09/08/2011 01:44 pm ET | Updated Nov 08, 2011

Topless With a Hip Replacement

She was topless on the beach with a hip replacement. I bet you're not used to seeing those two ideas in the same sentence, but I thought a more banal title, like "How I Spent My Summer Vacation," would put you to sleep. Now that I have your attention, I'll make my very serious point.

I'd never been to the south of France. So when I headed to the beach in Saint Tropez this summer with my wife (full disclosure), I had images -- OK, fantasies -- of 20-somethings frolicking like in an Annette Funicello beach movie of my adolescence, only this was the topless European version.

There was frolicking, all right, but the frolickers included 40, 50, 60 and 70-somethings. All ages. All shapes. All sizes. Many imperfect. But more importantly, all beautiful and all completely comfortable with their God-given physiques. One stunning woman in her 60s had the faint but unmistakable incision of a total hip replacement. It was probably closed by a plastic surgeon to minimize the scar, but hey, I'm a trained professional -- a geriatrician. And this was now a fact-finding mission. And the fact is, these ladies were completely comfortable in their own skin.

As I thought about it more, the healthy French attitude displayed here was at odds with two of the biggest anxieties/neuroses in the American psyche: aging and sex. Individually, these topics probably account for millions of hours of psychotherapy each year in the U.S. But hang-ups about sex and aging together? That's one hell of a Woody Allen movie.

We've been taught to believe that as we age we become frail, we become forgetful, we become unattractive and we become asexual. None of that is true. The vast majority of people over 70 are functionally independent and cognitively intact. Unattractive? I thought it would be gauche to take pictures (talk about an ugly American) but you'll just have to take my word for it, these woman looked and felt beautiful. And asexual? Both my clinical experience and a growing body of literature tell me that we remain sexual beings well into later life. So much for stereotypes.

So we Americans can learn something from the French about sexuality, beauty and aging. If they'd teach us, maybe we could give them some tips on smoking cessation.


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