The year 2021 has been marked by milestones for Twin Cities blues and soul singer and bandleader Mick Sterling.
He remarried and became a stepfather. He published his second book of essays, "And Else," and recorded its audio version. He produced and fronted multiple tribute shows and concert events that kept fans cheering, clubs hopping and fellow musicians working.
And he turned 60.
"I actually feel stronger than ever. More confident singing different styles. I want to be age-appropriate; I don't want to look foolish, but I'm 60 and I like it," Sterling said. "I'm not slacking off and I'm not old. Not everyone gets this chance."
Sterling's pleasure at marking four decades as one of the Twin Cities' most consistently in-demand entertainers is tempered by his loss. His son, musician Tucker Jensen, died of Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2019 at age 29.
"Tucker was so brave and when he passed away, it made me brave. If I have the ability to do something, I'm going to give it a shot," Sterling said. "If I fail, it's proof I put it out there. I'll try again."
The man born Michael Sterling Jensen has grown up — and grown older — onstage, but his presence and energy levels seem barely changed from the late 1980s, when Mick Sterling and the Stud Brothers drew lines wherever they played, especially Sunday nights at Bunkers in Minneapolis.
With his years, Sterling's versatile voice seems to find new and deeper nuance in the lyrics he sings. He projects a view of himself that's gutsy, compelling and fearless, with many possibilities ahead. He's a man who sees himself as younger than his years.
And that self-perception may hold a secret to his vitality.
How we age is influenced by the interplay of genetics, living conditions and lifestyle choices, but gerontologists have identified another variable that can slow or speed the aging process.
It comes from an individual's self-perception about their own aging. There's a growing body of evidence that suggests that people who are asked how old they feel and select an age younger than their chronological years are measurably better off in many varied ways.
Essentially, it's not the number of your years. It's how you regard them.
"The term is known as subjective aging, which is how you feel about aging itself. Science tells us this is an important factor in positive health outcomes," said Prof. Joe Gaugler, director of the Center for Healthy Aging and Innovation at the University of Minnesota.
"When we think of health we tend to use a biomedical lens and focus on disease and symptoms, but there are other ways to look at successful aging," he said.
The concept of subjective aging has been widely studied. Feeling younger has been linked to everything from lower rates of depression to greater grip strength. One study found that older people who perceived themselves as younger showed less brain atrophy on MRI tests.
A study published by the American Psychological Association in May concluded that a younger subjective age gives middle-aged and older adults " ... a greater sense of well-being, better cognitive functioning, less inflammation and a lower risk of hospitalization."
Subjective aging even plays a role in the workplace. A 2019 study found that over-50 workers categorized as "Youthfuls" — because they "felt" a decade younger than their chronological age — scored significantly higher on work engagement and productivity and were more likely to be promoted than "Veterans," their counterparts who identified as three years older than their chronological age.
While the news about subjective aging is good for people who perceive themselves as younger, the reverse is also true.
"The literature suggests that people who hold a more negative appraisal of their own aging are more likely to experience disability and adverse health outcomes, even expedited mortality," Gaugler said.
Grandma on skates
When De'Vonna Pittman was growing up in Ford Heights, Ill., her hometown was tagged with the dubious title of America's poorest suburb. Pittman remembers no activities like swimming or gymnastics.
"Our extracurriculars were on the street, jumping Double Dutch and skating," she said. "I had my Strawberry Shortcake roller skates with the three settings that I grew into. They were so much fun."
Pittman arrived in Minneapolis at 21, a single mother with a baby and another on the way. She worked her way through college, earning a bachelor's and then a master's degree. As she built her career, she met her future husband at church and created a blended family with her two daughters and his two sons.
A few years ago, as her nest emptied, Pittman wanted to restore the carefree mindset that her responsibilities had whittled away.
"I was a young mom and I spent my 20s and 30s raising children and making sacrifices. My life began again when they went off to college. I reassessed," she said. "I consider myself a free bird and I wanted to be even more free."
Lacing up her skates again in middle age gave Pittman a younger vision of herself.
"I'm a busy woman and my work can be draining. When I'm in the car and see a smooth sidewalk, I make a note to go back to skate," she said. "Being out in nature, the feel of the wind, made me feel like a kid even though I'm a grandma."
Now a racial equity officer at a St. Paul nonprofit, Pittman is also a motivational speaker,the author of three books — a memoir, a volume of poetry and a romance novel — and an entrepreneur.She founded Nature's Syrup, a small business that sells skin and hair care products she developed.
As she approaches the half-century mark, Pittman believes setting and meeting goals keeps her physical health excellent and her subjective age young.
"I want to write a sequel to my novel. I want to get my product line into stores. Last year I started cross-country skiing and I want to get better at that," she said.
"I was born to do many things, and many things simultaneously. I didn't know what 50 would be but now that I'm here, I'm excited. I don't want to know what slowing down feels like."
There's no doubt that being in good health allows people to feel younger, but experts say tapping into playfulness, spontaneity and curiosity creates a youthful mind-set.
"The age you feel means way more than the age on your birthday. Information about subjective aging is so profound, so applicable to our lives, yet it seems to be the domain of academics," said Kerry Burnight, former professor of geriatric medicine and founder of the Gerontologist, a firm that advises companies on reaching older adults.
Burnight wants to take knowledge about subjective aging mainstream. She's currently at work on a book on the topic, which she envisions as a guidebook for people in the second half of life.
She has her work cut out for her. She's frustrated that positive associations with growing older must overcome negative stereotypes that say that after a certain age, people are frail, feeble or fuddy-duddies.
"Thinking young is a habit, but to adopt it you have to reject ageism and the multi-billion-dollar brainwashing campaign that says you are less [desirable] or undesirable if you are older," she said. "That's been created to sell products, and it isn't accurate."
Burnight coaches people to reject their own negative self-talk about aging. She wants them to stop disparaging themselves about their age, replacing internal statements of "I'm too old," with thoughts like, "I have so much life ahead of me," and "I'm flourishing."
But she acknowledges that a young mind-set is most effective when it is consistent with action.
"Don't give yourself a pass. Put in the work; keep planting your garden, learning new things and staying productive. If you live with chronic pain or great loss, it takes more effort to adjust your thoughts," she said. "I'm not saying it's easy. It's hard, but it's worth it."
Purpose at play
A common thread among people who age successfully is their discovery of deepened meaning in their lives.
Mick Sterling finds purpose beyond the spotlight of the stage. In 2011, he parlayed his name and connections into the 30-Days Foundation, a nonprofit he founded. Aimed at holding off financial disaster for struggling Minnesota families, it responded to some 100,000 requests for assistance in its first decade.
The 30-Days Foundation pays one-time expenses in what are often fairly minor financial setbacks that can still prove ruinous for someone living close to the bone.
"We cover what people can't pay when they get in a little trouble — back rent, a car repair bill, keeping their phone from getting turned off," he said. "Without some help, the damage piles up and they get in a hole and can't get out, then the car gets repossessed or they get evicted. We stop the bleeding."
The lean organization is remarkably free of bureaucracy, with Sterling himself reading many of the requests. The stories from people in trouble resonate, reminding Sterling of early years when he sang his heart out for an audience of four or five, and of the struggles that bandmates have faced when gigs fell through or when the money coming in couldn't keep up with unexpected challenges.
"There's a lot of sadness and fear out there. The vast majority of people we help are so appreciative that someone understands what they're going through," he said. "It's all about the timing of the donation. That gives them a breather and changes the trajectory."
Sterling feels as good about delivering relief as he feels about delivering a performance.
"The charity goes hand-in-hand with the music. I feel like I am compelled to do both," he said. "I have my good health because I find things that stimulate me and guide me every day.And I have every intention of keeping at it."
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis writer and broadcaster.