How long do you, in fact, want to live? Life expectancy in the U.S. and other developed countries has increased over the past decades, due in large part to ever-advancing medical interventions. While the U.S. ranks 36th for its average life expectancy of 78, we have the highest number of centenarians (70.5 thousand). There are several different ways to look at this and they aren’t all optimistic. I will never forget the first centenarian I met. I was working at a hospital and a call came up from the ER that I needed to come down to admit a 104 year old woman. I ran down, excited to see what someone who had survived the entire span of the 1900s (including the 60s!) was like. My interest turned quickly to sympathy as I rounded the curtained divider to find a shell of a woman, more baby than adult. I will save you the details but suffice it to say that she was not going to throw herself a party if she hit 105. So, what is the real goal? Is it to live forever or is it to live well — healthy and happy for as long as you are able?
By age group, here are the best things you can do to live a long enough, healthy enough life.
1. Children – Honor your father and your mother. Oh no, wait. That’s how you get into heaven and out of time out. How you live long is to first, survive to your teens. Wear helmets and seat belts, swim only where you are supervised, get your vaccinations and don’t talk back. Develop the healthy habits that will stick with you as an adult. Eat lots of fruits and vegetables, avoid fast food, be active and be nice so no one wants to kill you.
2. Teens and Twenties – Do NOT smoke and do not have unprotected sex — and everything else above.
3. Thirties and Forties – These are the decades where you can really give yourself a solid foundation for making it into your eighties or even nineties. This is the time when you still have a chance to make up for all the bad decisions of your youth. I hate to do this but I will just pull the bandaid off quickly and say the crux is diet and exercise. (Insert cringe and scary music.) Eat lots of fiber, drink lots of water, and make sure you get enough calcium and antioxidants. Limit your intake of red meat, avoid fatty foods and drink alcohol only in moderation. Maintain a healthy weight. Forget about how you look and exercise for your heart and your health. Tomorrow, I will focus more on diet.
4. Fifties and Sixties – See your doctor regularly and get all of your recommended screenings. Keep your mind as active as your body and maintain all of the healthy habits you hopefully established in your thirties and forties. Accept that normal aging results in some wear and tear but do not ignore your symptoms.
5. Seventies and Eighties – Whew! Homestretch. Life is not easy and there has to be some feeling of relief as you round third base — even if the ball is coming in to the catcher from center field. People are living past 100 though, and if that is going to be you, you might as well feel good. Eat even more fruits and vegetables and limit your salt intake. See your doctor on a regular basis — by this time you probably have several physicians. Now, more than ever, it is crucial to have a primary-care doctor overseeing all of the care you receive. Be proactive in your healthcare. Know your medicines, research any chronic illness you may have and take advantage of the tools and procedures that aid failing eyesight and hearing. Be physically active but do everything in your power to avoid injury. It gets harder and harder to bounce back and what was once only a broken bone can now cause you serious disability.
Notice there is no category for the nineties. This is simply because you are now on your own. Live it up, baby. What’s the worst that can happen? My 98 and 93 year old grandparents wake up each morning wondering why God would make them live through another day. They curse all of the V8 that they’ve drank through the years, swearing that this is what keeps them ticking — of course, it is really their pacemakers but I hesitate to correct my elders. I hope if I make it past 89, I will find a way to either enjoy every moment or at the very least, spend my days laying a lot of guilt on my family.
Tomorrow – longevity and nutrition.