Dr. Chistine Rosenbloom interviewed me for her great website yesterday, and her last question was did I have any final words of wisdom. What popped into my head was “don’t give up”. That planted the seed for this post. I get a bit discouraged by some people I see around me who seem to have given up on life. I know people in their 50s and 60s who are already declining considerably. They’ve been overweight and sedentary for years, and are despairing of this ever changing. “Why bother? I feel pretty miserable already. If I eat Kale instead of Big Macs I’ll just live a few years longer in the nursing home”. [update 03/10/2019: it’s the inactivity and the poor diet that is the health and longevity issue, not being overweight]
That is missing the point. The whole point of healthy aging, in my opinion, is to add “life to your years” not “years to your life” If you eat a little healthier and get moving a bit more, and practice some stress reduction techniques, and find some activities you enjoy and friends or family to enjoy them with, you’ll start feeling a whole lot better NOW. And you’ll slow down the rate at which your physical capacities are diminishing, enjoying life more up till the end. I demonstrate this graphically in the figure (sorry, I’m an engi-nerd, we like graphs). The red line represents the average sedentary adult eating a modern diet of overly processed food. That person might live to be 80, but by their late 60s have diminished enough physical capacity due to poor health to need to be in a nursing home, where they spend 10 or more years. If practicing healthy aging just changed you to the green line, where you live to be 90, but now spend even longer in a nursing home, then I would agree, why bother? But what we’re after is the blue line, maintaining your health and physical capacity till much later in life, and instead of a long debilitating decline, just “fall off a cliff” when near death.
My role model for this was my next door neighbor’s beloved Aunt, Delores Cairns, who was “Auntie Dee” to all of us. She lived to be 106, and was mentally and physically vibrant almost to the end. She broke her hip at 105 and didn’t recover from that, and died a few months later. I’d love to follow in her footsteps and live a healthy and vital life till 106. But if I die at 80 that would be fine too, as long as I do everything I can to try to stay healthy and active till as near the end as possible. It’s the “do everything I can” that’s important to me. Obviously some of this is out of our control, I could get hit by a truck or get some debilitating illness. But to the extent that it is in my control, I want to do what I can.
There’s another consideration, which is the “finding meaning in life” I emphasized in my post on the four pillars of healthy aging. Many people my age are at or nearing retirement from their careers, and are empty nesters. The main focus that they’ve been getting up for in the morning is now over. So it’s possible to succumb to the thought “I’ll just relax in my rocking chair and coast in until the end”. But someone mentioned in a book I read recently, “what if you are going to live to 100”? In my case that would mean 34 more years. That’s the same span as from when I was 32 until now, which constituted the prime of my “first career”. That’s a whole lot of more years to be making a contribution in. In my case that may mean playing some “emeritus” roles like teaching in engineering, as well as possible second career options. This will be different for everybody. Other people may relish retirement and maybe traveling or watching their grandkids grow, and that’s what will continue to give them meaning. And of course we might not make it to 100, but living as if we might will keep us more vital for however long is left.
Once we’ve found some meaningful way to make a contribution and keep us going, hopefully it will motivate us to take measures to stay vibrant and healthy so we can stay at it longer.