Aging doesn’t have to be all downhill
By Lauren Kessler
The rectangularization of morbidity.
It’s not exactly a phrase that glides off one’s tongue, but it’s one that came to me yesterday during an intense pool tabata exercise class. In between huffing and puffing, I found myself singing along to John Cougar Mellancamp’s classic “Jack and Diane,” the refrain of which goes:
Oh yeah, life goes on
Long after the thrill of living is gone
That’s what aging has become in America. It’s about living to 80 or 90 but spending the last 10 (if you’re lucky, more if you’re not) years being frail, incapacitated, and on multiple medications and feeling worried, useless, joyless, and disconnected. It’s about living long after the thrill of living is gone.
I think that’s because our attention has been focused on mitigating the symptoms of illness rather than preventing illness and on the extension of lifespan rather than healthspan. Lifespan is the number of years you live. Healthspan is the number of years you live well.
Increasing healthspan is known as the “rectangularization of morbidity.” It’s when our lifeline doesn’t look like a mountain with the physical / mental peak being at 35–40 years, followed by a slow decline until death. Instead, the graph is “rectangularized,” flattened out. We hit our peak and then maintain, as long as we can, a plateau of health and vitality until the end. The end is not 15 years in assisted living; it’s a nice, quick bout of pneumonia.
That’s what “turning back the clock” really means: More years lived well. More years lived at the top of your game. More years to huff and puff through pool tabata.
Lauren Kessler is director of the multimedia narrative journalism masters program at University of Oregon, the author of numerous articles and essays, and the author of five books, including Counterclockwise: My Year of Hypnosis, Hormones, Dark Chocolate, and Other Adventures in the World of Anti-Aging.
“Even modest [fitness] gains in middle age . . . translated into significantly lower incidences of eight major diseases.”
— Counterclockwise: My Year of Hypnosis, Hormones, Dark Chocolate and Other Adventures in the World of Anti-Aging