I have some great memories of elementary school. I was a really good student, and I loved it when teachers would assign letter grades based on the bell curve. I always got A’s. It didn’t matter how easy or hard the test was, I always I got an A. In junior high and senior high I was thankful for the transition to per cent based grades. I hung out with kids who were much smarter than I was. If our grades had been bell-curved I’d have gotten C’s and D’s instead of B’s and A-minuses.
I have learned that the bell curve applies to much more than just grades. As I’ve been spending time with some people who are in their golden years, and as I watch their abilities begin to backslide, I see a bell curve of life quite graphically. Sophocles said it well when he said, “A man growing old becomes a child again.”1
We are born not able to do anything more than crying to help ourselves. We’re not like baby elephants, who can walk within minutes of birth. We’re not like fish who are quite independent once they hatch. It takes a few years to get to where we can walk, feed ourselves, or express ourselves with any eloquence. We continue to grow and develop, and by the time we are in our late teens most of us could be quite self-sufficient if we wanted to be. We become both independent and interdependent as we enter adulthood. There we stay for the bulk of our lives if we are well.
Then the bell curve begins its descent. Usually it happens slowly at first – our bodies get a little stiff, we begin to forget silly little things, we get breathless going up and down stairs. As this metaphorical snowball builds momentum on its way down the ‘aging’ side of the bell curve it seems to pick up speed. We often lose abilities more quickly and more noticeably. We forget things that are really important to our day-to-day functioning. We lose the ability to be self-mobile, returning us to early toddlerhood, almost. Stairs become an obstacle. Walking becomes difficult, whether due to muscular weakness or declining coordination and balance. Sometimes, we become so incapable we need total care.
I have to admit – the downside of the aging bell curve does not look appealing. I, for one, intend to fight this every step of the way. I’d like to reduce the degree of slope on the backside of the bell curve. I’d like to try to prevent my own bell curve from ever ending up at the ‘zero’ level as I age.
I see it in my golden-aged friends. They are doing less and less and are frustrated with the rapid decline they see and feel in their abilities. Often, they are in such a state of denial that they engage in activities that have become high risk for them such as going for walks outside, alone, and without letting anyone know where they are going. I suppose we all end up there eventually. Even so, they don’t seem willing to work on things to try to slow down or reverse the aging process overall.
So much research has been done over the past 30 years proving there are ways to slow down the aging process. There are a lot of studies to back me up on this, for instance: Exercise: Benefits of Exercise (“older adults can gain a lot by staying physically active”); Exercise and aging: Can you walk away from Father Time? (“no man can stop the clock, but every man can slow its tick”); and Physical Activity and Mental Health (“the healthy physical body goes hand in hand with a healthy mind”).
People think I’m crazy to work out as much as I do, take the amount of supplements I do, and put as much effort into my relationships as I do. If only they understood – it’s about slowing down the aging process and improving my quality of life for the long term. It’s an investment that is worth it to me. I want my bell curve to have a shape that is different from the average. I don’t want it to be a curve at all.
What are you doing, and what are you willing to do, to change the shape of your own bell curve of aging?