CREDIT: GERALD MARZORATI, New Your Times
SIXTY is not the new 40. Fifty isn’t either. Your lung capacity in late-middle age is in steady decline, as are the fast-twitch muscle fibers that provide power and speed. Your heart capacity has been ebbing for decades. Your sight has been getting worse, your other senses, too, and this, along with a gradually receding ability to integrate information you are absorbing and to then issue motor commands, means your balance is not what it used to be. (Your flattening arches aren’t helping.) Your prefrontal cortex — where the concentrating and deciding gets done — has been shrinking for some time, perhaps since you graduated from college. More of your career (more of your life) is behind you than in front of you. Do not kid yourself about this. You are milling in the anteroom of the aged.
You can have something done with those sags and creases deepening on the face that greets you in the mirror each morning, but I’m not sure whom you are fooling. You can do the crossword and mind puzzles, stretch, take long walks: There is evidence that these activities correlate with keeping memory loss and, you know, death at bay, for a while longer: two, four, six years. Maybe.
Let me suggest something that might do all of these things — which is to say, might not — but will, as nothing else will, provide you with a deeply satisfying sense of yourself that you did have when you were much, much younger. Find something — something new, something difficult — to immerse yourself in and improve at.
When is the last time you improved at anything? I’m not talking about self-improvement, though I have nothing at all against turning to deep yogic breathing when your spouse irritates you. And I am not talking about the kind of improvement your company subjects you to, the training that comes with the promotion and vesting stock: Here’s the late-afternoon-meeting gaze that assures your team you are interested in everything they are suggesting. I am talking about improving at a demanding skill or set of skills — a craft, a discipline. I have in mind something that will take years to get proficient at, something that there is a correct way of doing, handed down for generations or even ages, and for which there is no way for you to create shortcuts with your cleverness or charm. Playing the cello, maybe. Or cabinetry. Or, in my case, tennis, serious tennis.