One of my greatest fears about aging is that of becoming lost in the corridors of my own mind. I find the threat of dementia more terrifying than heart disease or cancer. Recently the World Health Organization published a report estimating that by 2030, the number of people with some form of dementia is expected to double and reach 65.7 million worldwide; 115.4 million people by 2050. The financial burden will be so staggering as to threaten the very stability of the economy, but that will pale in comparison to the emotional angst among individuals afflicted and the families who care for them.
As a nation, America is clearly not prepared for such an onslaught of helpless human beings. With each passing year, I am more and more aware of the use-it-or-lose-it slogan with regard to one’s intellectual ability, and yet the science associated with this claim is vague and uncertain. While it appears there are some things that may stave off dementia, there is no proof that if you do this or that you can be certain to escape the onset.
A scientist I’m not, but in my own life experience I have witnessed individuals who seemed especially vulnerable to dementia simply because they lost interest in living long before they lost their intellectual capacity for strenuous thinking. The gradual slide into dementia that my own parents experienced serves as a constant reminder about what can happen when one gives up rigorous thinking. At least that’s the way it appears in hindsight.
For these reasons, and because of the sheer enjoyment that an ever-expanding perspective offers us as aging individuals, I believe September University is the apt metaphor for the last few chapters of one’s life. One of the most encouraging examples of aging and staying intellectually active I’ve come across lately is Edward O. Wilson. His new book The Social Conquest of the Earth, is one of his best works, in my view, and it represents the cutting edge of some very contentious and controversial subjects in evolutionary social science, namely individual versus group selection. Wilson has been kicking up a fuss with his peers for decades, and the fact that he is still at it at age 82 is inspiring.
Some recent studies suggest that exercise may help keep dementia at bay, but so far there is no encouraging news about the prevention of Alzheimer’s. Progress seems stalled, even though the stakes are so high that nothing short of a Manhattan Project level of research would seem adequate to meet the challenge and government funding is being increased substantially.
September University, the book, was eight years in the making and has been in print for a couple of years, but we’re still early in what I have argued will be a visible awakening of senior activists who are bent on leaving the world a better place for future generations. Indeed, they’re at it already; they’re just not getting much media attention. Near the end of this decade, however, I’m betting their actions will eclipse the media depictions of senior citizens shouting Tea Party slogans and pushing inarticulate political solutions to problems that haven’t been thought through in depth.
Aristotle argued that the ultimate value of life depends upon contemplation and that happiness is experienced in large part as a form of contemplation and reflection. I’ve always thought that a great opportunity was missed in America’s Declaration of Independence in that, if it had endorsed the pursuit of wisdom instead of the pursuit of happiness, the path to happiness for everyone would have been shorter and with better results. Overt attempts to find happiness often amount to a fool’s journey, because true happiness results from noble purposes without regard to rewards.
My learning suggests that perspective is to aging as good health is to one’s sense of well-being. The good news is that, with many years of experience at our back, we have a lot to think about and a lot of comparisons to make between theory and practice. So making sense of one’s life can be thought of as a rational method of preparing not to forget.
Apart from the value of human social relationships as we age, nothing save intellectual perspective gives us what we need in order to find and experience a sense of meaning that puts our final chapters of life in context. That framework inevitably brings us back existentially to the worth of human relationships that may have remained hidden by the busyness of life circumstance. Perspective represents life’s most exhilarating punctuation mark. Better to leave the world with an exclamation point than a comma.
Posted: Sunday, 3 June 2012