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‘People age slowly or all at once'

Years ago, I read a New Yorker magazine article that posed the question: “Can the infirmities of aging be postponed?”

The “slow way” of aging is described as “decades pass with little sense of internal change … a name lost, a lumbar ache, a sprinkling of white hairs.” The “fast” way is often previewed when your physician says, “There are a few things on your bone scan that give me pause.”

Sometimes you recognize you’re on an aging fast track before your health provider does. It may be a hand that trembles when it did not previously or the onset of exasperating auditory challenges. It may not seem like something labeled “fast track aging” if you sit in your recliner all day — but it is.

My question is: What if we had access to earlier information that kept us on the “slow” track of aging and, in fact, “younger longer?” Would we get better at this process of aging — embrace it more positively and become more planful? Maybe.

A decade ago, the AgeLab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge developed a “sudden aging” suit. They named it A.G.N.E.S. (Age Gain Now Empathy System). Apparently, it includes things like “yellow glasses that convey a sense of the yellowing of the ocular lens,” and a neck harness and bindings that simulate extremity stiffness. There are padded boots and gloves that mimic loss of tactile sensitivity. Wearing A.G.N.E.S. reportedly makes every task harder. A lot harder. It “interrupts the flow of life.”

The flow of life for many of us trips along relatively smoothly until about the middle of our sixth decade. A statistic like “every eight seconds a baby boomer turns 73” reminds us about our likely longevity.

“Younger longer” is appealing. The AgeLab was set up to improve our understanding of aging and create new sensitivities and improved awareness that has the potential to prepare adults of all ages for well-being over time.

MIT experts were tasked to “engineer and promote new products and services to constructively address longevity.” And there are some out there, such as assistive technologies that make opening cans and bottles easier, and shelf placement that makes shopping in grocery stores more convenient — not just for the aging shopper but for shoppers of any age.

But therein lies the real challenge. We the people — the ones turning 73 every eight seconds — don’t always want those designated products. We don’t like things that remind us we are old. We want convenience and ease of use, but we do not want it to be labeled “senior-something.”

I was struck by anecdotes from the younger folks donning the A.G.N.E.S. suit. They reportedly gained empathy about the aging process but were also increasingly more aware that “younger longer” means you start thinking about and planning for “old” earlier. But the ultimate takeaway for me was when these young adults became fatigued and frustrated wearing that cumbersome suit, they pushed themselves harder. Maybe there’s a lesson in that too.

Sharon Johnson is a retired health educator Reach her at sharjohn99@gmail.com.