A Structural Theory of Aging

EDITORIAL, 13 Mar 2017

#472 | Johan Galtung

Wikipedia has much to offer under “aging”. Highly recommended are the 10 points by the world’s oldest living man, 114, Walter Breuning.    However, older persons, like me at 86, know their own aging best.  Less trouble with “oxidant stress” as a major cause, having used anti-oxidants based on blueberry skin–no chemicals–for decades. 20,000 blood stem cells renew my blood, but they are dying.  Problematic.

Walter Breuning

Rule no. 1: Keep mind and body active; maintain a good nutrition.

Obvious to counteract aging.  However, equally important:

Rule no. 2: Be open to the positive sides and advantages of aging.

Bertrand Russell’s “On Being 90” in the Observer dispenses with the disadvantages as obvious, in favor of his advantage: the overview.  At the age of 5 he sat on the knee of a man who had fought Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815-=-. The longer the lives we have lived, the more events have impinged upon us. An “overview” identifies some link, a narrative, a common factor.  That identification is often referred to as “wisdom”.

However: thigh muscles weaken, walking falters, fatigue, seeing and hearing impaired. Exercise helps, but aging is unavoidable.

Rule no. 3: At least do not fall; not breaking fragile bones, no ending up bedridden in a hospital, contracting new diseases.  Equip the room, the home, the context with handles and handrails.

Then the mental aspects of aging: memories failing, not only of recent events, less ability to handle many and simultaneous stimuli. As a result, many and more mistakes reinforcing the sense of aging.

Rule no. 4: Simplify the context, contract the circle of living.  Be realistic, change the structure of daily life, narrow the circle to what can be handled easily: the ward, the village, the context, the home, the room–but then equipped with a maximum of music, books, social media, as enriching as possible.  If driving, then on known roads with little traffic, in small towns, villages.

Rule no. 5: Togetherness.  A society with much loneliness for young or old is a bad society.  Get old together, with a spouse, a cooperating partner.  Much conversation will be about pains suffered.  But cut it short. Focus on positives, beautiful landscapes, gardens, music, literature.  Enjoyment together is more than double enjoyment.

Make shared meals as much of a feast as possible.  The ability to enjoy good food lasts; our senses of smell and taste are more solid. No smoking of course and moderation with alcohol, sugar and cereals. Let good food and drinks stay a while in the mouth where the taste buds are, tied to the smell; do not just swallow and “wash it down”.

Rule no. 6: Live both real and virtual lives. Postmodern life has two realities; not only what we sense but also a virtual, IT, reality with friendship and enriching exchanges activating the mind. IT offers all of that–with no risks of falling!–in the simple context of a computer.  Particularly when adding Skype, and even free!

Rule no. 7: no retirement. Go for a job where the older can share experiences with the younger, even if no longer showing up at work. A work place closed to the older is a bad work place. In post-modernity this is possible in ways unthought-of, for mutual benefit. How much, paid or unpaid, can be negotiated. Being productive is what matters.

Negate this. Retire, cut all links, live only one reality, alone/lonely, in a complex world with physical and mental risks, nothing positive, passively, no exercise, bad nutrition.  Brutish, nasty, and short.

Better contract from the macro-society of country-region-world to a rich micro-society of a circle around oneself and the partner(s), relating to other circles.  But it does not have to be that micro.

We can argue: high time.  To be born into micro-society, then the macro-society of education and work, and then a poor micro-society of retirement is not good enough.  Traditionally, women continue working longer than men, living more human lives. Is this why women live longer?

Due to better health, and family planning favoring 2 children, we now have aging populations and even more return into micro-society in old age homes. Some time ago, huge macro-society growth swallowed such micro-societies as villages; now there is a return to villages and a return to childhood at old age. And macro becomes even more macro, regional, global, marginalizing the old even more. Inhuman; a far cry from retired farmers still living on the farm for care and experience.

Major structural changes, hence this structural theory of aging.

In those micro-societies of the aged, with nurses and others for “assisted living”, all know that the purpose of still living is dying. And before that there may be physical and mental suffering.  Inhuman!

Fight it; practice Rules 1-2-3-4-5-6-7.  Aging is nothing to be afraid of, but foresight and planning are indispensable. Some macro can be created. A married couple here and an unmarried there, each managing in their ways, can relate, exchange experiences, also to old-age homes that may be the longer term answer to the aging. Virtually this micro to micro can even cross borders. Reconquering macro life.

Let me end on a subjective note.  Having lived an eventful rich life, including meeting many people “high up”, I remember thinking “how can I live without this when I get older”? I find myself, older, thinking “how could I live without the wonderful life I now have”?  Deluding myself, in both cases, closing the eye to all the negatives?  Maybe.  But then, maybe some selection is part of a good life.

I find myself floating, navigating through time and life, trying, not always successfully, to do more good and less harm. Not concluding that the present is the best period although it often feels like that.  It is different, and very good. One positive aspect is obvious: with less work in the sense of a job there is more time for work in the sense of being creative.  With hands and the mind. On the computer.

Thanks, Life, the best of all gifts.  For every day. (*)


(*) The Italian-French-English-Swiss movie mistitled “Youth” (Director: Paolo Sorrentino) is actually about Old Age; very conventional, and very wrong, even harmful.  Two childhood friends, Fred, a former orchestra conductor, and Mick, a movie director, both close to 80, live their old age in a top Swiss hotel.  Fred rejects any project, Mick wants to extend his past with a “testament movie”; beyond his present capacity. They live in the past, in their memories, scared by future diseases, suffering, death.  No present project, joint or not, using their talents to enrich their own lives and those of others.  See the movie, and fear old age more than ever. The movie is a crime.


Johan Galtung, a professor of peace studies, dr hc mult, is founder of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment and rector of the TRANSCEND Peace University-TPU. Prof. Galtung has published 1670 articles and book chapters, over 450 Editorials for TRANSCEND Media Service, and 167 books on peace and related issues, of which 41 have been translated into 35 languages, for a total of 135 book translations, including ‘50 Years-100 Peace and Conflict Perspectives,’ published by the TRANSCEND University Press-TUP.

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7 Responses to “A Structural Theory of Aging”

  1. Thomas Krogh says:

    Actually good and thoughtful stuff from Galtung. :-)

  2. PK Willey says:

    Good points, Gently offered!
    I hear that for the aging body, a ketonic diet is better, high saturated fats, low or no sucrose, fructose, all the ‘oses.

    I’ve been finding the Near Death Experiences of those who have chronicled theirs on youtube to be quite interesting. Things to think on…

    The point on loneliness is critical, as our western societies gear us to it, with the lack of extended family systems.

    will re-post on our site.
    Thanking you!

  3. rosemerry says:

    Thank you for this and for all your work over 86 years!!!
    I am lucky to be in good health and living in a pleasant part of the world with fresh air, good food and company, stimulating books and conversations, NO TV, NO FACEBOOK! with my husband aged 83. We have hens, donkeys, a big garden with fruit trees and vegetables growing (also help to maintain it, and nurse visits to check heart). Positive attitudes despite the situation we read about on internet are the most difficult part. All the best.

    • PK Willey says:

      Yes, that internet with the horrible news – just as bad as TV. I’m restricting myself for the Lenten Season to NO NEWS…and its amazing how many other things I can think of, have time to do!
      god Bless your efforts! Sounds like you have a beautiful life! Love to the farm yard people!

  4. PK Willey says:

    Have added a few photographs and posted it here:


    Thank you!

  5. Kees van der Veer and Leila Haltia says:

    Wonderful positive statement in a typical Johan Galtung format, ‘a theory’!
    You teach us every day, dear Johan.
    Please continue as long as possible – we love you!

  6. Gary Corseri says:

    One of the best essays I’ve read on “Aging.” Straightforward, clear, inspiring. As usual, Johan G. looks at a complex issue from various sides and then navigates a sensible course. As usual, he considers the macro and micro worlds: they make different claims on us; what can each offer?; what are the challenges?; is there a way to reconcile and balance the claims.

    I especially like the ideas of keeping busy with meaningful work, being creative, savoring as much as possible, taking the “overview” or bigger perspective, and sharing.

    Definitely a “keeper” here.

    Thank you, Johan, for all that you have done, are doing, and will do.