Confessions of a Sexagenarian

Our senior editor sets out on the age-old quest for youth.

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Story by Rita Goldman | Illustrations by Guy Junker

ritaOne month after this issue hits the newsstands, I’ll hit the big 6-0.

Like a lot of my baby-boomer peers, I’m in pretty good shape, healthier and more active than my parents were. Which is why, until recently, I actually reveled in telling people how old I am. Then a friend I hadn’t seen for years visited Maui. When I mentioned my impending sexagenarianhood, she replied, “Well, you seem to be holding up . . . okay.”

“Okay?” I raced home to assess the damage. Was the gray visible amid my high- and low-lighted locks? How crepey is my neck in daylight, anyhow? Most importantly, how could I feel so young, yet see my mother every time I look in the mirror?

I decided to investigate my options—among them, whether to make any changes at all. My hesitation derived from recalling a story by Nathaniel Hawthorne. In “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” an elderly gentleman discovers the elixir of youth and offers it to his old friends. With one drink, the gray-haired codgers become robust swains; the old biddy a buxom lass. But to Dr. Heidegger’s dismay, the foolishness of youth accompanies its vigor. The young men begin to fight over the damsel—which she coquettishly encourages. When the potion wears off, and his friends plead for more, Dr. Heidegger refuses. The real experiment wasn’t to see whether he could return their youth, but whether they would make better use of it the second time around.

The last thing I wanted—even less than looking old—was to look foolish.

Youth and Beauty . . . at Any Price?

Once I decided to explore the possibilities, I discovered that every other boomer is doing the same—judging by all the merchandisers eager to help us in our pursuit of eternal youth. Ads for firming lotions and wrinkle removers fill the media. TV shows turn self-improvement into an extreme sport. Even the venerable American Association of Retired Persons declares from the cover of its magazine: “Look Younger Now!”

And the pitch is working. In his documentary America the Beautiful, which screened at the Maui Film Festival in June, filmmaker Darryl Roberts provides some astounding statistics: In 2004, Americans spent $12.4 billion on cosmetic surgery. And that’s nothing compared to the $45 billion we spend on cosmetics and other beauty products every year.

Roberts interviewed the movers and shakers in fashion, media, advertising and entertainment, who admit to their role in warping our perception of beauty. In the film, Marc Baptiste, one of the country’s top fashion photographers, says, “What you see in a magazine has been retouched, tampered with, altered . . . whatever it takes to make a perfect image. At the end of the day, we’re selling dreams.”

 

The Psychology of Beauty

“Almost 100 percent of women criticize what they look like, and the more depressed they are, the more prevalent the self-criticism,” says Eric Sigmund. Eric is my therapist, a transactional analyst who specializes in abuse and depression. “You can hear their low self-esteem in the way they speak about themselves,” he says.

Why are women more susceptible than men to low self-esteem, and to the advertising that caters to it?

“Women are more objectified in our culture,” says Eric. “Especially sexually. The [unrealistic] presentation of women as perfect sexual objects undermines a woman’s comfort and confidence in her own body. This leads to doubt, shame, and heightened anxiety, and is largely responsible for the three most common mental-health problems in American women today: pervasive low self-esteem, depression and eating disorders.”

“What constitutes a healthy interest in beauty,” I ask, “and when does it stop being healthy?”

“If I were contemplating an invasive procedure like plastic surgery, I’d ask myself why I’m not satisfied with the way I am. It always boils down to who you’re doing it for. I encourage women to stop speaking negatively about their looks—to others, and to themselves. And I tell men, ‘If you love a woman, love her for what she looks like, and tell her so.’”

Change Your Old Blue Genes

The next evening, I catch a special episode of Charlie Rose, whose late-night PBS interviews have turned me into a night owl. The subject is longevity, and Rose has gathered a panel of leading researchers, including Dr. Cynthia Kenyon, who has doubled the life- span of nematodes by changing a single gene. This is great, if you’re a member of the species C. elegans. But the really exciting news, say her colleagues around the table, is that scientists are becoming convinced that all living creatures have an “anti-aging gene,” and that by homing in on it, they’ll be able to extend not just longevity, but youth itself, by . . . who knows how many decades?

And none too soon. As Dr. Jay Oshansky, author of The Quest for Immortality, notes, “If we don’t do anything, we face a rapid increase in frailty in people in their 80s. Slowing the aging process by even a few years will have a huge positive influence. Delay the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease by five years, and you cut the incidence in half.”

Now, where was I? Oh, right—the quest for youth.

 

Beauty from the Inside Out

Heeding Dr. Oshansky’s warning that those of us hoping to live into three digits had better stay healthy, I pay a visit to the office of Julie Claire Holmes, a doctor of naturopathic medicine who specializes in helping women through menopause. Julie is 56, but looks at least 10 years younger, thanks to a regimen of plant-based supplements, diet and exercise.

She tells me that as they move into menopause, many women develop cravings for sweets. Indulging those cravings leads to two of the most common complaints for women “of a certain age”: weight gain and fatigue.

“As we get older, we don’t metabolize carbohydrates as well. The more sugar and simple carbohydrates in our diet [including pastas, potatoes, bread, snack foods like pretzels and chips, sodas and—sigh—chocolate], the worse it is.

“The food we eat breaks down into sugar. Insulin’s job is to process that sugar and get it to the cells so they can use it to make energy. The more sugar you ingest, the more insulin your body releases. The problem is, our bodies haven’t evolved to handle the overabundance of sugar in the typical Western diet, nor the resulting excess of insulin. As insulin increases, the cells become more resistant, less able to absorb the sugar they need.”

So the body does the only other thing it can do: convert the sugar to fat. You gain weight, yet your cells tell you they’re starving. “The lack of energy makes you feel tired . . . and increases your craving for sweets.

“Your diet should include a good protein source at each meal, along with plenty of fresh vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts and seeds, and whole grains. ‘Whole grain’ does not mean whole-wheat pasta or bread. You want to eat grains that are close to their original form.”

The good news, according to Julie, is that if you eliminate sweets from your diet for five days, the craving will diminish or even disappear. You’ll have more energy, and if you don’t go nuts with portions, you’ll lose weight—or at least keep from putting it on.

Here’s Looking at You, Kid

And while you’re eating better, drink more. Water, that is. (Yes, it’s true that red wine has a molecule that can keep you younger, but you have to drink—no exaggeration—about 500 gallons a day to benefit from the effect.) Dehydration may be one of the major issues in aging. “It makes sense,” Julie says. “The tissues dry out and become stiff, the tendons get tight, collagen diminishes, the connective tissues get hard.”

She also prescribes natural hormones, but calls herself a proponent, not an extremist. “You can get some advantages from a moderate dose, including more mental clarity, more moisture in the skin, better joint function, memory, and sleep.”

As important is to pay attention to the level of stress in your life. “Our bodies don’t differentiate between getting yelled at by the boss and having a tiger chase us. The hormones we release are the same; they prepare us for ‘fight or flight.’ But if we then just sit at our desk, these hormones literally eat us up: stop our digestion, destroy our bones.”

When you know you’re going to be under stress, there are things you can do. A 10-minute walk, tai chi, yoga, swimming, meditation, dancing—anything active and fun can help. “It’s about lifestyle changes,” Julie says. “Change your diet, and exercise aerobically at least three times a week for at least 40 minutes. If you’re willing to do the work, the effects of aging can be significantly altered.”

 

One Last Wrinkle

Aging can be significantly altered? I take that question with me on the last leg of my quest: an appointment with Dr. George Martin, one of Maui’s most respected dermatologists. As I enter his Kïhei office, I notice a rack full of sunhats in a rainbow of hues.

“Ninety percent of what we interpret as aging—blood vessels, brown spots, wrinkles—is due to sunlight,” he tells me. “We baby boomers are the first generation that had huge amounts of free time, whole summers off, and spent as much of it as we could in the sun. We’re also the first generation to live long enough to see the harmful effects of all that exposure.”

His mantra? “Slip, slap, slop”—slip on a shirt, slap on a hat, slop on some sunscreen. “You can get sun damage from reflected light from the ocean, even from concrete. A hat just covers your forehead. If you can see the light, it can get to you.”

This has got to be a bummer for the visitor whose goal is a gorgeous Maui tan to flaunt back home. When I ask whether it’s better to visit your local tanning booth before heading to Maui, George gives me an emphatic no. “The UVA radiation they use predisposes you to cancer.” Tanning lotions are a much better choice. “They’re great,” he says, “but they don’t protect you from burning.

“If you’re a minimalist, we recommend a moisturizer with antioxidants, followed by a broad-spectrum [SPF 30] sunscreen. That’s your morning regimen. At night, use a creme that has Vitamin A or Retin-A to restore the skin.”

And if you’re not a minimalist?

Then, Dr. Martin replies with a smile, “We can reverse the damage. Intermittent Pulsed Light, or IPL, uses a burst of laser light to target broken blood vessels and brown spots. Botox treatments are safer than a local anesthetic. Fillers such as Restylane and Juvaderm are made from the naturally occurring molecule hyaluronic acid. We use it to plump up lips. These procedures are minimally invasive, and don’t create the trauma of a facelift or tummy tuck or breast implant.

“In fact, why don’t you try one?”

Okay . . . what?

“Have a treatment. See what it’s like.”

A treatment? I don’t even wear makeup! And I’m old enough to remember how scary it was when Goldfinger aimed a laser at James Bond. (“Do you expect me to talk?” “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.”) So the offer of getting my face zapped is not appealing. Then again, I have these dark areas at the bridge of my nose that make me look like a tired raccoon, and brown spots at my temples—something a different dermatologist, who shall go nameless, called “senile warts.”

With trepidation, I decide to try the IPL, which George’s partner, Dr. Brian Stolley, performs the following evening.

He tapes a protective covering over my eyes, then applies a cold gel to my face. He’ll count: one . . . two . . . and on three, give me a quick zap of the laser, which he says will feel like the sting of a rubber band snapping.

It stings, all right, but it’s also really, really hot. Not painful, but a momentary burning sensation. Even knowing it’s coming, I can’t help flinching. The closer he gets to the center of my face, the more uncomfortable it feels. The procedure lasts maybe 20 minutes; halfway through, I’m wondering why anyone would want to submit to so unpleasant a sensation.

Then it’s over. Brian wipes away the gel and peels the covering from my eyes. My face feels hot and sensitive; he’s warned me it might, and that I shouldn’t expect too much from a single treatment; reversing the damage from a lifetime of sun exposure takes several sessions. What I can expect is that some of the brown spots will darken as they rise to the surface, then fall away like scabs.

By the next morning, my face feels normal, but I follow the instructions to stay out of the sun and wear sunscreen religiously for 14 days. And sure enough, for a couple of days I have some dark brown flecks on my nose, then they simply disappear. The dark patches on the sides of my nose looked lighter, too. At least, I think they do.

The results are subtle, but I do see a brightness I didn’t see before. Or maybe it’s just the knowledge that, if I want to, I can peel years away, and see reflected in the mirror someone who looks closer to the age I feel inside.

For now, just knowing that is enough.

Feel good now

15 ways to treat yourself right on Maui

  1. Savor a fresh wheat-grass shot at Mana Foods’ deli and juice bar.
  2. Get a vitamin C facial at the Spa Moana to rejuvenate skin cells and help heal sunburn.
  3. Try Maui Yoga. Build strength, flexibility, and peace in body and mind with instructor Nadia Toraman’s personal blend of traditions.
  4. Lather your skin in Nature Girl body wash and Pure Fiji lotion from Lilikoi, Pa‘ia’s newest storefront. Your body will thank you with its soft radiance.
  5. Get your daily dose of Vitamin Sea: Buoy your spirits and relax those tense muscles with a dip in the ocean.
  6. Walk Thompson Road in Keokea. Burn some calories, then enjoy a cappuccino and carrot cake at Grandma’s Coffee House, guilt free.
  7. Drop in at Wailuku’s Blue Bamboo for a quick—and inexpensive—acupuncture treatment in a garden setting.
  8. Dive into an order of veggie spring rolls from Fresh Mint in P¯a‘ia.
  9. Kick up some sand! Start at Kihei Canoe Club and jog up Sugar Beach’s perfect stretch of white sand to Ma‘alaea and back. Work up to the full eight miles.
  10. Plant your own vegetable garden. All you need is soil, water, and a sunny patch. Cheat: Skip seeds and buy starts from the nursery. Once you’ve enjoyed a homegrown salad, store-bought won’t cut it.
  11. Save your sole. A deluxe pedicure from Paragon Salon in Makawao is the TLC tootsies need to keep up with our barefoot and slippah’d lifestyle.
  12. Take a Gyrotonics™ lesson with Kathy De Palma. This stretch/strength training uses symmetrical movement to promote alignment, limber your spine and work core muscles.
  13. Work out with a friend. Exercise seems effortless when you’re sharing a great conversation. Plus, combining fitness and socializing saves friendships—and time.
  14. Bike the hills of Upcountry Maui for a great cardio workout and spectacular scenery.
  15. Do nothing. And do it sitting beside the ocean at sunrise or sunset. Breathe deeply and open your senses to the natural world around you. Now, doesn’t that feel good?

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