How to Live Longer and Stay Healthy
Julian Whitaker, MD
The oldest living thing on earth is a bristlecone pine in the Inyo National Forest in California, said to be 4,843 years old. This tree is named Methuselah after the oldest person mentioned in the Bible, who lived to the age of 969. In recent history, the oldest of the old is Jeanne Calment, a Frenchwoman who died in 1997 at age 122, and at the time of the 2010 census, more than 53,000 Americans were centenarians—100 years old or older.
One of our patients, Anthony is a centenarian. Let’s take a look at what Anthony does and what you can do to increase your lifespan and, more important, your “health span.”
Stay Physically and Socially Active
For starters, you have to stay active. Virtually every study examining lifestyle factors and longevity points to the importance of exercise. Anthony walks a mile and a half to two miles a day, plays bocce and pool, and bowls. That’s a lot of activity for a person of any age, but even more moderate levels are beneficial. Just 90 minutes a week, or 15 minutes a day, of moderate-intensity exercise has been shown to increase lifespan by an average of three years.
Anthony also occasionally sings with a karaoke group and enjoys socializing, another characteristic linked with longevity. Studies from the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, which has been following healthy older people since 1958, found three personality traits that predicted longer life: conscientiousness, emotional stability, and general activity (which includes seeking out social stimulation and engagement with others). You don’t have to do karaoke—which I’m sure my family appreciates—but a positive attitude and staying in the flow of life go a long way toward keeping us healthy.
Maintain Optimal Weight and Nutrition
You also need to watch your weight. Our life expectancy ranks 38th in the world, lagging behind other developed countries. According to a report in the American Journal of Public Health, “The high prevalence of obesity in the United States contributes substantially to its poor international ranking in longevity.”
With adult obesity rates approaching 40 percent, no doubt we’re overfed, but paradoxically, we’re also undernourished. The highly processed American diet is notoriously low in essential nutrients. No, we’re not deficient to the point that people are dropping dead from scurvy and beriberi. Rather, as Bruce Ames, PhD, one of America’s preeminent scientists, explains, it’s more modest but widespread deficiencies that are doing us in. Subtle shortages of key nutrients cause DNA damage, mitochondrial decay with oxidant leakage, and cellular degeneration that accumulate over the years and set us up for cancer, cardiovascular disease, and other age-related disorders.
Dr. Ames’ most recent paper—which has 295 scientific references—discusses the long-term adverse effects of chronic deficiencies of selenium, but in previous articles he has explored the roles of vitamin K, vitamin D, magnesium, zinc, and other basic nutrients. His recommendation? Vitamin and mineral supplements!
Beware of too Much Medical Care
Finally, don’t get caught in the “medicalization of health.” I am not suggesting that you never see your doctor, ignore warning signs of disease, and avoid all screenings. But you must be aware of the very real perils of medical care, especially as you get older. A lab test abnormality, slightly elevated blood pressure—something is bound to show up. Then, all of a sudden you’re given a diagnosis that requires treatment, which in many cases is worse than the “disease” itself.
Warren Buffet’s announcement that he has early-stage prostate cancer is a perfect example. It’s no surprise that the 85-year-old billionaire has prostate cancer—more than 80 percent of men in their 80s do. But his reported plan to be treated with radiation is just bad medicine. First, the scientific literature shows that PSA screening for men of his age does more harm than good. Second, even without treatment he will almost certainly die of something besides prostate cancer. And third, he will likely suffer with incontinence, impotence, or other adverse effects of radiation.
Another example is the rampant use of drugs, especially those clearly identified as inappropriate for the older population. Nearly a quarter of people aged 65 and older and 40 percent of nursing home residents take one or more medications that have sky-high rates of adverse effects such as increasing risk of falls, memory impairment, cardiovascular problems, and even death. Then there’s the issue of “polypharmacy.” Patients routinely come to see us on five, 10, 15 different drugs. They often don’t even know what they’re for, only that, “My doctor told me to take it.”
Live Long and Prosper
If you want to live long and prosper, take charge of your health care and do not buy into the prevailing belief that more is better in medicine. Never forget that aging is not a disease and infirmity is not inevitable. Adopt a healthy lifestyle, a good nutritional program, and a positive attitude. And think young, like English Renaissance man Sir Francis Bacon, who said, “I will never be an old man. To me, old age is always 15 years older than I am.”
- Hamilton HJ, et al. Inappropriate prescribing and adverse drug events in older people. BMC Geriatr. 2009 Jan 28;9:5.
- McCann JC, Ames BN. Adaptive dysfunction of selenoproteins from the perspective of the triage theory: why modest selenium deficiency may increase risk of diseases of aging. FASEB J. 2011 Jun;25(6):1793–1814.
- Oliver M. Let’s not turn elderly people into patients. BMJ. 2009;338:b873.
- Preston SH, Stokes A. Contribution of obesity to international differences in life expectancy. Am J Public Health. 2011 Nov;101(11): 2137–2143.
- Terracciano A, et al. Personality predictors of longevity: activity, emotional stability, and conscientiousness. Psychosom Med. 2008 July; 70(6):621–627.
- Wen CP, et al. Minimum amount of physical activity for reduced mortality and extended life expectancy: a prospective cohort study. Lancet. 2011 Oct;378(9798):1244–1253.
Modified from Health & Healing with permission from Healthy Directions, LLC. Photocopying, reproduction, or quotation strictly prohibited without written permission from the publisher. To subscribe to Health & Healing, click here.