Old Fart Companionship, and Super Aging

If you go to Eileen’s Bakery and Café at 10 am on a Friday morning, you will see a bunch of old farts, myself included, sitting around the table, shooting the breeze. 

And helping to make us “Super-agers.” 

A disparate group that includes retired college professors, civil servants, an ex-coastguard, a photographer and more. We call ourselves “The Coffee Klatsch” (a word the Oxford Dictionary defines as “a social gathering especially for coffee and conversation”). 

Should you listen to the conversation, you would find topics as disparate as the participants. Ken has an obsession with pickled pigs’ feet – and wrote an essay on the subject for the on-line magazine - Pi & Chi - that one of the Steve’s publishes (there have been up to five Steve’s in the group at one time or another). 

We have also discussed parachuting beavers, temple garments worn by Mormons, trunk monkeys, Occam’s Razor, Abraham’s tanks, Geritol for “tired blood” (after one member got an iron infusion for anemia) and much more.

Even the occasional, not very politically correct joke - like what’s the same about a tornado and a divorce in West Virginia? * 

The Power of Community

I tell you this, not just to impress you with what a group of eggheads and weirdo’s we are, but because what we are doing has a health benefit – according to the November AARP Bulletin which has an article about “Super Agers” (people who “live longer, think stronger and enjoy life more”).

This article lists the different characteristics of super-agers – one of which is “Super agers talk to their friends – a lot.” 

So, my theme – which seems appropriate for this holiday season when we we’re all meant to be getting together and be full of goodwill toward each other – is the health benefits of community.

Socializing invokes a range of different reactions and neurological functions. Emotion, thought, empathy, intuition, and reason. It improves emotional intelligence and memory decline, and reduces shrinkage in key brain areas. 

On a neuro-physiological level, it releases a powerful cocktail of neurotransmitters and hormones.

Oxytocin – a hormone I learned about in obstetrics because it causes the uterus to contract after childbirth – but it also is the “love hormone” because it causes bonding in romantic and platonic relationships. Touching or hugging someone releases oxytocin for example.

Serotonin – the hormone whose absence is associated with depression, so we use SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) like Prozac, Zoloft and Paxil to boost our levels.

And - that hormone nicknamed “the pathway to pleasure” – dopamine. This is released by innumerable different activities – exercise, meditation, dancing, sex, shopping. It’s what makes these pleasurable. But it is also released in large quantities by many recreational drugs, making them pleasing but therefor addictive.

The coffee we drink when Klatsching may also contribute. Caffein is a quasi-neurotransmitter that has a stimulant effect, making us more alert, improving our memories (a badly needed effect – to stop repetition of the same anecdote over and over). It improves our reaction time and mood – all of which tends to animate the conversation, if nothing else.

Super Agers

I’m not sure that we appreciate that this would help us be “super agers” when Ken and I started this group. And I’m not sure we are all so super healthy, though I think a lot of the group follow other behaviors of “super-agers” that the AARP Bulletin notes. 

Having blood pressure and blood sugar under control. Avoiding stress, prioritizing mental health, prioritizing sleep, protecting vision and hearing, exercising, and indulging in mentally stimulating hobbies and activities.

The group has its share of medical issues – and often we lapse into what we call “the organ recital.” Discussion of the latest visit to the cariologist. Troubles with CPAP for sleep apnea. Management of prostate problems. What to do about a borderline cholesterol level – and as the only doctor in the group, I am challenged to try to give meaningful advice for all these different maladies (my protestations of only being a family physician, so a “Jack of all trades and master of none” doesn’t seem to cut it).

However, I’m sure just sharing these medical problems with friends is therapeutic.

The Bulletin includes details about specific “super-agers” noting the attitudes and behaviors that have helped them. Some attribute it to gratitude. One to staying involved. One to love of life and talking. One to physical exercise and reading. Others to problem solving, passion for the future, gardening, and artwork.

What seems to me to be missing from this list is purpose. People I see ageing well – and that includes a lot of the klatsch members - have some quest. Something that they feel is worthwhile and gives them purpose – whether it’s continuing to teach, being involved in charities, writing and publishing, home improvements, travel. Things that make us get up in the mornings. – even being a columnist for the local newspaper.

Have a happy and companiable New Year and stay healthy.

* Answer: Either way, someone’s going to lose a trailer.

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