Senior moments are a myth. Sex in our sunset years is better than ever. Hang around Dr. Christiane Northrup long enough, and you're likely to pick up a brand-new, 100 percent-improved story about getting older. An internationally known authority on women's health and New York Times best-selling author, Northrup once practiced as a board-certified ob-gyn telling women everything that could go wrong with their bodies. Now she turns her focus on everything that can go right. In her book Goddesses Never Age: The Secret Prescription for Radiance, Vitality, and Well-Being (Hay House, 2015), Northrup offers research, stories, and practical tips on how vital, soulful living can keep us young. One recent midsummer morning, Northrup spoke with me from her home in Maine about defying aging's stigma, cultivating more pleasure, and other essential practices for rebirthing our best selves at any stage of life.
What is the story that our culture is telling us about aging? Is it time to rewrite that story?
It is so time to rewrite that story! The story we're hearing is a disempowering story; it's a shared cultural belief that one can step out of. Aging in this culture is very much based on this demographic idea that after a certain age, things are going to fall apart. By age 50 one should have her first colonoscopy and her first mammogram, depending on whose guidelines you're reading. And when you turn 50 your ski boots have to be adjusted lower because there is this belief that your bones are going to break more easily. Let's just dissect that for a moment: What could possibly happen overnight between age 49 and 50? As if the grim reaper is coming closer and your value as a woman is going away! A friend of mine was a psych resident at the local hospital, and they created what they called a "senior team": If anyone 65 or older walked down the hall, someone would have to go assist them. Now, do you see how this is institutionalized decrepitude?
There is nothing about the age on your driver's license that has to say anything about your state of health. Beliefs are mediated in our minds and bodies via the cell membrane. The cell membrane is the brain of the cell. We know that the environment in which the cell finds itself is what determines how the DNA within the cell gets expressed. That's on the microscopic level. On the macroscopic level, the beliefs that we hold actually determine our experiences in our lives. Many of those beliefs have not been examined; they've been passed down to us as wisdom. So what we have to do, when it comes to getting older, is examine those beliefs critically and see, do they hold water? I like the term from Dr. Mario Martinez, who wrote The MindBody Code: How to Change the Beliefs that Limit Your Health, Longevity, and Success (Sounds True, 2014) and is the founder of the Biocognitive Science Institute. He says, "Getting older is inevitable; aging is optional." That is one belief that I think it would be very helpful for people to adapt.
Can you point to any studies in which the adaptation of certain beliefs or social changes impacted health and aging in a positive way?
You can look at some really fun experiments done by Ellen Langer at Harvard; back in '94 she did a very critical one that I have quoted many times; I've even had people do it in my Ageless Goddess group on Facebook. She took a bunch of men aged around 75 to 80 took to an isolated place where the environment was set up so that they were living as though they were in their prime. They put pictures on the wall of them and their families in their prime. They got TV shows from the 50s, magazines from the 50s. Everything about the environment was set up to say, "This is you now." Before they began the study they took pictures of the men and they did measurements that we expect to decline with advancing age—eyesight, hearing, pulmonary function, cardiac output, those kinds of things. Then, after about 10 days, they repeated the tests and they took pictures again. The men looked 10 years younger, their eyesight improved, their hearing improved, pulmonary function improved, blood pressure improved, cardiac output improved. All of the measures that we are certain deteriorate with advancing age actually reversed. Ellen Langer said years later that things happened she did not report. A game of touch football broke out among the men. When they left they carried their own bags; they felt very hale and hearty. But this is the problem: When they got home their families would say things like, "Oh come on, let me help you. You can't carry your bag."
The same thing has been found with studies on the very elderly in nursing homes, people in their 90s. This was a study by William Evans; he went into nursing homes and through weight training really improved the quadriceps strength of the oldest members of the nursing home to the point where they could easily get up at night and go to the bathroom without assistance. But what happened is the staff couldn't handle it. They saw their job as rescuing these "little old people."
How can we take charge of our health at any age?
We need to practice the causes of health. To go back to Dr. Martinez, he did a study of about 500 centenarians from all around world, and he found that they're all the same—all the healthy, vital centenarians practice the same causes of health. One of these is elevated cognition, which is looking for, on purpose, the good things that are happening around you. It's easy to look at the news and bemoan the state of the world. But one of the things that I choose to notice is all the fabulous marriages that people have after the age of 50. The love coach Diana Kirschner writes in Love in 90 Days (Center Street, 2010) that people over 50 are finding love more than any other time in history. Gina Ogden's work shows that women in their 60s and 70s are having the best sex of their lives. These are not narratives that you normally hear in the news, because the mainstream media is by and large an instrument of patriarchy; it is designed to keep us afraid and keep us turning to someone else to solve our problems for us.
Then, exalted emotions. How do you get your emotions exalted? You start to look for things that make you feel really good. For me it's an evening of tango dancing to gorgeous music; it feels amazing. I have a whole community of people who are all ages. We're there to dance. We're not there to say, "Oh, you're 50? You need to go in this group—this is the senior dancers."
The other thing about the healthy centenarians that's very interesting is that they are aware of righteous anger. So when they see the innocence of another being threatened—say, if someone is kicking a dog, or a waitress is being belittled at another table—they stand up and say something. Our immune system has morals. When something is happening right in front of us that is threatening someone else's innocence and we don't do anything, it adversely affects our immunity. What we're talking about is soul qualities. The soul doesn't have an age.
What can we do to combat our social programming about aging?
Here's the thing: You have to create a subculture of wellness. Then you can step out of the conversation altogether. By design, that's going to mean eliminating certain relationships and activities that you have outgrown. I think one of the cool things about being over 50 is that you realize you're not immortal; you say to yourself, if not now, when? We can't allow our dreams to be someday. I have a friend who spent years as a computer programmer, then at 40 she went to medical school and became a practicing physician, and now she is about to "retire" from that particular line of work; she says, "Okay, now I am going to live my life." We can reinvent ourselves.
Yet there comes a time as you're reinventing yourself when it's going to be uncomfortable. Going into that studio for the first time to learn tango, I thought, "Oh my God, this is what the world needs—another middle-aged woman who wants to learn how to dance." But I allowed my desire to learn to be greater than my doubts and fears. Now I've got a new group of friends, a new life. I've made my living room into a dance floor; I took out all the furniture so it's really a space for living.
Not many MDs prescribe pleasure as a path to better health, but you do. Why?
The body requires regular pleasure in order to sustain itself, to balance hormones such as beta endorphin and serotonin. We need those things. If we don't get them directly, we will get them in a way that is not sustainable: marijuana, drugs, alcohol. Pleasure needs to be a regular part of life; there's just no way around it. For me it's going outside, playing music, dancing, eating well. I just rented a Celtic harp; I was a harpist in medical school and all during college but I let it go. The part of me that wanted to learn the harp when I was four is back, but instead of getting into the classical grind of it, I can actually just make music.
Is the goal of an Ageless Goddess to live as long as possible, or is it more about enjoying our time on Earth right here, right now?
To me, longevity is another discussion that I think is kind of worthless. Who cares if you want to live to 100? I would much rather live well. Happy, healthy, dead: That's a good motto. I exercise, I take supplements, I dance—I do all of that stuff to be in the world. But if I died tomorrow it would be okay. There's no fear. I'm not doing any of this stuff to live longer; I'm doing it because living right now works really well. And I'm finding that many things keep improving in my body and in my life.
We're moving through time in a physical body, no question about that—we're here for a while. I haven't seen anyone become immortal, though there are certainly stories about it. So what you want to do is see getting older as an opportunity to increase your value and confidence. When you stand in your power as a goddess, people stand at attention. The male energy exists to serve the feminine; we have a lot more power than we think. We doubt ourselves and we lower our vibration, but we don't need to do that.