and like any good story, it's bound to be full of unexpected twists and turns. So…fear not and carry on! Don’t believe everything you think and turn to the stories and people that inspire you lest that monkey brain starts banging its cymbals with stories that don’t serve your greater purpose. Input dictates output…physically, spiritually, emotionally.
Begin by noticing your thought “loops”. Do you catastrophize—thinking the worst possible scenario is bound to happen? Have a tendency to doubt the possibilities? Limiting self talk? All that we think is not necessarily true—often quite the opposite. Remember, the brain loves the familiar (although energized by novelty ) and good at repeating what it has practiced. So, notice your thoughts around the possibilities forward—choose well what to believe.
On that note…I’m going bouldering with my grandson tomorrow…these moments are my greatest “why” I do my best to stay strong and mobile. I’ll be nervous until I’m focused on the next handhold, on watching him climb like a monkey, his giggles. I might fall…but the floors are padded. And we will make new memories. No regrets.
You’ve got this!