The incredible dominance of Roger Federer in tennis is over. He’ll win more tournaments and win a lot more money, but his power to control other men on the tennis court has diminished. Federer was number 1 in men’s tennis for four years, from age 22 to 27. Now he’ll be 32 in a few weeks, and he has been pushed aside by younger men, Rafael Nadal at 27, and Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray at 26. The same thing happened to Pete Sampras, who was no. 1 for 2 years at age 25 to 26. These men did not suddenly fall off a precipice: both Sampras and Federer later regained their top position for shorter periods. Sampras was 29 the final time he was no. 1.
Recent world record holders in the 100-meter dash, both male and female, set their records in their twenties, except Carl Lewis who had just turned 30 in 1991. Martina Navratilova lasted longer, reaching the finals at Wimbledon every year from age 25 to 33, winning her last Grand Slam that last time. At age 47, she became the oldest player to win a professional singles match.
In a much more physical sport, Michael Jordan prolonged his reign over basketball until he was 36, and still played well enough to score 40 points three times at age 40. Evander Holyfield was world champion heavyweight boxer at age 38, and Muhammed Ali retired as champion at 37.
A handful of athletes have retained their greatness past 35. But even the determined application of biological science by Lance Armstrong in the form of illegal doping didn’t allow him to win a Tour de France after age 33.
The message of these few statistics is clear: the human body generally reaches its physical peak well before 40 years old, usually by the early 30s. After that, a gradual physical decline sets in, lasting the rest of one’s life. When humans lived by hunting, only a small minority lived past 60, so the physical decline did not last long for most.
Over the past 150 years, life expectancy has jumped: Americans can expect to live until their late 70s, and a long list of nations show life expectancies into the 80s. The gradual decline of physical ability now occupies more than half of our lives: an adult can enjoy perhaps 20 years of top physical ability before embarking on a 40-year journey downward.
Fortunately not all of our abilities diminish at such a young age. Certain types of intellectual ability at the highest levels of performance don’t last much longer than physical ability: only the current world chess champion, Viswanathan Anand, among those at the top since Mikhail Tal in the 1960s, has lasted past age 40. But great writers have continued to produce superior prose into their 60s and beyond, despite the complaint of the humorist James Thurber: “With sixty staring me in the face, I have developed inflammation of the sentence structure and definite hardening of the paragraphs.”
I believe that the ability to negotiate daily life, often called common sense, continues to improve until quite late in life, which is why a wrinkled skin and white hair can signal wisdom as well as age. Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings quote a popular saying in one of their songs: “Old age and treachery always overcome youth and skill.”
But eventually intellectual decay and continuing physical decline bring people beyond the point where they can no longer care for themselves to a kind of twilight world, where they no longer know what is going on. We have made up words to describe this condition, like Alzheimer’s and dementia, but we don’t yet know what to do with the rapidly increasing number of our relatives who need assistance.
The medical advances which have prolonged the life of the body may have gone beyond the natural life of the brain. I hear myself and my middle-aged peers say that we do not want to continue living if we can no longer remember our names or recognize our children. But how is that to be accomplished?
We cannot simply hope that researchers will come up with a way to prevent Alzheimer’s – that is like building walls of sand to keep the tide from coming in. The expansion of nursing homes has been one social response to an aging population and to changes in the living patterns of the American family. But we need to keep thinking about how to deal with the decline of our bodies and minds in a way that preserves dignity and allows us to decide that decline has gone too far.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, July 23, 2013