Some of us seem to age more quickly or less quickly than others. Who is relatively young? Who is surprisingly old? We all have categories in our heads and use them for ready reference. First, we judge by looks, then we listen, and smell. Our senses are keen at picking up the signs of age, and among those things we measure the most quickly — hairlines, bent bodies, poor teeth, foul odors from the skin and mouth — none leaves a positive impression. Despite the well-meaning wisdom that warns against it, our quick and superficial judgment is nearly indispensable, not to mention hard-wired into our brains.
Just ask a doctor who works with the elderly. Doctors sum them up on sight, albeit with a well-informed eye. I ask a geriatrician friend to walk around a Chicago lakefront neighborhood that is popular with older retirees and to narrate his thoughts as we make our way down the sidewalk.
"I see lots of potential patients," he says with a smile, "and I can't help reading them as they pass."
A stylishly dressed older woman is walking purposefully toward a group of friends who appear excited to see her.
"There goes a thin, healthy septuagenarian female with 20 good years left," he says upon seeing her. "A woman like that who is active, moves quickly, and has high energy and friends, has already done most of what a person needs to do to live longer, and by the looks of it she has a lower risk for just about anything that might kill people her age."
Looking farther down the street, he sees a more troubling view. It is a man, and his gender alone is a warning sign in old age.
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"There goes a guy in the early stages of dementia."
The telltale signs are the notepad held uneasily in his hand and the impotent smile on his face. "His family may well bring him in to see me soon. If they come soon, I can help slow his decline a little, but not as much as they hope or the drug companies say."
Then again, my doctor friend corrects himself, saying that the problem could be that the man is on too many drugs for other problems and that the pharmaceutical cocktail has disoriented him.
Farther along on our walk we see a family together, the daughter in her 60s pushing the wheelchair of her father, who looks to be in his mid-80s. Two adult grandchildren are also along for the stroll. The daughter talks expressively, and though her father is hunched over and breathing with an oxygen tank and air tube up his nose, he's engaged and nodding.
The daughter is giving him extra months or years of life, my doctor friend says. Sociable people tend to stay healthier and cognitively sound longer. He also offers some folk advice that he believes is clinically verifiable. "If you want to live a long life," he says, "marry someone who treats her parents well."
Excerpted from Shock of Gray by Ted C. Fishman. Copyright © 2010 by Ted C. Fishman. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Read an interview with Ted C. Fishman.