One man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages… — Shakespeare
Written by Ela Lindsay Illustrations by TIMM SINCLAIR
A human’s progression through life is as inevitable as each day’s sunrise. And, unless the cycle is interrupted, a baby is born, grows, blossoms, matures, ages and passes on.
Though each person is unique, we all advance through the years like figures on a moving walkway, traveling steadily through the cycle.
Greco-Roman philosopher Claudius Ptolemy (90-168 AD) was one of the first to define the seven stages of human existence. As an astronomer, he associated each with a celestial body with similar characteristics.
Each stage has its unique health challenges as well as specific needs for optimal health and well-being. Here are some suggestions from contemporary experts to help promote general wellness through the stages, adapted to the modern life span.
Birth – 4 YEARS MOON
“At first, the infant, mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms…”
Humans develop more rapidly during this period than any other. According to Ptolemy, the moon is associated with this stage because of the speed with which it travels around the earth.
Most experts agree that providing babies with breast milk is key at this stage.
Dr. Christopher Fitzgerald, a pediatric and internal medicine practitioner at Cedars-Sinai Hospital, refers to breast milk as “liquid gold”; it protects the infant from infection and provides “healthy bacteria and fats to the brain that cannot be gotten anywhere else.”
However, if breast-feeding is not an option, Dr. Lauren Tashman, a pediatrician at Simi Valley Hospital, says mothers shouldn’t feel guilty. “The most important thing is for your baby to get the calories and nutrients he or she needs to grow.”
Simi Valley Hospital’s chief medical officer, general practitioner Dr. John Dingilian, says that vaccines are another vital ingredient at this stage “because we are seeing a rise in illnesses that we had previously thought were fairly eradicated in our country,” such as pertussis and measles.
The primary vaccine series as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control, says Dingilian, “should start at 2 months of age or as directed by their physician.” They include “DTaP, hemophilus influenza, pneumococcal vaccines (one each at 2, 4 and 6 months of age) and two polio vaccines at 2 and 4 months. There is also a hepatitis B vaccine series of three—newborn, 1 month and 6-9 months. At 1 year, the MMR and varicella vaccines are given. Following these are boosters for the previous vaccines. Flu vaccines are recommended annually after 6 months of life.”
5 – 12 YEARS Mercury
“Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel and shining morning face, creeping like snail unwillingly to school…”
This stage is represented by the planet Mercury, the second quickest planet. Children are still growing and changing and, during this stage, they develop personal intelligence and character.
The “Healthy People 2020” initiative from the U.S. Department of Health says life expectancy is lower for children age 3 to 11 years who are exposed to secondhand smoke.
Obese children and adolescents run much higher health risks, so establishing a healthy weight is important. Encourage toddlers and young children to eat foods from all five food groups, including regular healthy meals and snacks. There is evidence that drinking excessive amounts of soda can have a negative health impact because most are full of corn syrup, sugar and calories that can spike unhealthy insulin levels, and diet sodas are full of chemicals. Healthy alternatives such as milk, juice, mineral and carbonated water—or plain old water—are better choices.
13 – 20 YEARS Venus
“Then the lover, sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad made to his mistress’ eyebrow…”
Ptolemy represented this stage in life with the planet Venus, associating it with impulsive activity toward love, lust and expression.
Adolescence is when many humans start to pick up bad habits, like tobacco and alcohol use. Illicit drug use is also a big concern for health professionals, so parents need to reinforce the lesson that using these substances, particularly during this stage of life, can affect a person’s overall well-being far into the future. Dr. Albert Odio, a family medicine practitioner at Simi Valley Hospital, points out that as teens are growing more independent of their parents, they must also begin to learn self-control. “The more established the expectations at home, the easier it is to make good decisions,” he says. “The mix of drugs, alcohol and sex in the life of an adolescent can result in seemingly simple mistakes having lifelong consequences.”
Dr. Ehsan Ali, an internal medicine physician with Cedars-Sinai, stresses the importance of regular health checkups for teens, as well as other preventive measures like complete physical exams annually and STD testing.
He recommends Pap tests to screen for cervical cancer beginning at age 18 or once a woman is sexually active, and the HPV vaccine for both men and women.
21 – 35 YEARS Sun
“Then a soldier, full of strange oaths . . . Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel seeking the bubble reputation, even in the cannon’s mouth…”
During this stage, represented by the sun, humans are inclined to act in a more mature manner and make decisions formed more by logic than impulse.
Odio recommends that “medical visits are necessary to be up to date on Pap smears, tetanus vaccines, STD testing and to know if there is any early evidence of hypertension or cholesterol problems.” Also, breast exams by a health professional are recommended every six to 12 months.
“Career and relationship choices exemplify this time in life,” adds Odio. “Married people live an average of seven years longer than do single people and college graduates have lower divorce rates.”
Additionally, from a psychological standpoint, Tashman says this is the time young adults are learning the value of responsibility and how to function in the “real world.”
“Sometimes it can be rough, so it is important to plan ahead and to have a backup plan in case things don’t go as intended,” she says. “Failure is okay, as long as they try their best, and persistence and positivity are important. . . . Don’t give up just because something is hard.”
36 – 59 YEARS Mars
“And then the justice, in fair round belly with good capon lined, With eyes severe and beard of formal cut. Full of wise saws and modern instances…”
Ptolemy used Mars to represent the fifth stage of life because it moves faster than the sun but slower than Jupiter. He believed that this signified the stage at which people begin to feel past their prime.
This is also the stage when humans should be most focused on maintaining a healthy body weight, according to Dr. Gary Small, director of the UCLA Longevity Center. “Midlife obesity increases risk for
late-life dementia,” he says, especially when fat is concentrated around the middle of the body. Adults need daily physical exercise, Small says, such as “20 minutes of brisk walking, which is good for the heart and brain and can help prevent Alzheimer’s.”
Regular exercise, Odio says, “provides a way to both keep in shape and release stress.” He recommends “more regular physicals . . . to monitor risk factors regarding diabetes, heart disease and cancer and to start regular screening with colonoscopies and prostate exams.” Mammograms, he says, are not routinely recommended before age 40, except in high risk situations, but annual breast exams are generally recommended.
“At this stage, one needs to become extra conscious of their health,” Ali says.
U.S. Preventative Services Task Force guidelines recommend annual colorectal cancer screenings for adults. An annual flu vaccine and a tetanus booster every 10 years are also recommended. In addition, smoking and/or excessive drinking, which pose extremely high health risks during this stage, should be ceased entirely.
60 – 74 YEARS Jupiter
“The sixth age shifts into the lean and slippered pantaloon, with spectacles on nose and pouch on side…”
The stage of life represented by Jupiter is a time of wisdom and perspective, according to Ptolemy. The largest planet of the solar system, Jupiter represents the move away from manual labor and into a life of more leisure.
Taking preventive measures for cardiovascular disease at this stage could save tens of thousands of lives each year, and maintaining healthy blood pressure is one of the most effective ways to prevent heart disease and stroke.
A key to improving cardio strength at this stage of life is simply to keep moving. The American College of Sports Medicine says seniors have “the most to gain from starting (or continuing) an exercise program” to strengthen heart and lungs, renew energy levels, reduce anxiety and depression, and help to keep the mind sharp.
It suggests following one of three exercise regimens: “moderate cardio exercise for 30 minutes, five days a week; vigorous cardio exercise for 20 minutes, three days a week; or a mix of moderate and vigorous cardio exercise three to five days a week.”
With regard to maintaining a healthy brain, Small says, “Stimulate your mind because many studies show that education, speaking several languages, doing puzzles, reading, etc. works out brain cells and keeps them limber. A bigger brain is a better brain.”
75+ YEARS Saturn
“Last scene of all, That ends this strange eventful history, Is second childishness…”
Small says the key at this stage is “to adjust to age-related challenges. . . . Seniors need to work to maintain independence and safety as (they) age because of issues with mobility; elder-proof your (home) such as (fixing) loose carpets, have lots of light and electronic gadgets to keep you connected to others.”
Frequent medical visits are important to maintain health. It’s also important to update advance directives—legal documents that allow seniors to spell out their end-of-life care decisions ahead of time.
It’s important to continue to be mentally, physically, socially and spiritually active during this stage. In addition, Small says that people who eat more fruits and vegetables have fewer problems with their memory. But the main thing at this age—and indeed at any age—is to “try to keep a positive attitude. See the cup half full,” he says.
The American Heart and Stroke Association lists seven golden rules for healthy living: getting active, controlling cholesterol, eating better, managing blood pressure, reducing alcohol consumption, losing weight and reducing blood sugar.
Small sums it up like this: “How you take care of yourself today will determine how you’ll end up in the future.”
— Excerpted from William Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” Act II, Scene VII