In our youth-obsessed culture, it might seem that wrinkles and gray hair are the biggest worries about growing old. But readers who took our online aging poll this week in response to our special series "Buying Time?" said they're far more concerned about less superficial matters.
About a third of the more than 28,000 respondents said their biggest fear of aging is that they won't be able to take care of themselves. Almost a fifth said they're afraid they'll lose their mental abilities, and another 16 percent said they're afraid they'll grow very ill and be in a lot of pain or distress. Only about 7 percent said their biggest fear of aging is looking old and wrinkly.
Similarly, nearly 60 percent of respondents to our poll, which is not a scientific survey, said their biggest priority as they age is staying strong and healthy while another quarter cited keeping the mind sharp. And when asked if they'd want to outlive their friends and family if they could, almost two-thirds of respondents said they would only if they'd be in fairly good health.
Echoing these sentiments, hundreds of readers e-mailed us in response to our series.
"I do not care how long I live as long as I can take care of my own personal needs," wrote Dee Dee Patterson of Tyler, Texas. "My four grandparents lived or are living at ages 85+ and the quality of life from age 80 on is significantly less than I would like to have. I have an only child and do not want her to have to wait on me as I age. I want her to live her own life."
Linda Woodward of Rochester, N.Y., said she's also worried about being a burden to her kids. "I am concerned about growing older and not being able to do the things I do now ... How I look (wrinkles, gray hair) does not concern me as much as being capable of keeping good personal hygiene, dressing appropriately and feeling good about myself," she wrote. "Of course, I do not want my children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren (should I live long enough to be blessed) having to take care of me. I would like to have them want to visit me as they do now."
Fighting backBut readers aren't giving up the aging battle without a fight. More than half said they're doing all they can to lead a long, healthy life, including eating right, exercising and taking other preventive measures. About 40 percent said they're not doing everything right, but they're trying. Less than 10 percent said they'd rather live life on the edge and enjoy it, even if it means a shorter life, rather than deprive themselves of indulgences.
S. Jay Olshansky, a professor of public health and a researcher at the Center on Aging at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said he's not surprised the poll showed that wrinkles aren't people's biggest worry about growing older. "People are very concerned about their mental function and their physical function," he said. "It's what you would expect and it's what you hear when you talk to older people."
But based on nationwide statistics indicating that two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, Olshansky was surprised that the poll of msnbc.com readers showed such a high percentage of people who said they're in the habit of eating right and exercising. "The observed reality is quite different," he said.
When asked what they would be willing to do to try to live longer, a fifth of respondents cited practicing dietary restriction, more than one in 10 said taking anti-aging supplements, about 2 percent said taking human growth hormone (HGH) or other hormones, and more than 40 percent said they would use more than one of these approaches. A quarter of respondents said they would use none of them.
Keith Webb of Fullerton, Calif., wrote in to say that he's fighting aging by watching his diet, exercising regularly and taking a range of supplements, including omega-3 oils, antioxidants, L-arginine, niacin and MSM. "To quit growing old means you have died!" he wrote. "I don't necessarily want to live to 100 but I do want a quality of life that comes with taking care of your body ... I am 66 but look and act like I am 50, with more energy than most in their 40s."
Olshansky said he's concerned that the poll showed so many people willing to try unproven methods to try to stop the clock. "That's not unexpected but worrisome," he said. "It's buyer beware."
Only about one in 10 readers said their biggest priority as they age is looking good and more than half said they were not willing to get facelifts or other facial surgeries; liposuction, breast implants or other body-shaping procedures; chemical peels or dermabrasion; or Botox or other injections. The rest of the respondents said they were willing to do one or more of these procedures to try to hold onto their youth.
But about one in 10 respondents said they aren't worried about growing old at all.
"It's just a natural part of life's journey," said Nan Hahn of North Charleston, S.C. "My hair is gray and any wrinkles I have are from laughter. I pity those who are obsessed with, and push the concept of, staying young — they miss out on the peace that comes from letting go of fear."
Read on for more comments about aging and what, if anything, readers are doing to try to fight the clock:
My wife and I are enjoying growing older together because we understand that the only limits to what we can do are placed upon us by ourselves. It is actually wonderful to get into the mid-70s with people not expecting us to be able to do much ... and then, when we do accomplish things, everyone thinks we're magicians.
— Earl Julo, Lee's Summit, Mo.
The older the violin, the sweeter the tone.
— Mason Treat, Springdale, Ark.
I'm just satisfied to be here. I take just one medication, enjoy life and could care less about wrinkles. My grandchildren have a grammy that looks the part. I would never spend a cent on looking younger. I don't dye my hair, and it's thick and healthy ... It's to each his own, so sell the public a bill of goods, make all the plastic surgeons millionaires and jump on the nano face cream. I only wish I could sell it. I'm not interested in a life-changing experience, thank God, I'm satisfied with mine.
— Pat Nixdorf, DeWitt, N.Y
I would never try to stop the clock. I say bloom in whatever age you happen to be. Be an example to other seniors — 21 is not the only age. Sooner or later time creeps up on you. Take it in your stride ... I am 73 and look great!
— Amelia Stokell, Louisville, Ky.
I am happy to be getting old when you think of the alternative. By aging gracefully I want to physically be able to be active in volunteering for community service projects. I do not want to just hang at home. I am going to be 69 and still work part-time and do many volunter hours in community.
— Grace Akers, Cambridge, Md.
Well, I look at it this way. If you took a Model T car and stripped the paint off and then repainted it, visually it looks great but on the inside it's the same old car. That's exactly what we are doing to ourselves. You might be 65 and look 55 ... big deal. Physically you're not 55. You are 65 so act the part and look the part. Its nature's way.
— Steve Heater, Tuxedo, N.Y.
Daily lovemaking is much better than any cream or treatment.
— Juan Jose, Conroe, Texas
I think a large part of it is dietary (perhaps behind heredity). I take simple regimen of vitamins and minerals, but the most important is flax seed ... I noticed an immediate effect on my joint pain. — Christopher MacDonald, San Anselmo, Calif.
I am a 54-year-old female, and like many women my age, spent years struggling with the aging process. Not anymore. I have come to a wonderfully, comfortable acceptance of who I am and how I look. I want to look my age, act my age and find delight in this season of my life. How ridiculous to spend so much energy pursuing something that is unattainable. Like everyone else, I want to look the best I can, but not at any expense. When I laugh ... I want the laugh lines!
— Cyndy Hutchins, Abilene, Texas
I sure am concerned about growing older. The point is that I DO want to get older and to me it does not matter whether someone "ages gracefully" or not. It only matters that they are here to "live." My husband passed away at the age of 53 after a long illness and I realize that looks don't matter; it's the here and now!!!! Come on people stop being so vain and take the time and money that are spent on these products and procedures and donate them!!!
— Joanne Cichocki, Vernon, Conn.
Nearing 70 years of age, I religiously keep saturated fat intake as low as possibe, maintain low sugar and salt intake, conduct moderate daily exercises, keep my mind — as well as my body — extremely active and avoid any form of stress as is possible. My grandfather made it to 94 and my mother 96. I hope to make at least 100, because I still have so much to accomplish!
— Ron Sheesley, Middletown, N.Y.
I find myself very interested in aging. At 39 I pay attention to what I eat, take supplements, exercise, I avoid the sun and have probably spent more than I should have on facial creams and ointments to stave off the signs of age. Aging gracefully to me is a balance of taking care of yourself and taking advantage of what science and technology have to offer.
— Denene McBride, Pittsburgh, Pa.
If life is just a bowl of cherries, then aging must surely be the pits!
— Harry Higgins, Scottsdale, Ariz.
When I was a little girl, my grandmother used to talk to me about everything. I could ask her anything and she would answer. When I asked why her hair was gray and white, she said it was silver angel hair and you earned one for every time you survived something. When I asked her why she had so many lines on her face, she told me it was OK to have lines as long as they came from smiling and laughing. I have passed this wisdom onto my children. As a 40-something female, there are times that looking in the mirror is difficult. But I think of all the things my grandma told me. Also, when I see people who "have had work done," I can't imagine looking in the mirror and seeing anybody besides me, the way God made me, looking back.
— Kaye, Fort Worth, Texas
Aging is a natural process that no doctor or hocus pocus can stop.
— Larry E. Binz, Clarksdale, Miss.
My father died when he was 44 ... an accident at work. My mother, who was never sick a day in her life, died at 74 ... from multiple myeloma. You can try to slow the clock, but you never know when it will stop ticking. There is nothing wrong with wanting to live longer ... but you cannot become obsessive about it.
— Stephen Curran, Bethlehem, Pa.
There is no such thing as "growing old gracefully." Aging is not all it's cracked up to be.
— Sue, Belen, N.M.
For many people in our youth-oriented culture, aging means great loss: loss of strength, health, attractiveness, long-time friends, cognitive abilities and, worst of all, respect. Growing old gracefully is a matter of how we face those losses. It requires wisdom, courage and patience. Wisdom helps us distinguish between first things and second things; things that are fundamental and those that are not. It also tells us when to hold on and when to let go. Courage, on the other hand, gives us the ability to decide and act according to what wisdom tells us. Patience, in turn, allows us to live with those decisions. Growing old gracefully, therefore, is not primarily a matter of health, attractiveness, material prosperity and so on. To the contrary, these are the very things to which gracefulness responds.
— Mark Hartwig, Colorado Springs, Colo.