|Grandma S, top shape at 94 springs. Quebec, 2012.|
The latest National Geographic just arrived and its contents renewed my interest for the fountain of youth!
The title of the article that caught my eye is On Beyond 100. The cover announces "New science could lead to very long lives".
I have been interested by the question of longevity for a long time. (And I sure hope I have a lot of time ahead of me to keep thinking about it!)
What are the factors that lead to a long life? Do we have control over at least some of them? Should we even care? Is the quest for longevity another form of death denial? For sure. Is it a waste of time (this sounds like an oxymoron)? I don't think so.
A couple of baby boomers I've chatted with recently have been telling me that long life or not, your last years will be crappy (so why bother, I feel they want to add). "Life is not an elastic", one of them argued. "If you keep pulling you're only calling for trouble". (I refrained from answering that when you pull too hard on an elastic you're also calling for trouble!)
Trying to achieve the longest life at any cost does not appeal to me more than anybody else. Therapeutic obstinacy is senseless. But I felt that there was more to what my baby boomers were trying to tell me.
First, I was worried that they were using this as an excuse to not adopt a healthy lifestyle. In a similar manner, I've heard smokers say "Why would I quit? Dying of that or something else, what's the difference?" (Somehow implying that smoking 1) will not make you die earlier 2) will not bring about more suffering than your plain old aging process. I disagree of course.)
It sounded too much like an attempt to reduce cognitive dissonance: I know I should take care of my health, but I don't feel like it/don't have the strength, so I'll convince myself that it's useless instead.
Second, it seemed like in their opinion, a long life isn't worth it, based on the implicit premise that past a certain age, all that can possibly happen to you will be unpleasant (and probably painful). Well after recently reading a super cute and true love story between two nonagenarians who met in a nursing home, I beg to differ!
Deep down inside I disagreed with the baby-boomers' opinion, but I had no empirical evidence to argue my point.
Of course the risk of getting certain diseases increases drastically as you reach a certain age.
But will your last years be crappy no matter what, with no significant variation in intensity and duration from one person to the other, and from one life span to the other?
Well, it seems that the answer is no! (For duration at least.)
Before I share the numbers, let me be clear: no matter how old we are when we get to cross the Styx, it is inevitable: in our later years, because of this wonderful process that we call aging, it is most likely that our health will gradually decline; we will have to slow down in one way or another (or many!) We will have to adapt, and we will increasingly depend on others.
(If that part is what terrifies you, why don't you work on becoming accustomed with your own vulnerability right now?)
How sick we will be and for how long, however, does seem to be partly related with overall life duration.
According to my copy of the National Geographic (May 2013), what research tells us is that "In people with an average lifespan [as opposed to centenarians], diseases of old age strike earlier and last longer." (Which is not to say that if you were sick early you will necessarily die at an average age... those are just tendencies, and you are not a number!)
More specifically: in a person who has an average life span, the "cumulative period of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, dementia or cancer" is on average 19 years (with a life ending around the age of 80). In a centenarian, this "sick period" lasts less than half of that: 9 years.
What that means is that ceteris paribus, you can either have more or less 60 healthy years + 20 years of sickness, or more or less 90 healthy years + 10 years of sickness.
(You could also have episodic periods of poor health, so let's not despair at the first sign of a decline. Without going into details, I'd like to mention that a few years ago, I was referred to a cardiologist, who followed me for a while. Well, look at me now! Super Healthy Woman!)
Now don't take me wrong. I am very aware that our overall impact on our health is limited, notably by genes and other factors difficult to measure and even more difficult to control. I learned that the hard way when my own father passed away at the age of 50, he, a man who did not smoke, did not drink (or so little), exercised regularly, had a healthy weight, saw his doctor, was meticulous about his dental hygiene, nurtured his relationships, cultivated his intellect, had a great sense of humor, name it. For goodness' sake, he meditated twice a day!
His death was a blow to my immense trust in the power of taking care of your health. For a while I became disillusioned in addition to my grief. But I recovered. Science has shown time and again that taking care of yourself does have a positive impact on your health; the benefits of eating your fruit and vegetables, and of exercising, for example, are indisputable. (I believe flossing, managing your stress and seeing your doctor at least yearly are up there too.)
When it comes to objective data, scientific research is king, but in this particular case anecdotal accounts by people who have actually made it to their 100th candle have some value too... even if it was just for the fun of listening to what they have to say! I've been paying particular attention to what centenarians say explains their longevity. Here's what came up:
- Don't smoke
- Walk a lot (some scientists question the Cretan diet on the base that there is a confounding variable: the Cretans who lived a long, healthy life also walked daily, and a respectable distance by North American standards)
- Don't eat too much
- Avoid red meat and bad fats and refined sugar (the !Kung people of the Kalahari Desert, from what I read back in college, had virtually no incidence of diabetes, cancer and heart disease when they were first studied... and surprise! they did not eat much junk. Apparently, things have unfortunately changed since then. I gather this is what we call progress.)
- Consume lots of fruit and vegetables (my two venerable grandmothers, who are respectively 94 and 95 years old right now, and both healthy, sure have done that a lot. When I think of them I think of grapefruit, prunes, homemade vegetable soup, freshly picked - and organic - tomatoes and cucumbers, etc.)
- Don't sweat the small stuff
- Have a little bit of chocolate or wine (a LITTLE BIT!) every day
- Avoid alcohol (never said there wouldn't be contradictions!)
- Avoid sex (darn!)
Of course this is all to take with a grain of salt (well, the last point anyways!)
In any case, this longevity discourse shall not take us away from a more important concern, I named, quality of life. Leading a healthy life (which is not synonymous with a boring life) has so many benefits here and now that I don't see why anyone in their right mind would not want to lean toward it!
In the end, the National Geographic article emphasized the genetic component of longevity. Very well, I say. I will nonetheless keep moving and eating clean. And maybe, after posting this, I will offer myself a little meditation session.
For a different approach on aging and death, see Aubrey de Grey's take on it:
Another author who has talked a lot about longevity is Deepak Chopra. Some like him, some think he's a hoax; I'll let you judge for yourself:
I have talked about aging and death previously. See the following posts: