During one of the laboratory rotations during my first year of graduate school in Utah, just about 20 years ago, doing real-time PCR to determine expression levels of some genes implicated in aging, Bernadette, the senior graduate student or junior postdoc who took me under her wing, told me she felt the first ill effects of old age when she turned 25. At 23, I considered this utter nonsense and indeed, turning 25 didn't change my life.
Thirty didn't have much of an impact either. The day I reached that milestone, after a journey on the night train down from Grenoble where I was by then living, I rode my bicyle up the Col d'Aubisque in the Pyrenees, the Tour de France hot on my wheels. I had never felt better physically.
Forty didn't bother me either. Among my friends, only one had deemed this birthday worth a grand celebration. He invited his companions over the years to a bash in Jena where he and I had gone to college together. I didn't see anything special in the date.
This was four years ago, and what a difference four years can make! I was young back then, relatively independent, accountable to no one and responsible for nothing. Life flowed, and I let it take me with it.
Since then I have acquired two children - amazing creatures that no one and nothing could have prepared me for - and a woman that might very well be my wife. I share responsibility for my little family, am a teacher to my children, a hero in their young lives. I have aged in the process.
Riding my bicycle to work this year has been an exercise in pain. My average speed is more than 3 km/h lower than in earlier years. When I go running on business trips, I hardly ever faster than five minutes per kilometer. Sometimes I take more than six. I might as well be walking with a cane.
Dashing up the stairs at work, I can quickly exhaust myself, as if doing Olympic-level interval training. When I played football for the first time in many years the other day, I was rewarded for my animation on the field and the goals I scored with a sustained back pain so piercing that it felt like being perforated with knives. I lay in ruins for more than a week.
Maybe this shouldn't surprise me. Aging is nothing to complain about or bewail. The arrow of time flies one way only. But it is frustrating nevertheless. I'm falling apart physically. Forty-four is my personal tipping point. Halfway through my statistical life expectancy, the forces of destruction are gaining the upper hand.
How do I live with this? Will I finally break down and buy a car or even a TV to support age-appropriate listlessness? Probably not immediately. The new flat, which we'll finally move into this weekend, is much closer to work than the old one. Cycling won't cause me to break a sweat. I could even jog.
A friend of mine who sensed impending doom a few years back signed up for CrossFit and reached the best shape of his life at the age of forty. He put more hard work and suffering into this than I'd ever be able to sustain. With some regular exercise, I could probably also raise my fitness levels and feel better when I move, but it's more important that I learn to live with the inevitable. I might be able to slow down my decay, but I know that it is unstoppable.