As far as I know, Marcia Angell is no relation of Roger Angell, who recently wrote of life in his nineties for The New Yorker (as I noted last week in this blog). The identity of last name is simply a happy coincidence — happy for me and maybe you, because both of these people have had something of interest to say to those of us who are getting older. Marcia Angell is a Senior Lecturer in Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School and former Editor in Chief of The New England Journal of Medicine. She is also both a physician and an author, whose principal areas of investigative interest are the pharmaceutical industry and end-of-life issues. Last year, she was seventy-four.
In the May 9, 2013 issue of The New York Review of Books, she reviewed Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study, a book by George E. Vaillant (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press), which summarizes a study of 268 Harvard sophomores — at that point in time all male — who had been selected from the top of their classes in 1939 through 1944. Although the original aim of the study was to determine what constitutes the best possible health (which it was assumed that these highly privileged youths would possess), it was later broadened to identify which early characteristics predict a successful life. Most of the survivors are now in their nineties, which makes the Harvard Grant Study one of the longest and exhaustively documented studies of adult development in existence.
In the course of her review, Angell raised several interesting points, one of which is that the study showed that the marriages of the participants were happier after seventy. She further agreed with Vailliant (the author) in his belief that “the empty nest is often more of a blessing than a burden.” Then she added an additional speculation of her own, which my own observations support. (I do believe that, with exceptions, men are less resilient than women, especially as they age.)
A more speculative possibility: it seems to me that old age takes many men almost by surprise: it sneaks up on them, and is all the more disturbing for that. In contrast, women are all too aware of aging, starting with their first gray hair or wrinkle. By the time they’re in their fifties, they’re well accustomed to the losses that come with age. That may make them better able to help and support their husbands as the men find that having been a master of the universe is no protection against old age.
However, it’s her last four paragraphs which led me to save a clipping of her review for almost a year. Except for her interest in now learning Italian and taking a course in astronomy, I ‘m almost completely on the same page with her. (Our paths diverge only at her last thirteen words.)
Like Vaillant, I am in my seventies, so a book about aging holds special interest for me. Ultimately, old age is bad news, of course, and I would rather be young. But like many of the Grant Study men, I find offsetting advantages, one of which is a sharper sense of what is important in life. Perhaps it is analogous to Samuel Johnson’s observation that ‘when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.’ Anyway, I believe I have a clearer sense of what matters and what doesn’t.
My sources of pleasure are different, too, and more varied. For example, I take great pleasure in beautiful vistas, something I did not when I was young. Ordinary daily activities, like reading the paper and discussing the news with my husband over breakfast, have taken on an added pleasure beyond the activities themselves, just because of the ritual. Although I continue to be active professionally, I am less concerned with maintaining a professional presence, and I look forward to learning Italian, taking a course in astronomy, and finally reading War and Peace (I have no interest in cultivating an actual garden).
But even though my microcosm is in pretty good shape, I have become much more pessimistic about the macrocosm — the state of the world. We face unsustainable population growth, potentially disastrous climate change, depletion of natural resources, pollution of the oceans, increasing inequality, both within and across countries, and violent tribalism of all forms, national and religious. Dealing with these problems will take a lot more than marginal reforms, and I don’t see that coming. Particularly in the United States, but also in the rest of the world, big money calls the shots, and it is most concerned with the next quarter’s profits. Although I’ve spent much of my life writing and speaking in opposition to the corrupting influence of money on medicine, I find doing so increasingly pointless because it seems futile. Worrying about the world my daughters and grandsons will inhabit is what I like least about aging.
Nearly everyone over a certain age observes that time seems to pass much more quickly, and I am no exception. So extreme is the acceleration that I wonder whether it isn’t a result of some physical law, not just a perception. Maybe it’s akin to Einstein’s discovery that as speed increases, time slows. Perhaps this is the reverse — as our bodies slow, time speeds up. In any case, the rush of my days is in stark contrast to the magically endless days of my girlhood. I also find it hard to remember that I’m no longer young, despite the physical signs, since I’m the same person and in many ways have the same feelings. It’s particularly disquieting to recall that many people and places I knew no longer exist, except in my memories. Still, although I dislike the fact that my days are going so quickly, that’s the way it is, and I’ve had a good run. Like the men in the Grant Study.
It’s the “that’s the way it is, and I’ve had a good run” part I can’t agree with. I don’t find that consoling at all. It’s rather like telling a hungry person that he’s had plenty of good juicy steaks in his time, and now it’s someone else’s turn.
But then, I was always a sore loser.