On Christmas Day I turned 74. As is usual with my birthday it passed without much fanfare on the day because my family seemed preoccupied by other concerns. Can’t think why! However, during those dire dog days between Christmas and New Year I started thinking about being near to the midpoint of my eighth decade and I didn’t like it one little bit.
I kept thinking ‘in six years time I’ll be 80’ as though that betokened some watershed moment of true senility. I tried all the usual nostrums ‘age is just a number’, which I’ve always hated as the ultimate denial of lived reality, and ‘you’re as old as you feel’ which wasn’t at all helpful because inside I am still about 21 years old.
I needed something to help me to feel optimistic, positive and sanguine about being 74.
Fortunately I found exactly what I needed in the form of a documentary called ‘This is Joan Collins’ and a book called ‘The Expectation Effect’.
Let’s start with ‘This is Joan Collins’ which was perfect New Year’s Day television. It was Joan’s own telling of the truly amazing story of her 88 year old life. Like you I’m sure, I already knew the basics: beautiful young starlet in Hollywood in the 1950s, married to Antony Newley with whom she had 2 children, was a big star in her 40’s as Alexis Colby in Dynasty, now happily married to a bloke called Percy something who is 31 years younger than her. What I didn’t know was what a tough time she had as a young ingenue in LA, how awful her first four husbands were, how hard she had to fight for equal pay on Dynasty, and how, at one point, her 8 year old daughter was in a coma for 47 days after a terrible car accident, and at another point she was very nearly bankrupted by the debts of her third husband Ron Kass.
It occurred to me whilst watching the documentary that Joan Collins was both blessed and cursed by her exceptionally beautiful face and body. It was into the studio system in Hollywood that this young and weirdly innocent young girl was pitched in the 1950s. It was evidently full of sexually predatory men from the infamous producer, Darryl Zanuck, to the male film stars like first husband Maxwell Reed who drugged and raped her and whom she then married “out of shame”. After she left that relationship she had no better luck with Warren Beatty whom she realised was a philanderer whilst they were engaged, nor with Anthgony Newley who was unfaithful to her from day one of their six year marriage. Next husband, Ron Kass was a drug addict who lost all their money and fourth husband was Peter Holm, a control freak who eventually settled for a lump sum of £60,000 rather than the £50,000 a month he was demanding as alimony when they divorced in 1987.
All that experience of misogyny, manipulation and sexual predation might have destroyed her in the way that it did Marilyn Monroe, who warned Collins that Hollywood was full of such ‘wolves’. Somehow Collins not only survived the terrible men, but also the ‘worst thing that happened to her’ when her young daughter Katy Klass very nearly died in a car accident. Collins clearly adores her three children and was instrumental in the slow recovery of Katy who gradually got over her terrible injuries. She also fought hard for equal pay on the set of Dynasty, which was a huge mid-life hit for Collins when she played super-bitch Alexis Colby throughout the 1980s.
She won the battle to be paid more but was branded ‘greedy’ by her co-star John Forsyth,who then didn’t speak to her for a whole series of the show. By making a fuss she subsequently lost out financially when she was booked for fewer episodes.
So - a true survivor in every sense of the word and a much-needed dose of inspiration to me on New Year’s Day. At 88 Joan Collins is a fabulous role model. She’s beautiful (I refuse to say ‘still beautiful’), feisty, funny and has clearly found happiness at last in a relationship with a good man after all those utter b******s. She’s the perfect illustration that life can get easier and better rather than harder as we age.So, thank you Joan for helping me to feel a lot better about being a mere 74. Very clearly I am but a spring chicken!
Which brings me to my second ‘reason to think that 74 is no big deal’. It comes in the form of a book called ‘The Expectation Effect’ by David Robson which has a whole chapter proving that ‘you really are as young or old as you feel’. The book is not a self-help book but research and evidence based, and seeks to prove that our expectations shape our experience in very profound ways. I’ve long been aware that our thoughts and beliefs can have a profound impact on outcomes and also that optimists live longer than pessimists, but this is the first time that I have read so much credible proof that this is so.
Let’s start with an exercise that Robson asks us to do in the chapter on ageing. So, please give honest answers to the following questions:
Do things get better, worse or stay the same as you get older?
In each pair of the following words, which one do you associate with retirement and beyond: uninvolved or involved; unable or able; dependent or independent; idle or busy?
When does middle age end and old age begin?
Based purely on your subjective experience (rather than your actual, chronological age), how old do you feel today?
Robson tells us “your responses to these, and similar, questions may be as - or more - important for your future health as your current health status.” In other words your attitude to the ageing process may be more important than the actual effect of the ageing process on your body. Robson details various studies and research to support this, but I'll just give you a couple of the most interesting ones.
Becca Levy of the Yale School of Public Health has been looking at various studies on ageing to see if there is evidence of the impact of expectations on actual physical ageing and death. The first is from the Ohio Longitudinal Study of Ageing and Retirement. The founders of the study had selected 1100 participants who had turned 50 by July 1975.
At the start of this study they had been asked to rate their agreement with statements such as:
'I have as much pep as I did last year'
'As you get older, you are less useful'
'Things keep getting worse as I get older'
Based on their scores two groups were identified by Levy - one with a positive and one with a negative perception of their own ageing. The results were startling. She found that on average the people in the positive group lived for 22.5 years after the study began, whilst those in the negative group lived for just 15 years - a difference of 7.5 years. The link remained after adjustment for other known risk factors. Levy’s summary says it all: “If a previously unidentified virus was found to diminish life expectancy by over 7 years, considerable effort would probably be devoted to identifying the cause and implementing a remedy. In the present case, one of the likely causes is known societally sanctioned denigration of the aged.” (my italics)
My second example from the book comes from a study of health outcomes for civil servants working in Whitehall. These studies are famous for showing that social status can affect our health, revealing that people on the lower rungs have a much greater health burden than those at the top of a competitive hierarchy. But in the 1990s the civil servants were also asked to define when middle age ended and old age began. And it turned out that the earlier they saw the onset of old age, the more likely they were to experience declining health themselves. Over the following decade those that believed that old age began at 60 or younger were 40% more likely to develop coronary heart disease than those that believed that middle age finished at 70 or older. In other words (and I think this is very important) “it seems that you may be able to escape some of the effects by deciding that you haven’t yet reached the relevant age bracket.”
I am so glad that I bothered to watch that Joan Collins documentary and I’m grateful to have been recommended ‘The Expectation Effect’ on a podcast. My immediate post Christmas gloom about turning 74 has completely lifted and I start 2022 feeling optimistic, positive and sanguine about my age. There is absolutely nothing I can do about my advancing years, but I can at least welcome them as more life to be fully lived and enjoyed. After all, the alternative is somewhat final, and therefore considerably worse!
Image of Joan Collins from InterviewMagazine.com. CREDIT - Photo: Bella Newman. See here
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Teatime with Tricia - Life Armour with Dr Christie Lewis and Marishka Dunlop
Life Armour is a brand of nourishing supplements designed to protect against the stresses and strains of modern life. It was founded by Marishka Dunlop, who spent 18 years in skincare innovation roles and noticed how the pace of modern life was impacting her own wellbeing and that of so many women she spoke to.
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I totally agree, 'you are who you want to be'. Love gives, Fear hold back. I feel 63,but am 83, so what? I feel good!..
Happy belated Birthday! I’m 80/81 in June and my friends think I am the most optimistic person they know. I just had a pacemaker inserted last Friday and in spite of a lot of discomfort, I know things will improve. I wish I could use your foundation but at least I can wear some of your make up. Life is good! Murielle
Hi Tricia thank you for your blog it is very uplifting, I will be 69 in 2months time I suffer with arthritis so sometimes I do feel very old, but reading your blogs really makes me think and feel so better. You are a very attractive woman who inspired’s me to get up go.