The Art of Graceful Aging

One thing that we all have in common is our mortality and the fact that aging is an inevitable part of this reality.  Unlike some cultures who respect their elders, such as the Native Americans and Asians, we live in a culture that worships youth.  Our role models in our entertainment and athletic industries are examples.  No matter how talented an actress or beautiful a model is or how skillful a football player or tennis player may be, turning 40 usually means the beginning of invisibility.  At the same time, our life spans are increasing with more of us living into our 90’s and 100’s. So, what do we do with these extra 50-60 years?

Being an elder myself (pushing 75), this is a topic of utmost interest to me and one of my favorite research subjects.  As a young woman, it never occurred to me that the ’70s would bring the gifts it does.

Self-acceptance, patience with others, living in the present, letting go of striving, a sense of humor even with myself, being ok if not everybody likes me, and a very satisfying sex-life are just some of the gifts I can think of at the moment. What a nice surprise!

Tom, a dear friend 20 years my senior, taught me a lot about graceful aging. He embraced every stage of his life with enthusiasm and gratitude.  As he turned 80, he said, “I have learned to accept life on life’s terms.”  When he told me he had been diagnosed with lung cancer, I flew out to California to say “goodbye.”  He (in a wheelchair and on oxygen), his son, and I had dinner at his favorite restaurant.  We ate a delicious dinner, drank martinis (his favorite), reminisced, and laughed a lot.  His son called a few weeks later to tell me Tom had died peacefully.

Whether our culture recognizes us as its wisdom keepers or not, many seniors know that the aging process can be a beautiful time. 

Storytelling by the “wise ones” is a common practice in many indigenous cultures.  We may not have that practice in our contemporary culture, but each and every one of us has a book inside.  As Wayne Dyer said, “Don’t die with your song unsung.”

We also know aging can also bring us challenges, such as health problems, pain issues, and cognitive challenges.  We are blessed to have some mentors who are writing and teaching us how to stay healthy so we can sing our song. One of our living examples of staying healthy and active no matter what age is Dr. Norm Shealy.  Dr. Shealy, now in his mid-eighties, is a neurosurgeon who was one of the pioneers of the Holistic Health Movement that emerged in the U.S. in the 1970s.  He walks his talk, living a healthy lifestyle which includes a very clean diet and daily exercise program.  He continues to teach how to stay holistically healthy: body, mind, and spirit.

Dr. Deepak Chopra has also spent many years writing and teaching about healthy aging.  He gives the message that our beliefs can age us or keep us young.   He is an advocate of the ancient healing system in India, Ayurveda, which provides tools for enhancing longevity.  He is also an avid proponent of meditation.  There have been many scientific studies done on meditation.  Here are some of the physical benefits of meditation that have been found in these studies:   It can improve the immune system, sleep, the efficient use of oxygen use in the body, and production of the anti-aging hormone DHEA.  It also decreases blood pressure, cholesterol, anxiety, and depression, insomnia, and the production of stress hormones.

Researchers at UCLA School of Medicine’s Department of Neurology compared the brains of meditators to non-meditators.  They found that the meditators’ brains were 7.5 years younger than those of the non-meditators by the time they were in their mid-fifties.

As we age, our brains tend to lose connective tissue and shrink. The concentration and focused attention required in meditation stimulate growth in brain cells and increase connectivity in the brain.

Dr. Christiane Northrup’s messages are geared for women.  She gives lectures and writes books, such as Goddesses Never Age.  Like Chopra, she disagrees with the beliefs of our culture that aging is a downhill process.  She agrees with him that our beliefs about age have much more influence on us than our chronological age.  She says that studies have shown that the hippocampus (memory area of our brain) can increase throughout our entire lives.  For example, aerobic exercise can increase the number of cells in the hippocampus.

Dr. Dean Ornish and Dr. Norm Shealy have been early researchers in the study of telomeres and the aging process.  Telomeres lie at the ends of our strands of DNA.  They are like the caps at the ends of shoelaces that keep them intact so the DNA is not lost.  Telomeres get shorter each time a cell copies itself, but the important DNA stays intact.  Eventually, telomeres get too short to do their job, causing our cells to age and stop functioning.  Short telomeres are linked to chronic and degenerative diseases like cancer, heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, and Alzheimer’s.

Scientists view telomere length as a reliable marker for our biological age (as opposed to age in years.)   We can now order telomere testing kits in the mail.  With the prick of your finger or swab of your cheek, companies like Telo Years and Titanova will tell you how your telomeres compare in length to others your age.  How accurate these tests are has not been determined. An enzyme called telomerase rebuilds telomeres.  Telomerase is thought to be stimulated by meditation, stress management, eating a diet full of healthy fats and vegetables, being active, maintaining a healthy weight, and limiting exposure to cigarettes and air pollution.  NAD+ is a coenzyme found in every cell.  It activates proteins that help maintain telomere length.  Intermittent fasting and  NAD+ supplements are thought to stimulate telomerase.   Diets containing omega-3 fatty acids, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and beta carotene also are believed to stimulate telomerase. An example of a diet that would promote telomerase growth would be wild salmon, berries, and leafy greens and broccoli.

If we have been practicing good health habits, such as those in my blog on Staying Healthy, we are ahead of the game and hopefully not experiencing ill health in our senior years.  If not, it is never too late.

Our bodies are amazing with how they can rebalance and heal themselves if we start taking care of them.    

In a lot of ways, I am healthier than I was in my 30’s because I take much better care of myself than I did back then.

The same thing goes for pain.  Chronic pain has been linked to inflammation.  Foods, such as refined sugar and carbohydrates, alcohol, dairy, and coffee, are believed to make inflammation worse.   Eating whole food diets with and natural foods, especially fresh vegetables and taking turmeric and fish oils are thought to decrease inflammation.  Stress is believed to cause inflammation.  Rest, recreation, and sleep are believed to decrease it.

Inflammation affects our brains along with the rest of our bodies and is also being researched as a leading cause of brain fog, forgetfulness, and cognitive impairment.  More and more experts in brain health are claiming that diseases such as Dementia and Alzheimer’s are not a normal result of the aging process and that they can be prevented and sometimes even reversed.

We used to believe that if brain cells were damaged, they could not regenerate.  Two Nobel Prize winners are among scientists who are discovering this is not the case. Dr. Lev–Montalcini won the Nobel Prize for discovering a protein called nerve growth factor ( NGF) which helps with the survival and maintenance of brain cells, protects and repairs damaged brain cells, and even prevents the brain from shrinking with age. A nutrient called luteolin has been found to block inflammation and boost NGF.

Research by another winner of the Nobel Prize, Dr. Eric Kandel,  discovered a compound called brain-derived neurotrophic factor ( BDNF).  BDNF is a protein produced by the brain that plays a vital role in producing new brain cells.  The whole fruit of the coffee plant has been found to stimulate the production of BDNF.

In 1936 another Nobel Prize winner, Otto Loewi, a researcher from Germany, discovered acetylcholine.  This neurotransmitter is the messenger that helps our brain cells communicate with each other and helps us retrieve our stored memories.  As we age, it is thought that the decrease of this substance is one of the reasons we get “senior moments.”  Research is being done on how to stimulate this neurotransmitter as well as phosphatidylserine ( PS ), which is a building block of cell membranes.  Stress is thought to have an adverse effect on PS.

Blueberries are known to be good for the brain.  This is because they are a strong anti-oxidant and contain a substance that is thought to “switch on” the genes that produce a sharper memory. (Information from the Journal of Natural Health by Dr. Frank Shallenberger MD)

Two popular public figures who are offering the latest information in the new brain science are Dr. Mark Hyman who hosted an enlightening docu-series online titled Broken Brain and Dr. David Perlmutter who has also offered cutting edge webinars and books, such as The Better Brain Book.

Albert Einstein said,

Do not grow old, no matter how long you live.  Never cease to stand like curious children before the Great Mystery into which we were born.

The healthier we are, the more we can enjoy our elder years and the more we can pass down the wisdom that each and every one of us has gained over our lifetimes.  We deserve to feel good at any age, and the generations to come deserve to learn from their elders.


Bonnie McLean
Bonnie McLean
Dr. Bonnie McLean O.M.D, A.P. has been in practice for 36 years. A graduate of Duke University School of Nursing, she practiced nursing as an RN for 20 years before embarking on her studies in natural medicine, which included an MA in Counseling from Pepperdine University, a Doctorate in Oriental Medicine from California Acupuncture College, and training in energy medicine and shamanic healing. In addition to her holistic acupuncture practice, she is a writer and speaker. She is author of Integrative Medicine: The Return of the Soul to Healthcare, which can be found on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Bonnie is a contributing author to the inspiring book Crappy to Happy: Sacred Stories of Transformational Joy

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    • Thanks, Darlene! A September issue of Time Magazine was dedicated to the Millennials. The title was Youthquake: How the World Will Change When a New Generation Leads. It shed a lot of light on another reason we Boomers are not listened to. In addition to our culture’s fascination with youth, this generation and younger ones are angry with us because they feel the hippy generation sold out to comfort and materialism and are leaving them to fend for themselves in a world that they feel we pretty much trashed. Greta Thurnberg is an example of how they feel. They don’t realize that some of us are in alignment with the concerns they have.

    • Thank you Bonnie! I have much to say, but I will only say this: Although some of their complaints are valid, most are not. Many Boomers especially those of us growing up in the seventies worked hard and did not fall prey to the sixties’ Kumbaya. Unfortunately, there are some, not all, boomer parents who coddled their children and consequently the children’s views on life are most unrealistic. Just my humble but experienced opinion. From Darlene💖

    • Thanks, Darlene! Yes, I agree with all that you have said. It’s complicated, isn’t it? I think this dialogue is important. Bonnie

  1. What an excellent and meaningful article full of ideas and information for a graceful aging process, Dr. Bonnie! I remember reading Deepak Chopra’s book titled Ageless Body, Timeless Mind in my 30’s and loved every word of it. I realized I could live to 100 with a brain and body in vibrant health. I’m inspired by those who never retired and continued to write, teach, live fully till they did kick the bucket. I’ve been calling this time period in my life-the Bonus Round of Being Alive-grateful every single day to be alive, to have come “through” some really dark experiences, to live to tell about the transformations I continue to experience.

    Thank you so much for this rich article filled with resources and ideas to celebrate life no matter how “old” we are.

    • Thank you, Laura! Yes, Deepak continues to inspire us, doesn’t he? Writing is a reminder for me as well. 🙂 Bonnie

  2. Loved this as a confirmation on my own thoughts of aging. I never have felt my age, and after losing my hair, among other things to Chemo, when it returned, I was so grateful, although it came back silver after being blonde for most of my life. Friends would suggest to me to go back to dying my hair to make me look younger, but I would and still say, I am just happy to have it back and I like the way I look. With all the ups and downs in my life, I still look forward to tomorrow and I am grateful for today.

  3. From the height of my old age I really don’t think young people want to learn from the elderly or, if there are any, they can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
    I believe that good health is the fundamental thing to be able to face the typical difficulties of old age. Those who suffer really get dark, apart from there are diseases that make old age really hard, even for those close to them.
    I feel lucky to still be able to play tennis at 80, to have a good memory, to have many interests. Everything you reported in the article is absolutely acceptable: the only problem, in addition to the unexpected, is that when you are young and strong you do not always understand that you have to take care of yourself, you don’t think about it.
    To face old age with serenity and in a fruitful way one must first maintain one’s curiosity, because it is wrong to think that old age necessarily represents the “end” of something. On the contrary, the third age can be an opportunity to discover new passions and interests, able to rekindle the “flame of life”. And then it is important to travel, because broadening your horizons means remembering that there are always so many things to discover. Lastly, contact with the young plays an important role (…. even if they don’t listen to you!). The circles for the elderly can do well, have an important social role, but not enough: young people are life and maintaining contact with them means continuing to understand reality and the future.

    • Thanks so much for sharing your words of wisdom, Aldo. I agree. I now understand the saying, “Youth is wasted on the young.” I took so many things for granted when I was young, and it never occurred to me that some day they might not be there. There might not be a large number of young people who want to learn from us, but the few are worth it. I am finding some of these young people pretty amazing. Maybe you should write a book, or at least an article, as an example of what the elder years can be like. Bonnie