In my opinion, there are four components or “pillars” of healthy aging. Staying active is one of them, healthy eating is the second, and the others are social support and stress management. There is a lot of emphasis on the first two on this site but I consider the others equally important. In this post I’ll cover social support and one aspect of stress management- mindfulness.
When you read about the healthy and long-lived populations such as in the Blue Zones discussed in Dan Buettner’s book of the same name, yes they eat a good diet. But they are also quite active physically and have strong social support, both from their extended families and their communities. Getting together with friends and family, dancing, and singing, are all frequent parts of their daily lives.
Dr. Dean Ornish, who did the famous study on reversing heart disease, readily admits that his program is a package deal, and that social support is at least as important as diet. He chronicles this in the moving book Love and Survival, which talks about the members of the support groups associated with the program. Some of them had terminal cancer but lived longer and better because of their participation in their groups, which became a loving extended family.
We are drifting too much towards isolation in the modern world, a trend we need to fight. Family and extended family is a good place to start, even if long distances intervene. I already mentioned some ways to turn physical activity into social support.
Churches and meditation groups are another example, and all sorts of groups with common interest can be found on the meetup site. These are ways to find like-minded people to meet with in person. “Social media” may help but are not enough, in my opinion.
Purpose in Life
Having a purpose in life is strongly related to longevity. Okinawan elders have a saying for this that roughly translates “what do you get up for in the morning?” . Many people get this from their careers and can lose it after retirement. But there are plenty of other ways, including family, hobbies, lifelong learning (through books, adult ed or many online courses now available), and volunteer work. One doctor suggested that the answer to the question “do you volunteer” was the most important predictor of continued health in his older patients.
A researcher came up with an assessment test for purpose in life in older people, and correlated the results with risk for dementia. Those who scored 4.2 out of 5 or higher on the test were 2.4 times more likely to remain free of dementia than those who scored a 3 or less .
This is just paying attention to what is going on in the present moment, something modern society seems to be moving away from more and more these days. Many of the people I see when I’m out walking are fussing with their phones. Aside from the danger of walking into a pole, they are missing out on their often beautiful surroundings. I even saw this recently in Yosemite Valley, one of the most picturesque places I know, where people were walking the foot paths staring at their phones.
You see entire families in restaurants eating and playing with their phones, none of them paying attention to each other. One of the saddest examples I saw recently was a woman who had taken her two young toddlers to the park and put them on the swings. She’d give one a push, mess around with the phone for a while, then give the other a push, and kept alternating that way. Once in a while she’d get lost in the phone and forget to push either kid until one would yell “Mom!” and she’d reluctantly drag herself back away from the phone. She sounds like a good candidate to take the “smartphone compulsion test” or read Catherine Price’s book How to Break Up with Your Phone.
In his book The Brain Warrior’s Way, Dr. Daniel Amen cites evidence that the average attention span in the US has shrunk from an already poor 12 seconds in 2000 to a pitiful 8 seconds now. If the same test is applied to goldfish, they outscore us by lasting 9 seconds. I don’t think our species is evolving in the right direction with this trend.
Here’s how I first found out about mindfulness. The most stressful time in my life was when I was working at a startup. We had a lot of difficult work to do and were often in a time crunch. But we were using workstations with multiple windows. What a productivity tool! I could work on several things at once, while a piece of code was compiling in one window (which could take a couple of minutes back in the 80s and early 90s), I could work on something else in another. I felt tremendously productive. But I noticed after a while that some of the tasks on my todo list today were to fix something I screwed up previously- probably because of being distracted by a second thing I was working on. Maybe this isn’t all so productive after all?
Then I read The Miracle of Mindfulness by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk and great teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, about the value of doing one thing at a time, and always paying 100% attention to what you are doing. So I closed down those extra windows and concentrated on only one thing. While waiting for the compiler, I paid attention to the one thing I was working on, and “did I miss anything”? My net productivity went up, and it was much more relaxing. For some situations like being a Mom or a short-order cook, multi-tasking is unavoidable. For the rest of us, it can be fool’s gold.
Mindfulness is relaxing during various daily activities like driving, walking, and eating. t also helps to pick some activities you consider chores and pay 100% attention while doing them, such as making the bed, brushing your teeth, doing the dishes, etc. Continuous activities like walking, hiking, biking, paddling, etc., are more calming and enjoyable if you pay attention to your surroundings and your breathing, and are examples of “mindfulness in motion”.
Yoga and Tai Chi are both also healthy examples of mindfulness in motion. I do about 15 minutes of yoga stretches every night, which is stress relieving in itself because we store tension in our muscles, which can get released by stretch or massage. But it is especially relaxing if I do it mindfully instead of while watching TV. I cobbled together my yoga routine from classes I took over the years, from videos by Lilias Folan (there are a lot of yoga videos on the internet) and from books. You can stick to a beginner program and still learn good stretches. Tai Chi is a bit harder to self-teach because the movements are linked together and can be intricate, unless you find a really good instructional DVD. City adult ed or rec centers often offer classes.
Mindfulness has also been found to have excellent health benefits, and there are mindfulness-based stress reduction classes that are covered by health insurance, pioneered by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn .
Ironically, some of my readers may be looking at this on their phones now. Don’t get me wrong, they are great tools. But we need to put them away once in a while and just be present. It can make you twitch at first, but when you get used to it, it’s relaxing.
- Buettner, D, The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, National Geographic, 2012
- Boyle, P, et al, “Effect of Purpose in Life on the Relation Between Alzheimer Disease Pathologic Changes on Cognitive Function in Advanced Age”, Arch Gen Psychiatry, 2012
- Kabat-Zinn, J, Meditation Is Not What You Think: Mindfulness and Why It Is So Important, Hachette Books, 2018