Healthy To A Hundred: Author Dr Bill Miller On 5 Things You Need To Live A Long, Healthy, & Happy Life
Getting adequate sleep is imperative. Each of us is different, so there is no magic number. However, sticking to a regular sleep pattern and getting restorative sleep are among the most vital acts you can do to live longer and better. Studies on sleep-deprived mice prove that.
The term Blue Zones has been used to describe places where people live long and healthy lives. What exactly does it take to live a long and healthy life? What is the science and the secret behind longevity and life extension? In this series, we are talking to medical experts, wellness experts, and longevity experts to share “5 Things You Need To Live A Long, Healthy, & Happy Life”. As a part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Dr. Bill Miller.
William B. Miller, Jr. M.D. is an internationally known evolutionary biologist, medical doctor, and author and co-author of seven science books, including the acclaimed The Microcosm Within. Dr. Miller had been in academic and private medical practice for over 30 years. His latest book, Bioverse: How the Cellular World Contains the Secrets to Life’s Biggest Questions, is a popular science book for general readers.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’?
My life held a stunning surprise. I could never have predicted that I would become an internationally known evolutionary biologist with colleagues around the world. I’d spent my earlier professional life as a contented physician for over 35 years in academic and private practice. However, a chance encounter with a ‘boy named Sue’ changed everything for me in an unpredictable moment. I’m talking about ‘Sue’, the magnificent Tyrannosaurus rex fossil in the grand rotunda of the Field Museum in Chicago. I arrived there on a chance visit one late fall afternoon while attending a medical meeting in Chicago. Prior to entering that rotunda, I had never spent any real time considering evolution biology. That discipline had nothing to do with my medical practice. However, one look at that startling Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton triggered an unanticipated series of questions. The specific reason for that unforeseen reaction was that there are many surprising resemblances between the bony anatomy of a Tyrannosaurus rex and our human skeleton. Given the differences in scale, that must sound unlikely. However, many of the specific anatomic features, such as the shape of the thigh bone and pelvis, aren’t that far apart. For reasons that I still can’t precisely explain, I felt a strong sense that I needed to try to understand how this magnificent creature came to be and abruptly disappeared after dominating the planet for over 6 million years. From that one improbable moment, one thing led to another. Now, many subsequent years later, and by dint of several fortunate occurrences, I’ve been privileged to offer an entirely new evolutionary dynamic for scientific scrutiny that concentrates on our basic cells and how they interact with our vital microbial companions.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
There is no doubt that the most interesting story of my career is the one I just recounted. I could never have imagined launching in a completely different direction with such zeal. I never saw it coming. However, I was blessed by having an extensive background in science. There is a message here for your readers. You never can be sure what opportunities might open. You decide whether or not to pursue a passion, even if it makes no sense to anybody else.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful for who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
This question particularly resonates with me since I can mention two individuals who made all the difference in my success. The first was my now deceased brother-in-law. He was a brilliant lawyer and intensely curious. When I presented my arguments to him, I had just received a first rejection from a journal. It was crushingly negative to the point of ridicule. The reviewers had no understanding of cellular dynamics and closed minds. On the contrary, my brother-in-law discerned a kernel of merit in my ideas when so many others were dismissive. Without his encouragement at a pivotal moment, my efforts would have dwindled, and I would not be writing this. I was also blessed to meet a remarkable biologist, John Torday, who became my early invaluable collaborator. The opportunities to exchange ideas and debate his unconventional insights were indispensable to me.
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
I thank you for the compliment. I am a successful leader now in evolutionary and cellular biology. However, part of that success was that I was not particularly successful as a physician administrator. There was a period when I was the administrative head of a large group of practicing physicians, but I never really distinguished myself in that role. However, I did learn from my mistakes.
I can definitely identify those traits that currently contribute to my success. The foremost is perseverance. I’ve never been highly talented in anything. I make up for that, or at least I try to, by chugging away at it those things that are important to me. I’ll keep at it. For example, I’ve been a runner for over 55 years. I have no talent for it other than my willingness to do it every day. I think sticking at that activity enabled me to diligently pursue other more complex projects with the required discipline even though I found them difficult and stressful. By sticking to something over a long period of time, you develop a rhythm of working at it every day and chipping away at it. In that way, you make small but meaningful incremental progress. This is the specific characteristic that has been most instrumental in my success. Secondly, I am quite willing to take chances. My unusual willingness to step away from my successful medical practice and attempt an entirely unlikely career, knowing that the chances of recognition were slight, defines risk-taking. Risk-taking is necessary to achieve worthwhile personal goals. Thirdly, I am genuinely optimistic. Myriad obstacles were apparent. Still, I had boundless self-confidence and optimism. Risk-taking and optimism are two sides of the same coin.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of our interview about health and longevity. To begin, can you share with our readers a bit about why you are an authority in the fields of health, wellness, and longevity? In your opinion, what is your unique contribution to the world of wellness?
Based on 7 books and dozens of peer-reviewed scientific articles, I am an internationally recognized evolutionary biologist. My area of expertise is in cellular biology, and that permits me to offer some fresh perspectives on longevity and wellness. Surprisingly, even though we are, by definition, cellular beings, this approach is relatively uncommon. Biologists generally approach health matters by thinking of the whole organism in the context of our genes. Obviously, genes are crucial. However, what has been little appreciated is that genes are tools of intelligent cells. Every one of your cells is intelligent, and so are the trillions of companion, partnering cellular microbes that constitute your essential microbiome. Studying our genes will offer many valuable cues toward longevity. However, a more productive and complete understanding will derive from carefully delving into how our intelligent cells cooperate and a deeper understanding of our vital immune system.
Seekers throughout history have traveled great distances and embarked on mythical quests in search of the “elixir of life,” a mythical potion said to cure all diseases and give eternal youth. Has your search for health, vitality, and longevity taken you on any interesting paths or journeys? We’d love to hear the story.
There is only one genuinely exciting path for me. My work is dedicated to uncovering the specifics of the cellular dynamics that make you ‘you’. We learn crucial new lessons about biology in general and ourselves in particular by exploring this avenue of research. Others delight in traveling to different locations and experiencing their remarkable scenery or culinary delights. For me, I’m always on a thrilling journey. Few would argue that an archaeologist looking for an ancient tomb or a paleontologist roaming vast distances to find a crucial fossil are on exciting adventures. I’m on that same type of exploration I just conduct it differently. Finding the next better biological truth and communicating that to others is the single most interesting path I can take. Along the way, I’ve made some wonderful friends and learned some valuable lessons.
Based on your research or experience, can you please share your “5 Things You Need To Live A Long & Healthy Life”? (Please share a story or an example for each)
The critical factors for gaining a long and happy life may seem mundane, but they are the key stepping stones to optimizing longevity and well-being.
The first and most important is ‘moderation in all things’. Our cells teach us that a long and healthy life is one of balance. That equipoise pertains to all our choices, …. weight, alcohol consumption, exercise, diet, work, and relaxation. Every one of these must be part of a living essential balance. There are very few things that are entirely bad for you, although two can be mentioned. If you want to live a long and happy life, don’t smoke and don’t do drugs. Apart from those, there are no real absolutes. It is always about balance. Just as it is true for our body cells, it is just the same for our microbiome. Nearly all of our partnering microbes are ‘pathobionts’ That means they can be either beneficial or harmful, depending on context. Very few are entirely bad or absolutely beneficial. So, in every aspect of our life, it’s the balance between forces that matters most.
Of all the areas under our control with respect to longevity and well-being, diet is probably the most significant. Even here, the main dictum is ‘moderation in all things. Research indicates that there is no one-size-fits-all pattern to how various diets impact our development, metabolism, or sense of well-being. Each of us is an individual, so it’s incumbent on every person to experiment to see what works best for them. Research studies indicate that, in general, the best metabolic parameters contributing to optimal health and well-being come from following the Mediterranean diet. It shouldn’t be surprising that this diet is an excellent example of moderation in all things. It also shifts away from the average American diet to place more emphasis on fiber intake and plants. One major advance in recent years is the accumulating evidence that supplementation with prebiotics and probiotics can contribute to an improved gut microbiome and a greater sense of well-being. In our contemporary society, which is quite deficient in healthy fiber intake, prebiotics and probiotics stimulate the ‘good’ microbes in your gut and the efficient use of fiber. This enhances a wide range of beneficial microbial-based metabolites, contributing to life-long well-being. Particular benefits accrue to your immune system, boosting your general resilience.
There are three other factors that are just as critical. Each is strongly supported by scientific research, but we also all know each is true intuitively. A sense of optimism is crucial for longevity and life-long well-being. Research on long-lived Japanese and Okinawan centenarians found that these privileged populations were highly optimistic despite many travails during their lives. Further, most insisted that this constructive outlook was crucial to their longevity. Secondly, we all have a need for loving relationships. Loneliness is horribly stressful, and chronic stress is a significant factor in premature mortality. These same centenarians also emphasized that point. Having close friends and partners and loving relationships is critical in living long and well.
Lastly, getting adequate sleep is imperative. Each of us is different, so there is no magic number. However, sticking to a regular sleep pattern and getting restorative sleep are among the most vital acts you can do to live longer and better. Studies on sleep-deprived mice prove that.
Can you suggest a few things needed to live a life filled with happiness, joy, and meaning?
Our cells teach us the main lesson here. The most deliberate pathway to a life filled with happiness, joy, and meaning is ‘a willingness to serve and to be served’. Our cells learned this lesson billions of years ago, which is exactly why they have been able to survive for billions of years. This life-sustaining rule permits our trillions of body cells and our partnering microbiome to work together seamlessly to create you. The same fundamental underscores all the basic rules of cellular life. Cells thrive through cooperation, collaboration, co-dependence, the willingness to trade resources, and certainly, competition. However, underlying all of these behavioral attributes that sustain cellular life, there is one that is paramount. Normal cells consistently act to protect the self-integrity of their partnering cells. They exist to serve and be served, which comes with natural limits. Cancer is the opposite, which is why it is so destructive.
All the attributes I discussed about longevity are also the keys to happiness and joy. A sense of well-being is cultivated by moderation in all things, a balanced diet, satisfying partnerships, loving relationships, and restful sleep.
To those, I’ll add one more. It is necessary to have a sense of purpose. We all require that. The best way to fulfill that requisite is through ‘a willingness to serve and to be served’.
Some argue that longevity is genetic, while others say that living a long life is simply a choice. What are your thoughts on this nature vs. nurture debate? Which is more important?
In our current state of scientific knowledge, it is impossible to exactly know the balance between nature and nurture. Clearly, both count. Your genetic inheritance has some say in the matter but much less than we used to believe. You do have control over your health through diet, exercise, and attitude. If you follow the things we’ve talked about above, you optimize your chances, given your physical endowment.
Life sometimes takes us on paths that are challenging. How have you managed to bounce back from setbacks in order to cultivate physical, mental, and emotional health?
The most important principle for resilience is to remember that there is a direct relationship between every aspect of our body and our mind. That includes our gut microbiome. We have recently uncovered a startling fact. Our gut microbes affect our moods and behaviors. Our microbial partners produce many crucial metabolites that support our physiology. One of these metabolites is a critical neurotransmitter, serotonin, that carries messages between nerve cells in our gut to our brain and circulates around the body. Supporting your gut microbiome is crucial to resilience, mood, and general health. All of the issues that are mentioned above factor into that equation.
Beyond this vital connection, there is one other factor that is irreplaceable. In a time of tragedy and stress, nothing replaces the love of concerned friends and family. This is your true support network. No one is so strong as to cope well without the help of others. This is the ‘willingness to be served’ that I mentioned above. Just as much as you serve others to enhance the quality of your life, it is just as important to be willing to accept the service of others when in need. That simple act of gracious acceptance of their support is imperative for your well-being and reciprocally for theirs. We all live within these reverberating connections, and they form the fabric of resilience that underpins living a longer and better life. There is no solitary pathway to a long and happy life. Life exists through its connections.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
“Discovery follows discovery, each both raising and answering questions, each ending a long search, and each providing the new instruments for a new search.” J. Robert Oppenheimer, physicist
This quote is instructive and inspirational for a scientist such as myself. All scientists realize that their work builds on the brilliance of others. Through our own efforts, we participate in trying to discern the next better truth, just as they did. In turn, the following generation will build anew. It instructs us to remember that none of us will find any ultimate truth. Still, we derive exhilarating encouragement by knowing that our lives have had a useful purpose. We have served by helping to sustain that stream of human progress
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I am delighted to be asked this question because that is the express purpose of my new book, Bioverse, which explains why you are a cellular being and what that means for your life and future. There is a particular point of emphasis in the book: we are cellular beings, and there is much that we can learn from our cells. I’m not speaking only about cellular metabolism and how it affects our lives. I’m also directly addressing those living principles that sustain us as ‘superorganisms’ as amalgamations of tens of trillions of cells. Our cells are in a constantly negotiated partnership among our body cells and are partnering microbiome. What do our trillions of cells teach us? Our cells have learned the art form of how to cooperate, collaborate, trade resources, and compete. Their ‘secret sauce’ is that our cells do that and still maintain each other’s self-integrity. They naturally seem to know that you ‘serve yourself best by serving others’. We humans haven’t mastered this same art form. We are addicted to hierarchies and gaining a preferential advantage over others. So, the movement I want to start is having people understand that there is a set of natural rules that maintain well-being and order in biology across our planet. These same rules should become our human-scale narrative. Derivatively, by doing so, we become better planetary stewards. There is no doubt that we, as humans, have been granted special privileges on our planet. However, with those privileges come responsibilities and the need for constraints. Learning to get along with one another as our cells instruct us is the best path for improving our lives and maintaining planetary balance.
What is the best way for our readers to continue to follow your work online?
Readers are encouraged to connect with me at ourbioverse.com. If they are interested in an excellent science feed, take a look at my Twitter page @billmillermd