You're Not Too Old for That
These inspiring folks are living life to the fullest way past 50
En español | All together now: Age is nothing but a number! You're only as old as you feel! Trust us: We've heard 'em all. And, they're mostly true. Thanks to medical science and the intrepidness of the boomer generation, older Americans really are disrupting the limits of aging in ever more astonishing ways. We asked the experts to tell us what's possible and when to think twice.
Play drums in a rock band
Hazards: Physically Dangerous (PD); Incredibly Expensive (IE); Potentially Embarrassing (PE); Utterly Improbable (UI)
Hitting the skins, says drum teacher Joe Costello, "can be therapeutic at any age." (One of his students is a 68-year-old flight attendant.) Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones and ex-Beatle Ringo Starr are still keeping time at 74; they're practically kids next to Dick Richards of Bill Haley and His Comets, who's touring at 91. "My legs feel good, my arms feel good — I hope to rock till I drop," Richards says. But drumming is hard on the joints, ears and heart: In 2008, British researchers found that 52-year-old Blondie drummer Clement Burke's heart rate raced to 190 beats per minute during a show. (He also burned 600 calories an hour.) "If you're adding rock drumming to your routine, start out slowly," recommends personal trainer Bob Merz. "Your heart will indeed be challenged."
Go into space
Hazards: PD, IE, PE, UI
Astro-tourism outfit Space Adventures placed seven private citizens on the International Space Station, three of whom were over 50. "There is no upper age limit for any of our programs," says company CEO Tom Shelley. (You do have to be rich: Trips cost $52 million.) John Glenn returned to space aboard a shuttle at 77, and NASA's Story Musgrave flew the last of his six missions at 62. "I got better at it as I went along," he says. "Everyone should have a look at space." If you can ride a roller coaster, you'll probably survive: The stresses during launch and reentry are roughly the same. But the cosmic void isn't friendly to aging bodies — the environment aggravates everything from insomnia to indigestion. Longer off-planet trips could be even more trouble. "Prolonged zero gravity can weaken bones," says Mayo Clinic rheumatologist Shreyasee Amin.
Do your own stunts
Hazards: PD, IE, PE, UI
Too late to be the fall guy? Probably. "I don't like taking anybody more than 35," says Hollywood Stunts NYC owner Bob Cotter of his intensive three-week training program for aspiring stunt performers. Injuries that would be a strain to a 25-year-old break bones at 60. (A safer alternative: $80 will get you a class in falling technique and a chance to leap off a platform onto an air bag.) But then there's legendary brawler "Judo" Gene LeBell, who has hundreds of film and TV credits. He's still taking punches at a jaw-dropping 82. "Every movie star in Hollywood has beaten me up," he says. "I'm trying to retire. I want to start racing motorcycles again."
Go drag racing
Hazards: PD, IE, UI
Known as the First Lady of Funny Cars, Bunny Burkett is 70 and still smoking younger rivals. Fellow savvy veteran John Force, 66, won his 16th National Hot Rod Association championship in 2013. How do they keep up? Force credits an unrelenting practice schedule, while Burkett insists that her reflexes haven't declined with age. She might be right, says Roger Ratcliff of Ohio State University's Cognition and Language Lab. Though the reaction time of older drivers slows, he says "a lot of the slowdown is due to their not wanting to make mistakes." In "one-choice tests" (such as red means "stop," or green means "go"), older drivers can be nearly as fast as 20-year-olds.
Become a doctor
Hazards: IE, UI
Over a dozen people 50 or older start medical school each year, says Richard Levy, executive director of the National Society for Nontraditional Premedical and Medical Students. "The oldest I know was 63." (The average age for students starting med school is 24.) Licia Hedian began her medical-school training at 53, graduating from the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine in 2014 at age 57. After three years of residency, she plans to join a family physician practice at 60. "I come from a very long-lived family, and I hope to work until I'm 80," says the registered nurse and midwife. Older students and residents can expect to be challenged by both the punishing workload and the financial hit: You'll be taking on a big debt while retirement looms. "Someone deciding to go to medical school is looking at, effectively, half a million dollars' worth of investment," Levy says.
Get totally ripped
Hazards: PD, PE
Ernestine Shepherd was in her 50s when she started lifting weights — her sister Mildred wanted the pair to share the Guinness World Record as the oldest female bodybuilders. After Mildred passed away, Shepherd took on her sister's dream and at 71 entered her first bodybuilding competition — and won. The petite 78-year-old was at one point recognized as the world's oldest competitive female bodybuilder by both Guinness and Ripley's Believe It or Not! "Can you imagine?" she asks. Weight training can be great for fighting osteoporosis, but getting as cut as Shepherd takes care: Blood pressure spikes bring on aneurysms, and older muscles tear when overworked. Jessica Matthews, professor of exercise science at San Diego Miramar College, recommends starting off with a trainer familiar with older clients. "Gradual progression through a program is going to be key," she says.
Get your wings
Hazards: PD, IE
"If it's really a passion, you are almost never too old to start flying as long as you meet all the requirements," says Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, 64. He's the US Airways pilot who made a zero-fatality emergency landing on the Hudson River in 2009. There are no age restrictions to obtaining a private pilot's license, but the since-retired captain cautions that the process is neither easy nor cheap, and fliers over 40 need to renew a medical certification every two years. (Commercial pilots face mandatory retirement at 65, raised from 60 in 2007.) Could Sullenberger have pulled off the Miracle on the Hudson back when he was a 25-year-old Air Force fighter jock? "I think I probably could have," he says, "but I also think every experience I had in some way contributed to that day."
Get a tattoo
Just 5 percent of adults 65 and up have a tattoo, according to a 2012 Harris poll, while 38 percent of 30-somethings have been inked. As body art goes mainstream, tattooists report more older first-timers. Connecticut dance instructor Ed Poska got his first ink (a pair of ballroom dancers on his bicep) for his 64th birthday. Now 71, Poska has three tats and says he's glad he started late. "I'm not going to wrinkle too much between now and the time I finally check out of this life, so my tattoo will still look good." He offers one caveat: "Be careful what you get when you're 70. It may not be what you want at 80." To get a tat you can age with, pioneering artist "Shanghai" Kate Hellenbrand, who's been inking for 44 years, suggests finding an artist experienced with older skin: The collagen and elastin break down with age. "It's like tattooing parchment paper," she says.
Go the distance
Hazards: PD, IE, PE, UI
When boxer Bernard Hopkins went pro in 1988, most of his recent opponents were in preschool. In early 2014, the fighter who calls himself the Alien defeated 30-year-old Beibut Shumenov to unify the light heavyweight division and become the oldest titled fighter in boxing history. "I obviously ducked more punches than I took to still be around," says Hopkins, who lost his titles in a 12-round decision in November but vows to fight again. If you can avoid getting your bell rung — older pugilists face extra risks from head injuries — boxing training provides a brutally effective workout: It strengthens core muscles and can burn 500 calories an hour. But Hopkins says it's his wits that keep him in the ring. "What makes up for what I don't have physically is my boxing IQ. That supersedes any young muscle."
Become a fashion model
Hazards: PE, UI
The fashion world, observes consultant Natalie Joos, is not age-friendly. "There are very few older models," she says. "And when I say 'older,' I'm talking about 27." Launching a career before the camera at midlife is a "one in a million" rarity. Jacky O'Shaughnessy might be that one: In 2012, the creative director for American Apparel spotted the silver-haired 60-year-old in a restaurant and asked her to pose for a photo shoot. "I had images of oxford shirts and khaki pants," O'Shaughnessy says of her first shoot. Instead, she was handed lacy underwear. Her lingerie ads made a splash, and more work has followed. "Women need to embrace their ages and their bodies," she says. "I had to stop thinking about whether I was physically perfect for the world today."
Have a baby
Hazards: PD, IE, UI
Fertility science is expanding the frontiers of motherhood: 677 women 50 or older gave birth in the U.S. in 2013, most via in vitro fertilization with donor eggs. That's how Aleta St. James had twins in 2004, when she was almost 57. "I still have the same energy I had in my 30s," she says. "I'm winding up, not winding down." But the risks are considerable, notes New York University bioethicist Arthur Caplan. Mothers can get diabetes and high blood pressure; babies face complications from low birth weights. "Morally you have to look at this on a case-by-case basis," he says. "There are strong reasons to say after 55 is too old."
Adopt a baby
Hazards: IE, UI
At 51, Lorne Holden "climbed a Mount Everest of love" and adopted a 6-month-old boy from Guatemala. "The physical rigor is immense," she says, "but I don't think I'm more tired than any other single mother." For 50-plus parents, adopting older kids from foster care is the easier route, says Adam Pertman, president of the Myriad Center on Adoption and Permanency. "Domestic infant adoption is rare for older parents, and the overseas rate for parents of any age has plummeted." Think also about finances and support systems, says Susan Caughman of Adoptive Families magazine: You might feel "invincible" at 50. "But 60 is a different matter."
Hazards: PD, IE, PE, UI
Almost 46 percent of Everest climbers from 2000 to 2005 were 40 or older, compared with just 19 percent from 1953 to 1989. In 2013, 80-year-old Yuichiro Miura made it to the summit. But conquering the top of the world is always perilous — at least 19 people perished on Everest after April's devastating earthquake — and 60-plus climbers are three times as likely to die on the mountain. Veterans have at least one advantage: Young climbers are more likely to ascend too fast and suffer acute mountain sickness, says mountain guide Travis Tucker. He recalls guiding a man in his mid-60s up Kilimanjaro: "He was like a freight train. I never doubted he was going to make it, but it was one of the slowest trips I've had."
Save a life
Octogenarians have donated kidneys, and nearly a third of donors nationwide are 50 or older. "We do not have an upper age limit" for kidney donors, says Brigitte Sullivan of the Johns Hopkins Comprehensive Transplant Center in Baltimore. Harry Kiernan, who founded the National Living Organ Donors Foundation, gave up a kidney at 54, and part of his liver three years later. "As you get older, you find a greater awareness of the need to start helping people," he says. Organ donation, like all surgeries, carries certain risks: Deaths are rare, but less serious complications are not uncommon, according to Cristy Wright, whose website LivingDonor101.com is a clearinghouse for donor information.
Backpack across Europe
A low-budget bunk bed blitz through Europe may be a youthful rite of passage, but not all hostel guests are college-age vagabonds. "I love the hostel vibe and the opportunity to meet fellow independent travelers from around the world," says Chicagoan Barbara Weibel, 63, who collects passport stamps most of the year and is unfazed by bunking with far-younger travelers. "Never once have I felt unwelcome." If you do Europe (or any other international destination) on the cheap, Candy Harrington, author of 101 Accessible Vacations, recommends travel insurance for health emergencies. "An air-ambulance evacuation will cost upward of $50,000," she says.
Play contact sports
The number of knee and hip replacements has more than doubled in the U.S. since 2000, extending the athletic careers of weekend warriors like Ben Shaw, who had a total hip replacement at 50. Shaw — a defenseman with the Danbury, Connecticut, Olde Crabs Hockey Club — rebuilt his strength and was back on the ice five months later. Now 75, he's still skating. "Sometimes I ask myself, 'What in the hell am I doing out here?' " he confesses. It's a question most orthopedists would echo. A fall or hard hit could shatter the point of connection between bone and implant, says orthopedic surgeon Anthony Unger of Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, D.C. But he adds that materials and techniques have come a long way. "I have a lot of patients who are hockey players," Unger says. "And I let 'em play."