Super-Agers: Too Much Of A Good Thing?

Why the rise of the kitesurfing eighty-something might be a double-edged sword ...

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Bob Long, 70, becomes the oldest-ever winner of the Mongol Derby, the world's longest horse race (August 2019)
Bob Long, 70, becomes the oldest-ever winner of the Mongol Derby, the world's longest horse race (August 2019)

Super-seniors. Awesome oldsters. Radical retirees.

Whatever you call them, the world is suddenly full of people performing remarkable feats in later life.

A 70-year-old American wins the Mongol Derby, the world’s longest horse race. A 72-year-old takes YouTube by storm in South Korea. An Englishwoman celebrates her 90th birthday by wing walking on an airplane in mid-flight.

As the author of a new book on the upsides of aging, I welcome this surge of ‘super-agers.’

But is there a downside?

Let’s start with the good news: aging is no longer what it used to be. Advances in nutrition, technology, sanitation and medical care, along with healthier lifestyles and rising incomes, are helping us live better for longer than ever before. Super-agers are the poster children of this longevity revolution.

By taking later life by the scruff of the neck in ways that journalists find hard to resist, they are also a welcome antidote to the cult of youth. Every media report of a kitesurfing eighty-something or an Instragram-conquering seventy-something delivers another blow to the canard that it’s all downhill from 40.

Yet therein lies the potential downside.

By heaping so much attention on the media-friendly outliers we run the risk of creating a new, unattainable gold standard for aging. Let’s be honest: not everyone can land a modelling contract in their seventies or run marathons in their eighties. We may not have the looks, talent, temperament, connections, money or health to do so.

Setting the bar too high for aging disheartens those unable to measure up. Studies suggest that over-exposure to super-agers can turn lesser mortals off sports altogether.

How do we avoid turning aging into a game of winners and losers? In a word: diversity.

By all means, let’s draw inspiration from those smashing it in later life. But let’s also hold up other, less headline-grabbing ways of aging well.

Thankfully, this is already happening. Every day, millions of people flood social media with videos, photographs and tales of life after 50 that will never trouble a news desk yet still have the power to inspire all of us to embrace our age and look forward to being older.

The other day, while scrolling through Instagram, I stumbled across a photo of a 70-year-old riding a horse. She wasn’t galloping across the Mongolian steppe towards a finish line, rival riders hot on her heels. Nor was she risking life and limb by jumping over fences and banks.

She was trotting along a deserted beach in Ireland, under a blood-orange sunset, looking radiantly happy.

And I thought: Yeah, if that’s what my life could be like in 20 years, then I’m all in.

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