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We must age, yes, but we can slow its effects

I might be the only person you know who takes a book called "Human Aging: Biological Perspectives" on spring vacation. I'm the only person I know who does.

I cannot seem to find enough time to the complete the required reading for my long-distance, graduate-study learning project. So I'm packing Dr. Augustine Digiovanna's materials into my suitcase to pave the way to a better understanding of "the effects of aging on the ability of the body to maintain homeostasis" and "identify the predictive value of conditions present at one period of life on future health."

A little heavy on physiology, but I am slogging my way through. I call this "high content vacation reading." And besides, it's not really a vacation, it's a family mission.

Like all families, ours is aging. My "little brother" is in his early 50s, graying, bespectacled with what he describes as "muscular girth." He's not little any more. He's the youngest child in our family (we still call him "Bobby," just not in his presence.) He's intelligent, thoughtful and well-read (as I think about it "¦ he's probably, right now, devouring his own books on the physiology of aging).

The "mission" involves him in a big way. He's recently been diagnosed with a rare blood disorder that threatens his life. So his immediate family, his siblings and their progeny, our 80-year old uncle (a retired physician) are wrapping themselves around him for a week of support and information-sharing.

I'm anticipating family discussions that involve "what is aging." My reference text says it begins about age 50 and includes biological, cosmetic, social, psychological, economic and chronological changes (the latter defined as "the passage of time since birth" and the only aspect of aging that cannot be altered).

Pause for a minute and ponder what you just read. We cannot change how old we are, but we can positively affect everything else that occurs as we age. Even if we're diagnosed with unexpected life-altering conditions, we can do a variety of things to reduce and modify the impact on our always-aging bodies.

My text reinforces this when it says, "aging is not a disease, does not mean disease, and does not automatically include disease." Aging might actually enhance how we deal with a disease condition. After all, we're older and wiser and learning more every day.

Abnormal body-related age changes occur because of abuse, misuse and disuse that can amplify true age changes. Try this illustration. Aging causes some bone loss. This is a "usual" aspect of aging. It's "abnormal" if bone loss continues untended and becomes debilitating. This can happen if we don't recognize and act on the importance of diet (calcium and vitamin D) or the role of strength-training exercises in maintaining pain-free independence.

As I learn more, I am frequently awed by the approaches available to creatively manage the aging process and the sometimes-accompanying disease conditions (that's why I keep touting the Web site: www.sohealthyoregon.org).

Aging is our human common denominator; we're all doing it. There are definite bumps and deep grooves on the life-path but there are also compensating mechanisms "¦ some are even life-saving.

I'll keep you posted.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in the College of Health and Human Sciences at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension Service. She can be reached at s.johnson@oregonstate.edu