The Longevity Toolkit
A Five-Step Guide to Aging Well
The search for longevity often begins with the lives of centenarians. In an excellent book titled “The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer,” author Dan Buettner investigates regions of the world where people have an above-average chance of passing the 100-year mark. The communities in “The Blue Zones” don’t necessarily have access to the greatest health care — it would seem that medical science is now playing catch-up with the older citizens of places such as Okinawa, Japan, and Ikaria, a Greek island in the Aegean Sea.
Still, progress seems inevitable. As a species, we will acquire the knowledge to live longer. Along with piecing together the puzzle of achieving a long life, we must also solve the riddle of what it means to live well. The solution is likely to be found across disciplines: medicine to help us combat debilitating diseases, nutrition to help us remain healthy, the arts and religion to help us find meaning, and ecology to ensure a safe and sustaining environment. We will face ethical dilemmas if the benefits are reserved for a fortunate few.
After turning to the experts, I assembled a rough outline of what it means to age well. For an able-bodied person, it would look something like this:
1. The ability to safely stand up after falling down.
2. The capacity to learn and retain new information.
3. The strength to safely pick up a child or grandchild.
4. A resistance to, or freedom from, health issues connected to aging, such as dementia, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis and certain mental illnesses.
Here are five steps you can take on the road to aging well. Of course, please speak with a doctor before making any significant lifestyle modifications or undertaking any physical training regimen.
To age well, lift weights.
Consider the evidence. Research published in 2018 by the American College of Cardiology makes a striking claim. As summarized by ScienceDaily.com, “New research found that while all physical activity is beneficial, static activities — such as strength training — were more strongly associated with reducing heart disease risks than dynamic activities like walking and cycling.”
Let that sink in for a moment. Strength training is better for your heart health than dynamic activities — which we would commonly refer to as “cardio.” It sounds like cardio needs a new name.
An enormous body of research indicates that weight training boosts everything from your mood to your libido. It helps control blood glucose levels and improves balance. According to an October 2017 paper published in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research, it increases bone mineral density in postmenopausal women with osteopenia and osteoporosis.
The big downside of strength training is that it can do more harm than good if it isn’t done correctly. Affordable training options abound in the Merrimack Valley. Find out what’s best for you by consulting your physician.
Put On Your Walking Shoes
In a story posted in the Telegraph UK on the benefits, or lack thereof, of longevity-promoting supplements, Sarah Lenz Lock, the executive director of the Global Council on Brain Health, was quoted as saying, “Rather than buying a dietary supplement, spend money on new walking shoes.”
The results of a long-term study on walking interventions were published this year in the journal PLOS Medicine. The conclusion? “Short-term primary care pedometer-based walking interventions can produce long-term health benefits and should be more widely used to help address the public health inactivity challenge.”
This is just one of many studies supporting the same idea: If you want to age well, get outside and walk. Walking outside gives your health a two-for-one, the physical benefits of walking plus the holistic benefits of being in nature.
In 2012, Outside magazine published a pioneering article titled “Take Two Hours of Pine Forest and Call Me in the Morning.” Author Florence Williams describes groundbreaking research on the salutary effects of simply being outside. Since its publication, researchers have continued to explore the benefits of forest bathing and woodland strolling. An Outside article published in 2019 notes the rise in doctors prescribing nature exposure “as the best possible treatment for a growing list of ailments, from anxiety and obesity to attention-deficit disorder and high blood pressure.”
My own experience with meditation came when I lived in Brooklyn, New York, and occasionally visited a neighborhood Zen center. There, for the suggested donation of a few dollars,
I learned a simple technique for sitting down and doing nothing. It was money well spent.
Although my own practice ebbed, I started again in earnest as my family awaited the birth of our second child. The stress, at times, made me feel like I was drowning. So, I bought a new cushion and started sitting for 12 minutes a day. In my estimation, this was the single most important factor in keeping me sane and productive during the months that followed.
I am not alone in the belief that meditation has its benefits. Dan Harris, an ABC news correspondent and “Good Morning America” weekend host, wrote a book called “10% Happier” on the topic. The book gives a good account of the scientific research about the health benefits of meditation and is free of New Age jargon. With so much evidence in its favor, I think it is fair to state that meditation is one of the simplest and most effective ways to increase the possibility of emotional well-being into your latter years.
Feed Your Gut
Walking, lifting weights and meditating all belong in the aging-well toolkit. You probably didn’t need research papers to know this, although it’s nice to have the occasional reminder.
However, one aspect of aging well that we’re just beginning to understand is the role of the gut microbiome.
The microbiome is the “ecosystem” of wee beasties — bacteria, viruses and fungi — living in your stomach and intestines. The health and diversity of this system may be a critical factor in aging, obesity and mental health. There is an intriguing possibility that if you pay attention to what you’re feeding the microbiome, you can improve your health. And what kind of feast does the microbiome prefer?
In June, I spoke with Katherine Tucker and Sabrina Noel, two UMass Lowell professors who are doing cutting-edge research in the nutritional sciences.
“Almost all cultures have cultured foods such as yogurt, lassi or kimchi. These fermented foods provide healthful bacteria for our gut microbiome,” Tucker explained to me. “Why in the past 30 years do we have an epidemic of obesity and diabetes that just skyrocketed out of nowhere? There are a lot of factors. One is that we’ve over-sanitized our food supply. People don’t eat cultured foods and don’t get exposure to microbes from the earth from bringing in their vegetables from the ground. … When you have a diet of refined white bread, soda pop, cookies and bagels — no or low fiber — then you get an overgrowth of unfavorable bacteria.”
Tucker and Noel proposed a number of methods to “feed your gut,” including keeping an herb garden, making yogurt, and cooking with fresh turmeric. They noted that researchers at UML are even studying the potential health effects of mushrooms. Certain bioactive fungal compounds may protect against oxidative stress, inflammation and cognitive decline, they said.
Kat Everett is the curator and director of COCO Brown, a cultural community center in Haverhill. This fall she is teaching a class called “Arts and Aging” in the College of Older Learners (CoOL) program at Northern Essex Community College. Typical CoOL classes include meditation, gardening and theater. Everett’s class takes an interdisciplinary approach, with a focus on self-expression. The three-week class, which meets Fridays from 2 to
4 p.m., Sept. 20 through Oct. 4, costs $25 to enroll.
“Art is one of the power equalizers. It connects us all,” says Everett, the daughter of a Pentecostal bishop who just turned 84. “There is a life force in the arts that allows people to age well.”
Everett’s emphasis on the relationship between creativity, aging and community is supported by science. A recent study conducted by researchers at the Penn State College of Information Sciences and Technology demonstrated, according to a university press release, that “older adults are often leaders in innovation, coupling their knowledge and creativity to … revitalize communities, improve the environment, and pass on skills and hobbies.” Seeing aging people as creative leaders flies in the face of entrenched stereotypes and suggests that aging well benefits more than individuals. We may have to redefine aging well in terms of what older people give to and share with their communities, and champion opportunities for them, and us, to do so.
A Longevity Toolkit Reading List
Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott. Anchor.
The Blue Zones by Dan Buettner. National Geographic.
Body by Science by Doug McGuff and John Little. McGraw-Hill Education.
Forest Bathing by Qing Li. Viking.
Just Sit by Sukey Novogratz and Elizabeth Novogratz. Harper Wave.
The Longevity Diet by Valter Longo. Avery.
The Lost Art of Walking by Geoff Nicholson. Riverhead Books.
The Nature Fix by Florence Williams. W. W. Norton & Company.
10% Happier by Dan Harris. Dey Street Books.
Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz. Chelsea Green Publishing.