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“Relentless Attrition” Starts in Thirties?!

mgullettes Icon Posted by Margaret Morganroth Gullette

November 1st, 2008

Now it isn’t just ads selling cosmetic surgery that tell you how young you start declining. Two writers in the prestigious New York Review of Books (October 23, 2008) tell us that “nature” is indifferent to people over fifty, especially women, on the grounds that they have stopped reproducing. Then Diane Johnson and Dr. John F. Murray go on to assert the 19th century theory that the body starts “its long preparation for death. . . . relentless physical and mental attrition [b]eginning in the twenties and thirties”–so apparently “nature” doesn’t care too much about reproduction or young people either.

The last line of their essay, “Do we really need reminding of this?” doesn’t repudiate the medicalized view or these antique theories of decline. “Do we really need reminding of this?” accepts decline as a truth to be reminded of, not a narrative about aging that has more interesting alternative forms. You don’t have to “delight” in the prospect of attrition to fall prey to decline’s oblique adoration of youth and its one-sided fixation on bodily loss.

Ageism corrupts clear thinking. When a younger woman’s stroke is at issue in this essay, Dr. Murray corrects pessimism by describing neurogenesis, the nerve regeneration linked to cognition. But when the authors come to the topic of the older body, neurogenesis–which counters the decline view of aging by showing it isn’t all “relentless” deterioration–isn’t mentioned again. Yet older people too can recover from strokes.

Normal homeostasis of the body, normal healing of the body, normal loving by others–forces that, on top of access to health care and genetic resistance, produce increasing numbers of healthy centenarians–are omitted. The important biosocial concept of “the expression of genes” is omitted, and also the relational aspect of a good old age.

It’s useful to get the scientific view–decline all the way–so clearly stated. For decline-mongers, aging-into-old-age seem like nothing more than a disease process. Medicalized ageism overlooks the fact that the body has a mind as well as a brain and that the mind is not quaintly focused from age twenty on preparations for dying.
Even in old age people have other things to do.

Saul Bellow in Ravelstein has his ailing protagonist say, “There are significant facts that have to be lived with but you don’t have to let them engross you.”

So which of the available facts should engross us?

Human beings die, but they defy their animal doom, of which they are conscious, through love, grace, rage, hope, forgiveness, stoicism, humor, etcetera.“It’s all life until death,” Grace Paley noticed. Alix Kates Shulman uses this as an epigraph in To Love What Is, her touching memoir about caring for her brain-injured husband. If we’re smart, we use our good tools to fight ageism too.

It’s a dangerous sign that when the New York Review of Books thinks it’s treating “aging,” it winds up offering readers some of the confusions and omissions of current ageism. Someone made the editorial decision that illness, or for that matter health in old age, is a specialized topic that cannot be handled by a humanistic approach.

Writers on aging-into-old-age should consult not just the great writers on living and dying but a more critical science-studies scholar or a feminist age critic, social gerontologist, cultural anthropologist, or bioethicist. These experts know both the history of age theories and the exits from decline ideology.

The intellectual media mostly neglect the all-important fact that all along the life course we are being aged by culture, in the body and in the mind. If we recognized this, Americans could surely manage aging–even unto death–in a far better way.

Margaret Morganroth Gullette is the author of Aged by Culture, chosen a Notable Book of the Year by the Christian Science Monitor. She is a Resident Scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center, Brandeis.

One Response to ““Relentless Attrition” Starts in Thirties?!”

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    June 4th, 2016 09:05

    Hello, you used to write great, but the last several posts have been kinda boring… I miss your great writings. Past few posts are just a little out of track! come on!

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