Many of the common sayings and beliefs about growing old have had to be revised in the light of new information that has been developed by medical science in the last twenty years. We used to say that a man is as old as his arteries. Now we realize that changes in the arteries may go on without aging of all the rest of the body. A man is as old as his skin, his adrenal glands and his nervous system, even more than his arteries. Aging shows up most definitely in the skin and in the brain.
Changes go on in the tissues of the human body at varying rates. Some require a long time and others occur rapidly. Hardening of the arteries is a slow process and is therefore seen most frequently in the aged. Actually, the human being has a life cycle of about seventy years and, barring accident or other stresses, will probably live that long. During his seventy years the human being is subjected to a good deal of wear and tear. This may include excesses of food, drink, or narcotic substances. The wear and tear may include infections, bad weather, accidents while at work, overwork, boredom, or emotional upsets. Even without excessive wear and tear, however, the tissues gradually lose their ability for growth and repair, and we grow old. Pathologists talk about the atrophy of disuse. At certain ages both women and men lose their ability to reproduce, which is a function of youth and middle age.
Actually the blood vessels carry on longer than most other tissues of the body. Operations are done on very old people and they recover, with blood supply flowing into the area that has been shut off by the operative procedure. Dr. William Dock mentions some signs of aging and the way we meet them. Gray hair can be dyed, the long hairs in the nose and ears clipped, and baldness covered by a wig.
For the aging process doctors use the word “involution.” The loss of ability to read small type as one grows older is associated with changes in the tissues of the eye. As our tissues age they tend to recover less rapidly from disease or injury. The aging heart beats with a little more trouble than does the young heart. Modem medicine has learned to substitute for some of the disappearances of tissues and their secretions. We give liver extract in forms of anemia, insulin for diabetes, eye glasses for visual disturbances, and canes or crutches for weakening muscles.
Disappearances of neurons or nerve cells in the nervous system come on with age. This helps to make old people less agile than the young and less capable to carry on hard work for a long time. The tremors of old age are accredited to similar loss of neurons.
Old people do not observe as acutely as do the young. They do not remember recent events. Eventually the loss of tissue from the aging brain may reveal itself in apathy, irritability, or stolidity. Many old people talk and talk and talk. This garrulousness may be accompanied by too great a concern over little, unimportant things and less concern about essential problems.
Doctors have learned that the accounts old people give of their symptoms, the trials and tribulations, neglects and concerns of their families, are not quite as dependable as were accounts by these same people given when they were younger.
Actually, old age needs lots of sympathetic consideration from the young. Read the ages at death of the people in your community. You will discover great numbers over sixty-five, with only here and there one from fifteen to fifty. The span of life has changed and we must learn to accommodate ourselves to it.