As your typical Baby Boomer, desperately hanging onto any remaining shreds of youth, I sometimes reflect that no matter how much I go to the gym or the beauty salon, it’s a losing cause. Human beings were designed to expire shortly after we’ve successfully reproduced. And for many millennia, we did exactly that. Any caveman who lived to 25 was an ancient, toothless wonder, and even a few centuries ago the average lifespan was 40. Thanks to modern medicine and prosperity, that’s improved by a whopping 75 percent—the average man now lives to 75 and the average woman to 80. So has medicine come up with the Next Big Thing to boost it way beyond that?
That seemed like a good question to kick off this “Top Doctors” issue, so I sought out Dr. Bruce Robinson, chief of geriatrics at Sarasota Memorial Hospital. He smiled when he heard my question. “There isn’t anything new,” he replied. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do. “In your 40s and 50s, you can design for quality of life later,” he said. Here’s how.
Get reasonable medical care. You may not need the much-vaunted annual physical, but certain tests and treatments can extend your life—a colonscopy at 50, medicine for high blood pressure. (To see his recommended list, click here.)
Exercise regularly. Aerobic ability, strength and flexibility diminish with age. Do something vigorous for 30 minutes at least three days a week (more is better) and some weight training as well. (A study that followed 1,500 men for 20 years found the strongest third lived 40 percent longer than the others.) As you age, you’re going to run into injuries and obstacles. “Adjust for them,” advises Robinson, who after several injuries has switched from basketball to swimming. Choose an activity you enjoy, so you’ll keep doing it. To counter the boredom of doing laps, Robinson listens to music and books on an under-water MP3 player. He calls regular exercise “prehab”—insurance you’ll recover better when the inevitable disease or injury strikes.
Follow a prudent diet—but you knew that. The big news for those of us who like an occasional glass of wine? Recent studies show that abstaining from alcohol is actually a health risk. But so is excessive drinking. Recommended: one drink a day for women, two for men.
Don’t smoke or indulge in other high-risk behavior, like forgetting to fasten your seat belt. The famous eight-decade-long “Longevity Project” found that contrary to popular belief, conscientious people outlive the happy-go-lucky—they’re more likely to protect their health and engage with their work, also a good predictor of longevity. (Which means retiring early to play golf and laze by the pool is not a smart lifespan choice.)
Stay mentally active. This can both improve and extend your life. Wisdom comes with maturity, Robinson concedes, “but pure mental power drops after 28 and just keeps going.”
Indeed, much as we may imagine we can stay forever vital, just like those smiling seniors in so many advertisements, Robinson warns, “You will lose something. Age is about loss.”
And that’s why, he tells me, I’m asking the wrong question. It’s not about living as long as we possibly can. He’s seen how even the most privileged and successful men and women can feel “empty” and “forgotten” after 90, isolated from a world that’s moved on without them. He once asked such a group whether, if they could, they’d choose just to not wake up the next day. “More than half said yes,” he says.
“If your only goal is to see how many days you can amass between birth and death, you’re missing the point,” he insists. Instead, “focus on making the story of your life as beautiful as possible.” The best stories are rich with love, experiences and meaning, and the most beautiful stories aren’t always the longest. But every story, he emphasizes, has a final chapter, and we cheat ourselves if we fail to recognize that.
“I’ve seen too many broken stories,” says Robinson, as he’s watched people waste their last days in horrific, hopeless treatments instead of finding joy with loved ones and peace by reflecting on “the rightness of the life they’ve lived.”