Healthy To A Hundred: Dr MeiLan Han of the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care at the University of Michigan On 5 Things You Need To Live A Long, Healthy, & Happy Life

An Interview With Savio P. Clemente

Savio P. Clemente
Authority Magazine

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Preserving our mental health is important for longevity. This past year, the volume of work has nearly driven me to a breaking point at times. This led me to reshuffle my life to better prioritize my mental health. For me, this might mean getting some exercise, reading a good book, spending time with family and building and maintaining friendships.

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. MeiLan Han.

MeiLan Han, MD MS, is a Professor of Medicine in the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care at the University of Michigan. Dr. Han received her medical degree from the University of Washington in Seattle, WA. She completed her residency in Internal Medicine and fellowship in Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine at the University of Michigan. Dr. Han has also completed a master’s degree program in Biostatistics and Clinical Study Design at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

​Dr. Han is co-chair of the University of Michigan COPD Quality Improvement Committee and co-authored the University of Michigan COPD Guidelines. Dr. Han’s research has focused on defining phenotypes in COPD using imaging. She is a lead investigator for several NIH sponsored COPD studies. She also serves on the scientific advisory committees for both the COPD Foundation and American Lung Association and serves as a spokesperson for the American Lung Association. She is currently an Associate Editor for the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine and serves on the editorial boards for Thorax, Lancet Respiratory Medicine and Journal of the COPD Foundation. She is also a member of the Global Obstructive Lung Disease scientific committee which is charged with developing internationally an internationally recognized consensus statement on COPD diagnosis and management.

Dr. MeiLan Han, MD, MS, Professor and Chief of the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care at the University of Michigan, is an expert pulmonologist specializing in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), rare lung diseases and women’s respiratory health. As both an expert and leader in this space, Dr. Han’s expertise serves multiple roles, from lead investigator for several National Institutes of Health (NIH) sponsored COPD studies to serving on the scientific advisory committees for the COPD Foundation and American Lung Association, along with the board of directors for the COPD Foundation. Dr. Han’s deep, clinical background, grounded in research and hands-on care, paired with her commitment to bettering the lives of all patients suffering respiratory ailments, positions her as a trusted voice in the public space. This includes her role as a spokesperson for the American Lung Association and her writings, her personal blog and her book titled, “Breathing Lessons: A Doctor’s Guide to Lung Health.”

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’?

I grew up in a small town in rural Idaho and had originally wanted to stay in the Northwest to care for underserved patient populations. I ended up completing my residency and pulmonary fellowship at the University of Michigan where I discovered a passion for research. Ultimately, I decided I could help more people through research and working with organizations such as the American Lung Association and COPD Foundation. Throughout my career, I have been working to increase awareness and education around lung health, and I encourage patients and their providers to maintain a healthy, collaborative dialogue. For me, it has always been about raising awareness of the needs of the community, especially in areas that are not prioritized by public health authorities, are largely misunderstood by the public due to prevalent misconceptions or do not traditionally lead the health news cycle.

Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

I really was never supposed to be in the position I currently hold as chief of pulmonary and critical care medicine at the University of Michigan. I flunked out of the lab when I was a fellow and was originally hired into my position to focus on clinical care, and not as a physician scientist seeking a tenured position. I honestly don’t think anyone at that point thought I had significant academic or leadership potential. But I took every opportunity along the way to increase my skillsets. I developed a passion for clinical research and learned to lead research teams. I soon found that what drives me is having an impact on people’s lives, both patients as well as physicians. This ethos is what I call my “true north” and guides my decision making. And now I am able to not only help patients live better lives but also to foster the development of the next generation of physicians.

Is there a particular person you are grateful for who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I was fortunate to have a very good mentor and sponsor early on in my career. To this day, we work quite closely together. The funny thing is that he initially refused to work with me, insisting he did not have time. It took years of hard work for me to earn his trust, and sometimes I forget how hard it was in the beginning. In fact, when I originally asked if he would mentor me, he turned me down! But I worked very hard to prove myself, and ultimately, he came around. I have been very fortunate to have someone who often creates a seat at the table for me.

Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Perhaps the most important trait is that I’m resilient. Things haven’t always been easy for me, but I also do not give up easily. The hardships I have personally experienced or witnessed have also instilled within me a sense of compassion. I think this helps me be a better link between people and a better leader for my teams. It inspires loyalty and brings people together. I also believe that I am a good communicator, particularly when it comes to breaking down complicated concepts into easily digestible pieces. This helps me function as a translator when talking to scientists of various disciplinary perspectives. It also helps my ability to communicate with patients.

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?

As a physician and chief of the division of pulmonary and critical care at the University of Michigan, I have dedicated my life to understanding human health, and in particular, lung health. I have done a lot of research to help physicians understand the nature of lung disease, particularly for patients who may not meet our current criteria for having “lung disease.” However, perhaps my greatest contribution to the public is my book, “Breathing Lessons: A Doctor’s Guide to Lung Health.” I penned this book at the beginning of the pandemic because so many people had questions about how we breathe and what happens when lungs fail. Through writing that book, I realized there are also a lot of measures we can individually take to promote good lung health that people may not be aware of, so this is a huge focus of the book as well.

Has your search for health, vitality, and longevity taken you on any interesting paths or journeys?

As a pulmonologist working often with COPD patients, I have long been aware of the issues surrounding lung disease. In general, chronic lung diseases such as COPD receive very little attention from the media and public in general, particularly relative to the disease burden. Heart health gets a lot of attention, but the state of our lungs — which provide oxygen and allow us to speak, sing and smell — historically has not received the same amount of concern.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic really put a spotlight on this and highlighted everything we do not know about the lungs. I found myself bombarded with questions about how the lungs worked and what happens when lungs fail. Suddenly, everyone wanted to know how to take care of their respiratory system, but most people have no idea how healthy or unhealthy their lungs are.

This took me further down the path of working to close the gap — to understand lung disease and develop treatments for a better future. I had the opportunity to educate people about some of these concepts, which ultimately led to the book that I published. I realized there really was no resource that explained in clear terms how the lungs work, how lung disease affects the lungs, and perhaps more importantly, a resource that discussed the concept of lung health in-depth.

Based on your research or experience, can you please share your “5 Things You Need To Live A Long & Healthy Life”? A story or example for each would be appreciated.

  1. I think the first principle is to be mindful of what you let into your body, particularly the air you breathe. When we go out and get our hands dirty, we take it for granted that we can wash our hands off afterward. You cannot do that with your lungs, and yet we breathe in polluted air all the time without a second thought. So now I try to be mindful of the air quality around me, both indoor and outdoor. I take steps to improve the air quality within my home and reduce exposures to bad air quality days outside the home. While the lungs can break down some of the pollutants we breathe in, there is much that can never be truly cleaned away and remains in the lungs for a lifetime, so we all need to pay more attention.
  2. I’ve also learned to be more mindful of how I care for my body itself. Aerobic exercise, strength training and maintaining flexibility are all important aspects of anti-aging. But I have also learned that certain exercises are harder on the body than others. I have also learned I will not do things I hate. For instance, I have never enjoyed running, so I finally just gave up on it. I now enjoy walking and spinning. In the past few years, I have also taken up Pilates which helps me maintain muscle tone and flexibility, particularly now that I spend hours on zoom calls every day.
  3. I do my best to keep up on recommended health screenings and vaccinations. I will be honest, like many people, I let things lapse during the pandemic, but I am trying to be better now; however, I did not let my vaccinations lapse. Getting the updated COVID-19 booster is very important as we are now beginning to see hospitalizations for people who did not keep their boosters updated. People need protection from the new variants. But other aspects of health screening are important too, such as mammograms, colon cancer screening and lung cancer screening for appropriate individuals. Many people may not know this, but the recommended age for both colon cancer screening and lung cancer screenings just dropped. For colon cancer screening, most adults should begin a screening program now at age 45. For lung cancer, the US Preventive Services Task Force now recommends screening for individuals aged 50 to 80 who have smoked and are either still smoking or have quit within the past 15 years. Not smoking or quitting if you are smoking not only reduces risk for lung cancer and COPD but also a myriad of other illnesses such as cardiovascular disease.
  4. This year I have also taken steps to reduce alcohol consumption. Heavy alcohol consumption has been linked to liver and heart disease. Recent data has also linked lower to moderate drinking levels to increase risk for cancer.
  5. Preserving our mental health is important for longevity. This past year, the volume of work has nearly driven me to a breaking point at times. This led me to reshuffle my life to better prioritize my mental health. For me, this might mean getting some exercise, reading a good book, spending time with family and building and maintaining friendships.

Can you suggest a few things needed to live a life filled with happiness, joy, and meaning?

I think it is so important to find joy in all aspects of life, and this comes down to perspective. I recommend you start by defining your core values — what is most important to you — and then find places where your passions align. For me, this is the space between medicine and helping other people. I am also realizing that with gratitude comes an appreciation and joy for every moment. And gratitude can be incredibly powerful medicine. For me, I am the happiest when I can impact those around me in a positive way. This is why I became a doctor, and to be honest, it is part of the reason I have chosen to focus much of my career on helping patients with COPD. This is a group of patients that tend to be socioeconomically disadvantaged. Because they tend to be blamed for their illness, this disease does not attract the same level of public sympathy and funding that many other conditions do. Someone must stand up for these patients to raise awareness and secure research dollars. In trying to understand why lung disease in general does not receive the attention it deserves, I have come to realize that in part this is because people do not understand how the lungs work or how lung disease develops. If we do not understand something, we tend to ignore it. How well you breathe is so important to your overall wellness. I want to encourage people to understand the risks that might be in their own lives, understand their own symptoms, understand how to protect their own health, how to live longer and healthier lives and what an integral part lung health is to human health in general. This is how you can become a true partner in your health and wellness — which is a critical component of living a happy, fulfilling life.

Some argue that longevity is genetic, while others say that living a long life is simply a choice. What are your thoughts on this narrative vs. nurture debate? Which is more important?

As a physician or even a parent, it is not hard to recognize that both nature and nurture impact our long-term health. For an individual, however, there’s really nothing you can do about your genetics, so the best we can do is focus on making healthy choices.

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?

Things do not always go as we plan. I think we must remember that sometimes we have to take the bad with the good. But sometimes, the bad can be really bad. I have had plenty of difficult things happen to me. On a personal note, I spent over five years undergoing infertility treatments, had a miscarriage and a prolonged hospitalization before the eventual birth of my son. He is now a healthy nine-year-old. That was a very dark time for me. But when faced with something difficult, I give myself some time to wallow and grieve, but then you have to pick yourself up and get moving again. To the extent that I am able, I try to retain optimism for the future and remain curious as to what exciting opportunities might be around the corner despite setbacks. I am also a believer of the idea that that if you keep your goals close at hand, then your life will generally head in that direction, and it will influence the choices you make and the opportunities you pursue. It is not magic. It is the same idea as looking far down the ski hill to where you want to be, and your body will naturally turn in that direction.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

I love quotes. For those who follow me on Instagram, you will find I like to post a motivational quote every Monday. It is difficult to choose, but if I had to choose one it might be this one from Dolly Parton: “Find out who you are and do it on purpose.” The essence of this quote, for me, is that everyone has unique talents to share with the world. The goal is to understand what we are truly best at and then focus our energies in that direction. But it does take time and introspection to understand ourselves in that way. It is a journey I have been on over the past few years. Understanding where our energies are best spent makes prioritizing much easier. This is what led me to, for instance, writing my book as well as leading my team of physicians at the University of Michigan.

If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I am passionate about educating the world about the importance of lung health. If the pandemic taught us anything, it is that our ability to breathe is more fragile than we ever realized. Between pandemics and air pollution, the threats to lung health are increasing by the day. If we do not begin investing in improving air quality, screening for lung disease and investing in lung health research, we will not be prepared for the next pandemic.

What is the best way for our readers to continue to follow your work online?

Thank you for asking. You can find more information about my book, “Breathing Lessons: A Doctor’s Guide to Lung Health,” and about me on my website, drmeilanhan.com, as well as my Twitter (@meilan_han), LinkedIn (Dr. MeiLan Han), Facebook (Dr. MeiLan Han) and Instagram (@drmeilanhan) social media accounts. I would also encourage you to visit ListentoYourLungs.com and SpeakUpforCOPD.com to learn more about the resources available for caregivers and patients with COPD.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent on this. We wish you only continued success.

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Savio P. Clemente
Authority Magazine

TEDx Speaker, Media Journalist, Board Certified Wellness Coach, Best-Selling Author & Cancer Survivor