How to Age Without “Getting Old”
And What Aging Means in the 21st Century
My great-grandmother Beulah passed away in 1981. She was 91.
Her daughter died in 1987 at the age of 74.
My great-grandfather Arthur passed away in 1985. He was 96.
His son died in 1996 at the age of 79.
My great-grandparents lived longer, healthier lives, it seems, than their children, contrary to what I was hearing about on the news or reading about in books.
And that is on my mother’s side…
My father’s parents were even less fortunate, passing away at the ages of 64 and 62.
My great-grandparents died of what could simply be called “old age”. They broke a hip, contracted pneumonia, and just couldn’t heal like they used to.
Three of my grandparents died from cancer.
My mother died from cancer, the metastatic medullary thyroid variety when she was 61. She was diagnosed around 1990, and she lived with it for over twenty years, through surgeries, radiation treatment, and chemotherapy.
In fact, it seemed to me like my parents’ generation, the “Baby Boomers” are getting cancer more than their parents’ generation. When I looked into this, I found dozens of articles on studies about this very phenomenon, like this one.
What I found is that it isn’t just cancer. It seems that the environment that we’ve been building around us for the past couple of centuries is poisoning us in myriad ways even as our scientific advances in medicine allow us to fight back against those negative effects.
We’ve been terraforming the Earth…into a place unfit for human life.
This isn’t an original thought. Most of you have already seen or heard this somewhere else.
The fact remains: We’re living in a world positively filled with pollutants of so many kinds they’re uncountable and untrackable. Just one of the many thousands of processes our industries utilize, fracking, is a direct threat to us and all the life around us that we know about, and yet continue to use with ever-increasing frequency.
Not only do our bodies have to engage in battle against our own biological imperatives that cause us to break down as we grow older, but we must also stave off a constant barrage of man-made poisons, radiation and harmful technological and cultural factors (like carpal tunnel syndrome or sedentary lifestyles).
We don’t just have higher cancer incidences. With the general changes in lifestyles, rise in consumerism other factors we have greater rates of obesity, heart attacks, and strokes. Deteriorative neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s are on the rise. Endocrine problems are happening more often, in many cases likely due to chemical pollutants like PCBs that find their way into our bodies in most things we eat and drink.
There is a constant tug-of-war between the intellectual side of humanity which knows these problems exist and works to reduce pollutants, and the part of human nature that insists on expanding by whatever means are possible.
What can we do to live healthier in an environment that we’ve engineered to be harmful to ourselves? How can we grow older on this Earth and make sure we are in the best shape possible?
Extreme and fad diets are often more marketing-powered than truly science-based. Think of the biggest brand names, the ones with bestselling books and frozen meals at the local supermarket. Most of them sell themselves as the “best”. The fact is, no one diet is exactly the best, because everyone’s body has genetic predispositions to its composition and metabolism.
There have been libraries of research done over the years, by anthropologists, dieticians, biologists and everyone in-between, that show how different peoples throughout the world seem to live healthfully and long due to their specific cultural food intake. One of these is the well-known “Mediterranean diet”.
The best diet is not a diet at all — It’s a philosophy. I call it VAR:
Variety and Response.
What it means is that if we eat a wide variety of foods, and pay attention to how our body responds to those foods, we can narrow down the best diet for ourselves. This will be dependent on many factors: your genetics, your activity level, your overall stress levels, your immune system, and where you live (i.e. what is available for you to actually eat).
The only rule is that you try your best to eat a majority of fresh food rather than processed foods.
To begin, eat differently for every meal in any given week, and keep some notes on how you feel both after each meal and then when you wake up the next day. It may take you a week or a month to narrow down what your body prefers. Go through your notes after every week and make a list of foods that seemed to help your body feel better. If something makes you feel tired or jumpy or stressed out, keep track of those and try to make sure you eat less of those things, less often. We don’t need to completely cut them out of our diet, just moderate them more.
There are definitely certain dietary principles that work for most people, such as ketosis, calorie restriction, and intermittent fasting. We should pay attention to those and use them as tools in certain circumstances, but they shouldn’t get in the way of the VAR philosophy.
For a great Medium Q&A about eating healthful variety of foods, check this out: The Last Conversation You’ll Ever Need to Have About Eating Right
Exercise the body…
Physical activity, in whatever form your own body allows, should be made a habit in your daily life. If one of your great loves in life is already long-distance running, cycling, weightlifting, swimming or pick-up basketball, by all means, continue. If you don’t have much of a physical life, you should try to incorporate vigorous cardiovascular movement for at least 20 minutes every day and three hours per week into your routine. Exercise offers tremendous benefits, and as long as you make it a habit you will increase your life expectancy by up to 3 or more years based on a 2012 study by Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the National Cancer Institute.
Remember to take breaks and get a lot of rest between periods of extreme exertion, and to eat (VAR-style) enough to suit your levels of activity. Your body needs time to recover and rebuild, and pushing too hard will cause buildups of damage that won’t be repaired properly and can result in musculoskeletal problems as you age, reducing your overall quality of life.
…and exercise the mind.
Keeping yourself active mentally can be as beneficial to your quality of life as you grow older just as much, if not more, than keeping yourself active physically.
Try to learn something new every day by reading and staying informed. Make a list at the beginning of every New Year of 12 new skills you want to learn: the basics of a language, how to play the guitar or knit, C++ coding, Photoshop retouching, salsa dancing (or salsa making). Read at least one new book every month.
Keep all parts of your mind engaged on a regular basis, everything from problem-solving (puzzles, games) to interpersonal relations (going out with friends or meetups with colleagues).
Take time to relax.
In our increasingly complex world, where at any given time there are at least a dozen tasks and distractions vying for our attention all while we are bombarded by stress-inducing information by the media at every turn, we need to be on the offensive when it comes to finding time to separate ourselves from the clutter.
“Relaxation” means different things to different people. Simply disconnecting from technology for a day can result in lower levels of stress hormones. Try doing this on one of your days off and see how your body reacts. Do you feel better, or more anxious? If you experience negative effects, this could be an indicator that your life may be a little off balance and you’ve been spending too much time handcuffed to your phone or computer. We should be able to walk away from screens for a while and not feel as though we are punishing ourselves.
While taking advantage of the best things our modern world offers, try to live more like people did 100, or even 200, years ago.
Many of us have more abundance in our lives now than our ancestors did centuries ago. We have technology that makes our lives easier and more productive, as well as access to medicines and healthcare that helps prevent us from becoming too ill or senescent to enjoy life past our 50s and 60s.
Things, in general, are better in many ways.
But now we are experiencing the negative effects of too much advancement: Our population is so large that humanity is harming the very planet we live on. Our businesses must produce so much for so many people that economic forces have resulted in the use of vast arrays of chemicals in our foods and products. Our abundance is harming us.
We have to work hard to try and reverse much of the damage we’ve done to our world.
As for the problems that are hurting us, and our children, we can counteract many of their effects: Eat more of a variety of natural, unprocessed foods, paying attention to how our bodies respond to them; remain active physically and mentally; and take time to allow ourselves to recuperate, in body and mind, so that we can retain connections to our living world and the people we care most about, for as long as possible.
What are some of your own tips on how to live a (good) long life? Let’s discuss in the comments.
Thank you for reading and sharing.