July 15, 2024
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Sightings Over Sixty: Longevity Report Card

Sightings Over Sixty: Longevity Report Card

How long we live, and how healthy we are, depends partly on the lottery of birth — how healthy our parents were and how long they lived. We’re winners if we drew the longevity card from our parents, not so lucky if we drew the fat card, the alcoholism card, the cancer card, or a predisposition to any other disease.

Still, there’s a lot we can do to help ourselves live longer and feel better, no matter who our parents were — or however much we may have mistreated ourselves in our younger years. If a person smoked when they were young, for example, but has not touched a cigarette in 20 years, their lungs look almost the same as someone who never smoked at all.

We are not complete masters of our fate, but we are not passive victims either. We have a lot of control over our own destiny even if, as often happens, things do not turn out precisely as planned.

Some people have their own secrets for staying healthy. A fistful of vitamins or glass of wine every day? Yoga three times a week? Here are some of the most obvious ones . . . and how I’m doing. How are you doing?

Eat a Good Diet. We’ve seen the fad diets come and go, but the real answer is no secret at all. Healthy people avoid too much meat and dairy. They restrict the amount of sugar and salt in their diets. They drink lots of water, and maybe some tea or coffee, and perhaps a small amount of alcohol. They consume lots of fruits and vegetables — any diet rich in fruits and vegetables is linked to a reduced risk for cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

How am I doing? If left to my own devices I would probably get an F. But thanks to my wife, I’m probably around a B+.

Get Plenty of Sleep. Various studies have demonstrated that a good night’s sleep leads to lower blood pressure and boosts the immune system, while too little sleep can be linked to an increased risk for stroke and cancer. Some studies have even suggested that sleep deprivation affects the brain, leading us to make poor decisions that are detrimental to our health.

I’m a good sleeper. Grade: A.

Get Some Exercise. The CDC recommends sweating our way through aerobics for two and a half hours a week. We should also engage in some moderate strength training, whether it’s lifting weights or doing sit-ups, or digging in the garden and practicing yoga. The important thing is to pick an activity that we enjoy so we’ll keep doing it on a regular basis.

I do get some exercise. My problem is I don’t have a regular routine. I let things slip. But I’m a solid B . . . okay, maybe a B-.

Drive Safely. We sometimes forget in this age of seat belts and air bags that traffic accidents are still a major cause of death — some 40,000 Americans a year, according to the National Safety Council. So we should wear our seat belts, put down our cell phones, obey speed limits. Also, be careful about he side effects of any medications you may take. And while you’re at it, watch out for accidents at home . . . in the bathroom, on the stairs, in the kitchen.

Me? I’m not a speeder or a tailgater, and I always hold onto the handrail on the stairs at home. But my attention does sometimes wander. Grade: B+.

Maintain and Active Social Life. People who enjoy a close family life or have plenty of friends typically live longer than people who are lonely. Experts say that being engaged in a community gives people a sense of security, promotes healthy behavior, and helps people avoid self-destructive habits like drinking too much.

On my own, I’d probably get a C; but again, thanks to my wife I’m a solid B.

Have a Purpose. Death rates for older men who are still working are half of what they are for men of the same age who are fully retired. Mortality rates for women are similar, though not as pronounced.  Researchers have concluded that it’s not the working that makes the difference, but staying involved and engaged in something bigger than our own personal problems.

I have some activities that keep me focused and engaged, but I should probably have more. Grade:  B.

Relax. Yes, we need to stay involved. But the experts also say it’s important to spend time in silence, and in nature, and not be hounded by constant stimulation. As behavioral geneticist Susan Smalley of UCLA writes: “We need time to do nothing, to be our best selves — well-rounded and creative human beings. The ‘doing’ side of our nature needs a ‘being’ side to be in balance.”

I experience some anxiety from time to time. But I do nothing very well. A-.

Go to the Doctor. We should all get our recommended vaccines — the pneumonia vaccine, the shingles vaccine, the Covid booster, and the flu vaccine every fall. We should also keep up with recommended screenings, including the much-dreaded colonoscopy. The CDC points out that over 60 million Americans have high blood pressure, yet fewer than half of them have it under control. So we all need to check our blood pressure, take our medications — and make all the other lifestyle changes that will allow us to live long and prosper.

My overall grade: a solid B. So I’m doing okay, but could do better, which probably explains why I have some arthritis, and I’m on two medications — but at least I’m still alive!

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