When I was a kid or a teenager, my skin would heal from minor scratches almost immediately. A scratch (like from walking through brambles, which I did all the time) would heal up in maybe a day and a half or two days. Then, sort of all at once, when I was about 24 or 25, suddenly it took twice as long. I noticed it when I was living in Utah and hiked a lot in the mountains and deserts, and would get similar scratches, which would now take three or four days to heal.

I figured I was just getting old, and it would just keep getting worse. But it did not. Instead, it stayed like that for thirty-five years. However, just in the past year or two—since I reached my 60s—I’ve observed a fresh doubling in wound-healing times. Now a minor scratch takes a week to heal.

The surprise here is not that the speed of healing declines as one gets older, but the weird stepwise nature of the change—stability for decades, and then an abrupt doubling in time to heal.

I don’t know if that will continue. Maybe I’ll continue to heal at this rate until I’m 105 or so?

I’ve documented this largely for my brother, who once expressed appreciation for the fact that having an older brother gave him a four-year heads-up for this sort of age-related change. (I’m not sure he appreciates it as much now as he did in his 30s and 40s.)

I looked for some research studies as to whether my observation points to a more general phenomenon, but wasn’t able to find much. My brother found a study, which says in part:

The rate of epithelialisation appears to be different in older persons, but the magnitude of the delay may not be clinically important.

THOMAS, D. R. Age-Related Changes in Wound Healing. Drugs & Aging, [s. l.], v. 18, n. 8, p. 607–620, 2001. DOI 10.2165/00002512-200118080-00005.

I guess, as long as you do eventually heal up, the length of time it takes is “not clinically important,” but it’s still kind of a drag to be wounded for week(s).

The sort of scrapes that are now taking longer to heal than they used to.

It’s also sad not be of an age to think, “Oh. I could practice and get good at that.”

My brother

I’m meaning to write something about rejecting this thinking. I’m constantly thinking, “Oh, well. Maybe if I’d started that in my teens or early twenties, there’d have been time to get good at that thing.” But this is crazy talk on many levels. You can only get good at so many things (is one level). But based on the age of my (both still living) parents, there’s no reason to think I’m not going to live for another 30 years. When I was in my early twenties, my time horizon was way shorter than 30 years.

There are a lot of skills that it might take three years of steady effort to get good at. (I’d guess that drawing is one of those.) I could do TEN of those in the time I’ve got left.

Starting with sedentary mice aged about 65 in mouse-years, half were put on a program of high-intensity interval training:

the interval-trained mice seemed in many ways younger than they had been at the start. In particular, they were stronger; when pulled backward gently by researchers, they would cling to a bar longer than at the start of the study. They also had greater endurance capacity, as well as more muscle mass in their hind legs than the sedentary animals, and they scampered faster. Few now were frail.

Source: High-Intensity Workouts May Be Good at Any Age – The New York Times

A friend of mine posted to her Facebook page recently criticizing a whole category of ageist comments along the lines of “You’re only as old as you feel.”

It caught my interest in particular because I’d been mentally composing a post about how I just turned 58, but I’m not suffering the aches and pains that supposedly go along with getting old. My friend’s post reminded me that referring to this as “feeling young” is problematic. And yet, I find that I come down on the other side of this issue. Sure, there is a certain irrefutable accuracy to say that your age is the current year minus your birth year, but age is many things besides a mathematical calculation—at a minimum it’s a social construction, and also perhaps a collection of biological circumstances.

It’s true that what I mean—and what perhaps I should say—is I feel good. Better, in fact, than I’ve felt in years. I’m stronger, more flexible, and more agile than I’ve been in longer than I can remember. I move with more ease, more power, and more control. I have more endurance. I’m certainly more comfortable in my own skin.

A lot of this is just good luck, of course—good genes, avoiding serious injuries and serious illnesses so far.

Beyond good luck I credit my movement practice for most of the rest. Taiji. Walking and hiking. Running (merely an adjunct, but one I enjoy in particular). After years of lifting with machines to little noticeable effect I now do almost all my strength training with bodyweight exercises and am having much more success. (The main exception to pure bodyweight exercise is doing kettlebell swings for my high-intensity interval training, which I ought to write about because it seems to be doing some good, and is also quick and fun.) Push hands I wrote about recently. Animal movement ditto. So new I haven’t had a chance to write much about it yet, I did yoga for the first time last week.

But to bring this back full circle, I’m not so sure that it’s wrong to talk about “feeling young.” My friend is right—growing old is a privilege not everyone enjoys. It is indeed better than the alternative: dying young. But just as I can see her objections to denying age (as if refusing to acknowledge it meant something), I object to denying one’s felt experience. If someone says that they “feel young,” does an appeal to mere arithmetic justify correcting them?

Certainly I am not the only person to feel this way. There are always people trying to express health and fitness in terms of age. There are websites that will suggest a guess as to your physiological age vaguely based on your weight and your activity level. Various practitioners of various disciplines will measure specific things ranging from your maximum heart rate to the length of your telomeres and use the results to calculate a biological age.

They’re all pretty dubious, but I find that I do not object in principle to thinking and talking about concepts like health, fitness, and vitality in terms of age. Even though there are many unhealthy young people and many old people who are fit and vital, I think the notion resonates in a useful way.

As for me, I feel good. I also feel younger than I’ve felt in years.

You know this, right? Age-related diseases—at least, those of middle age—mostly aren’t. Rather, they’re lifestyle diseases that seem age-related because it takes years or decades for the harm done by the lifestyle to start showing up as symptoms.

I’m prompted to write this by something Charles Stross wrote over a year ago, where he talks about the symptoms of aging. I almost didn’t link to that post, because he’s really talking about something else—his post is about the political effects of reasonably foreseeable improvements in medicine—but along the way, he describes his current circumstance:

. . . chronic low-grade pain of the middle-aged body: joints that creak and pop, muscles that need an extra stretch, sore feet.

And goes on to compare it to his hypothetical world with science-fictional medicine:

Unlike today’s senior citizens, you don’t ache whenever you get out of bed, you’re physically fit, you don’t have cancer or heart disease or diabetes or Alzheimer’s, you aren’t deaf or blind or suffering from anosmia or peripheral neuropathy or other sensory impairments, and you’re physically able to enjoy your sex life.

Of course there are age-related diseases—Alzheimer’s and anosmia probably are. But especially the ones in the first quote—the age-related difficulties of the middle-aged body—aren’t age-related at all. To imagine that they are is to make a category mistake—and a serious one, because the error makes it much more difficult to recover your health.

I’ve hesitated to write this post, because I realize that I’m speaking from a position of privilege—I’m healthy. This is partially a matter of luck, partially a matter of good genes, partially a matter of a lifetime history of good health care, access to adequate nutrition, and so on.

Even so, I’ve got real first-hand experience with exactly the list of middle-aged body problems that Stross lists.

Eight or ten years ago, I was feeling old. Tasks that required strength were more daunting than they had been—especially ones, such as carrying things up or down steps, that added additional weight to my already excessive body weight. My balance wasn’t as good, making slippery tubs and icy sidewalks seem like serious threats. My plantar fasciitis was kept at bay only by being scrupulous about wearing supportive shoes and by limiting the amount of standing I did. I could still get down on the floor and get up again, but it was hard enough that I didn’t do it when I didn’t have to. I had trouble getting a good night’s sleep, because my back would ache when I lay still too long, and when I did sleep through the night I’d need considerable stretching before I could move normally the next morning.

I viewed all this as normal aging. Partially, I think that was because I was actually in pretty good shape. I could walk 5 or 6 miles. I routinely bicycled to work when the weather was nice. I went to the fitness center two or three times a week to use the weight machines and do some stretching. Despite all that, my physical capabilities were declining, and I didn’t see anything I could do about it, except perhaps spend even more time exercising, which didn’t seem practical for someone with a day job.

It wasn’t true, though. Over the past six or seven years, I have felt better each year. It is not a strain to carry things of ordinary weight, even going up and down stairs. My static balance is excellent—I no longer fear slippery tubs, although I do still try to be careful on ice. My feet don’t hurt when I stand a lot, even when I’m barefoot. I make a point of sitting on the floor, just to add some variety to the day. I sleep well, and I wake up able to move.

What did I do? Nothing extraordinary.

Starting to do tai chi was probably the key shift, because it changed so many things at once about my movement practice. Somewhere along the line I ran across parkour, and then even before I had done more than play with that I discovered natural movement as a thing—and that was what gave me a framework for thinking about movement the same way I’d come to think about food.

Trying to figure out the best diet is a waste of time. It’s computationally infeasible, and anyway unnecessary—just eat a wide variety of foods (and limit your consumption of industrially produced food-like substances) and your body takes care of the rest. (See Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food for details.)

Similarly, trying to figure out the best exercise regime is a waste of time. You are far better off to get a wide variety of movement (and limit the time spent doing things like sitting in chairs and wearing shoes). Once again, your body will take care of the rest.

What struck me—what prompted me to write this post—was that Stross’s description of what his science-fictional medicine feels like is what I’ve felt like. It’s not exactly aging backwards, but it is a recovery of a feeling of ease and comfort that had slipped away under cover of “normal” aging.

My life feels kind of like a science fiction story, with the science-fictional medicine being just recovering normal patterns of movement.

It makes me want to advocate these lifestyle changes, perhaps more strongly than is advisable. As I say, I recognize that I’m writing from a position of health that isn’t available to just everyone. I can’t say that if you’ll just start walking and running and bicycling and lifting weights and doing taiji and experimenting with parkour and natural movement, you will reverse the aging process and feel young again. There are kinds of impairments that cannot be completely recovered from, and perhaps some that cannot even be improved.

And yet, I do advocate these lifestyle changes. Move better. Move more. Eat food. I bet you’ll feel better—especially if you’re starting to suffer from the symptoms of “normal” aging.