Life After 55 When Your Death Is No Longer Unexpected

The art of aging

Posted Nov 12, 2015

Permission granted by Lillian Muller
Vegan Health Guru Lillian Muller at age 64
Source: Permission granted by Lillian Muller

After 55 they no longer put "unexpected" on your death certificate.  Maybe that is why people say, “60 is the new 40.” They also say “One size fits all.” Both are lies.  Bottom line: getting old is just not for the faint of heart – although ironically it seems to welcome the irregularly beating heart.  If you eat healthy and exercise you can positively affect the quality of life as you age – but all organisms age. Trying to avoid it is insanity, although there is a multi-billion dollar industry trying to help people avoid aging.  The physical consequences of aging vary among individuals, and are not the real problem with aging. The real problem is our perspective and inability to accept it graciously.

Life Beyond Our Purpose

In medieval times, life expectancy was approximately 30 years; these days it is around 67. [1] That varies by culture and circumstance,[2] but even putting those influences aside, the evolutionary mandate for humans is still to sustain the individual so that he or she has the opportunity to procreate to prolong the species.[3-5] That was easier said than done by 30 for our ancestors, who often died from natural causes or disasters like a plague of locusts or most often “the fever,” which could be any various strand of pneumonia or infection. In our world, antibiotics and vaccinations have rendered many of the “plagues” and “fevers” that killed our predecessors harmless.  That’s the good news. 

Purchased from Shutterstock
Source: Purchased from Shutterstock

The bad news is that humans are living far beyond the age that evolutionary biology intended.  Menopause and erectile dysfunction were not common issues in the 1200’s because most people were dead by 35.[1] Likewise, our ancestors didn’t have retirement issues because they didn’t live long enough to retire. Aside from how to sleep through the night, and handle frequent urination, the most common questions I hear from older people who have retired are: What do I do now?  Who needs me?  Or, I hear, now that I can do what I want, I do not know what that is, and I really just don’t want to do anything.

Some people embark on all of those “when I retire” plans… but most people do not.  Most people develop a sense of uselessness, and fade away emotionally and eventually all together.  This is not surprising for various reasons.  The brain does not like change. [6-9] Going to work every day for 40 years and then suddenly stopping is a big change.  That comes with a lot of anxiety, which in terms of the sub cortical brain is threat, and processed as stress regulation.[9-11] This is because although society has changed and subsequently our lives as well, our brains don’t get a retirement party from evolutionary mandates.

Instead, the brain gets the message in the Ventral Tegmental Area (which monitors fulfillment of social needs, such as social inclusion) “I am no longer a useful part of the group –and eventually I will become an outcast, which means certain death… because survival in a social species depends on inclusion.”[12, 13]  Hence the old mammal brain processes that post-retirement perception of uselessness and separation from other humans like it has always processed the threat of social exclusion—serious stress.  Even though the threat is unreal, the old brain processes it the same as if it were real because the mantra in the old brain is survive now, ask questions later, so it cannot distinguish between real and perceived threat. [14-16]

Perception is based on two things: interoceptive awareness (how we feel what we feel, based on what we feel about ourselves) and how we see ourselves reflected in the eyes of others. [17-19] For an aging individual in a youth-oriented society, the latter is brutal.  This is very stressful to our brains.  This stress depletes serotonin and gives rise to depression, as well as promotes other stress-related illnesses, such as cardiac and inflammatory conditions.  [20-23]


Purchased from Shutterstock
Source: Purchased from Shutterstock

With age comes reflection; with reflection come questions about life choices. Then the really tough questions follow: Am I good person? Have I been an honorable human being who has made the world better? Did my life matter?  Then your private demons tell you your deepest fears, and darkest secrets, like an evil bedtime story, designed to keep you awake rather than help you sleep. In the end, it all melts into a sea of despair and regret that washes over your spirit like an angry, persistent, surf crashing over a break wall as the tide comes in.  Of course we have regrets.  However, if we had made different choices we’d still have regrets and still wonder if we made the right choices. They would just be different. So the key is, sit with it, accept it as the best you could have done then because you have no proof to the contrary.  Then let it go, because just like the 8-track tape; your past is not coming back.  It doesn’t matter what you discover about yourself. What matters is, is it something that persists and needs to changed in your present, because the present is what is real –not the future, not the past.  They are only real when they are the present.   

Purchased from Shutterstock
Source: Purchased from Shutterstock

Sixty is not the new 40 because both are fine as they are.  All you ever need to do is love and accept yourself just as you are, at whatever age, whatever place, because all ages and places have their jewels, stones, triumphs, tragedies, and lessons. Life constantly changes like the shoreline of the sea, and that change is called aging, and each change has its rare shells, sharp rocks and soothing sands.  Aging becomes a problem only when you walk along today’s beach with your mind on yesterday’s coastline, or tomorrow’s tide, as opposed to today’s shore, because that is how you step on the sharp stone, step over the soothing sand, and overlook the rare shells.  Remain, fabulous and phenomenal!

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UCLA Center for the Neurobiology of Stress at the David Geffen School of Medicine


1.         Various. Life Expectancy. 2015. - Wikipedia

2.         Various. Life Expectancy 2015, World Health Organization.

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5.         Phillips, C.S., Culture, social minds, and governance in evolution. Politics Life Sci, 2001. 20(2): p. 189-202.

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14.       Adolphs, R., Fear, faces, and the human amygdala. Curr Opin Neurobiol, 2008. 18(2): p. 166-72.

15.       Tupak, S.V., et al., Implicit emotion regulation in the presence of threat: neural and autonomic correlates. Neuroimage, 2014. 85 Pt 1: p. 372-9.

16.       Lakin, J.L., T.L. Chartrand, and R.M. Arkin, I am too just like you: nonconscious mimicry as an automatic behavioral response to social exclusion. Psychol Sci, 2008. 19(8): p. 816-22.

17.       Bornemann, B., et al., Differential changes in self-reported aspects of interoceptive awareness through 3 months of contemplative training. Front Psychol, 2014. 5: p. 1504.

18.       Hariri, A.R., et al., The amygdala response to emotional stimuli: a comparison of faces and scenes. Neuroimage, 2002. 17(1): p. 317-23.

19.       Amaral, D.G., The amygdala, social behavior, and danger detection. Ann N Y Acad Sci, 2003. 1000: p. 337-47.

20.       Ziegelstein, R.C., Acute emotional stress and cardiac arrhythmias. JAMA, 2007. 298(3): p. 324-9.

21.       Pal, R., et al., Age-related changes in cardiovascular system, autonomic functions, and levels of BDNF of healthy active males: role of yogic practice. Age (Dordr), 2014. 36(4): p. 9683.

22.       Seeman, T.E., et al., Allostatic load as a marker of cumulative biological risk: MacArthur studies of successful aging. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 2001. 98(8): p. 4770-5.

23.       Hellhammer, J., et al., Allostatic load, perceived stress, and health: a prospective study in two age groups. Ann N Y Acad Sci, 2004. 1032: p. 8-13.

About the Author

Billi Gordon, Ph.D., is a co-investigator in the Ingestive Behaviors & Obesity Program, Center for the Neurobiology of Stress, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

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