The Cultural Portal Theory of Aging

The MindBody Self

Based on my research with healthy centenarians worldwide, I developed a theory of cultural aging: Culturally defined segments (portals) of expected beliefs and conduct. The portals include newborn, infancy, childhood, adolescence, young adult, middle age, and old age. Each portal has implicit rules that attribute cause to 
 what you do in that culturally defined stage. If you are an outlier who defies the cultural expectations of a portal, you will be admonished until you comply or choose to be an outcast. But what happens if you become a worthy outlier? I suggest you enter centenarian consciousness: an opportunity to live the causes of healthy longevity. I’ll use the “old age” portal to illustrate some of the cultural entrapments.

Retirement is one of the cultural expectations in the old age portal. Is it biologically defined? No. Retirement age ranges from 45 in Turkey to 70 in Australia. Some of the consequences for defying cultural aging include:

· Compulsory age retirement regardless of competence and passion for the work you do.

· Difficulty finding employment beyond retirement age.

· Health insurance costs based on group averages rather than on individual health.

· Admonishments if you don’t act, dress, and look your age.

· Admonishments if you fall in love with someone younger.

· Admonishments if you are healthy and medication-free.

Here are some sample dialogues of admonishments for defying the old age portal:

· “Doctor my right shoulder hurts.” What do expect at your age?”

· “Doctor how was my blood workup?” “I am having a hard time believing that at your age there’s nothing wrong with your health.”

· “I fell in love with a person 10 years younger than me.” “Be careful, you’re wanted for your money.”

· “I want to go back to college.” “At your age? Enjoy your retirement.”

The importance of understanding the underlying restrictions of portals is that your biology is strongly influenced by the cultural attributions (causes) you give to your actions. If you believe that you’re “too old” for something, your biology will comply.

Fortunately, I found outlier consciousness in almost all the healthy centenarians I investigated. I’ll share a couple of examples from my field notes of how they refuse to be controlled by cultural portals:

· I asked a 101 year-old man to define middle age: “That’s a dumb question. You find out when you die.”

· I asked a 102 year-old male carpenter when he was planning to retire: “Why should I retire from something I enjoy so much?”

· I asked a 100 year-old woman how she would respond if people tell her that she’s too old to do something she loves: “I’d tell them to fuck off.”

Now ask yourself, what portal have you been duped to believe you should be in?” In the tools section, I’ll show you ways to break from cultural portals, and how to avoid their negative aging consequences.

Image courtesy of Unsplash

A Language for the Theory of Cultural Portals

The cultural belief that intellectual and physical function diminish with the passing of time, strongly determine how we age while growing older. In other words, cultures tell us how we should deteriorate across time. This is a bold statement that I strongly defend, and invite you to consider. I am not denying that as we grow older there’s some natural wear and tear. Instead, I am arguing that genetics is not as crucial in the aging process as mechanistic science claims.

The theory of cultural constraints proposes aging is caused by adjustments we are required to make without alternative paths to growing older. In other words, inevitable adjustments to the cultural hurdles we encounter on our personal journey. This is certainly the case if you give in (adjust) to the constraints. But I learned from the outliers I studied that you don’t have to surrender if you are willing to step out the collective reality you are taught to believe. When you become a rebel with a worthy cause, you can question the imposed portals that cultures determine are the only way to transition through life. I suggest resilience to adversity in cultural portals describes more accurately what determines unhealthy aging as well as healthy growing older.

Let’s look at how the terms I introduce can help us understand the difference between aging and growing older. In American psychology resilience is defined as the ability to properly react to stress and adversity. The research in this area studies how people overcome physical and emotional trauma. In other words, you suffer trauma and are able to bounce back without permanent damage. But some French social scientists also study people who, in addition to overcoming trauma, grow from the experience. From my fieldwork with centenarians, I find that they tend to experience the resilience with growth that French researchers find in their work with trauma. And this type of resilience is what I believe is one of the major causes of health in the process of growing older. The good news is that this mode of response to adversity can be learned at any age. It’s not in your genes. It’s in your expectations for a brighter future.

Excerpts from Dr. Mario Martinez’s The MindBody Self