In Search of the Fountain of Youth

I am regularly asked by friends, relatives, and even strangers: Where does one need to go to drink from the fountain of youth? Being a gerontologist (someone who studies the aging process and the experience of growing old), I guess it comes with the territory. It is not surprising that people want to know the secret to a long and satisfying life free of some of the changes and challenges that inevitably accompany the process of growing older.

youthOf course, I always feel bad that I am unable to direct the person who has posed this question to an address you can enter into your GPS or provide them with the coordinates of a destination point on a map where they will discover what they seek—everlasting youthfulness, vigor, fitness, and health. Like any search undertaken to find the equivalent of the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, I'm afraid discovery of the fountain of youth will ultimately turn out to be an unsuccessful search.

On the other hand, I am delighted to say that we all have the potential to extend our years of good health and quality living further into the future, than at any other time in the history of human civilization. The fact is, more than half of the premature disabilities and deaths in this country could have been prevented. A relatively straightforward combination of good habits, good genes, and a little luck will take the average person a long way down the road toward being able to taste the sweet elixir of life from the elusive fountain of youth.

Just having completed the draft of a book for mid-life and older men, with my colleague Ed Thompson, on how to live long and prosper, defining the short list of daily habits and behaviors that will maximize the likelihood of a healthful old age, has become exceedingly clear. And this advice, by the way, supported by the latest research, applies very well to midlife and older women as well. I'm betting that much of it will come as no surprise to many of you.

So what does current research tell us? If you are 50 years of age and older—listen up. It is all about prevention and early detection. I believe the advice can be summarized in ten straightforward but critically important lifestyle choices that we should already have made for ourselves or else should be poised to make as soon as possible—preferably right after reading this article.

1. Don’t smoke.

Smoking could be the worst habit—and don’t forget to minimize your exposure to second-hand smoke. Tobacco use is estimated to be the leading cause of preventable death and not using it could be the best way to avoid disability, pain, and your premature demise. The health risks caused by smoking increase with how long and how much you have smoked. Smoking significantly increases your chances of getting lung cancer, heart disease, and having a stroke. The good news is that once you quit, your risk of heart disease, stroke, and several cancers declines dramatically over time (in some cases to virtually the same levels as nonsmokers), as does your risk of infections. At the same time your circulation and lung functioning improve, your lungs can clean themselves again, your blood pressure and pulse rate decrease, your oxygen levels increase, you stop polluting the air, and everything about you smells better. Just say no!

2. Eat well.

Overeating, eating the wrong things, eating mindlessly, and eating too fast are the four main culprits that keep you from eating properly. Be a smart eater—include the recommended amounts of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, dairy and low-fat foods in your diet. Avoid refined sugars, trans fats, and saturated fats found in deep-fried foods or store-bought white bread, pastries and cookies. Rather, eat complex carbohydrates, unsaturated fats, lean protein, fiber, and vegetables. Limit your cholesterol and salt intake and drink 8 ounces of water eight times a day. By the way, eating in moderation (smaller portions as we grow older) allows us to enjoy virtually any and all the foods we like.

3. Control your weight.

Weight gain creeps up on us over time and especially as we grow older. Many think the obesity problem has reached epidemic levels in America. Don’t risk the potentially devastating consequences of being significantly over weight. Make sure your body mass index (BMI) is in the normal range for your height and age. If it isn’t, do what you need to do to get it in range (like adhering to the other recommendations listed here—especially staying physically active and eating sensibly). Personally, I have found helpful what I like to call the “five pound zone.” Each of us, based on BMI scales, has an ideal weight, however, that weight can vary depending on your height and your overall body structure. I have discovered a five pound zone within which I feel comfortable. If I am a little above or a little below that “ideal BMI number”, I don’t sweat it. You can still have a big meal from time to time and put on a couple of pounds. Just stay within your zone and don’t turn one big meal into two or three.

4. Stay physically and mentally active.

Being active benefits us in so many ways. It increases our circulation, metabolism, mental sharpness and mood, energy level, flexibility, mobility and outlook on life—while reducing our aches and pains, loss of muscle and bone density, loss of testosterone (for men), joint stiffness and poor appetite. At the same time it reduces the risk of many illnesses (e.g., heart disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease).

Exercise moderately for 30 minutes or more five times a week. This can include walking. Or do vigorous exercise for 20 minutes or more three times a week (e.g., running, tennis, swimming, basketball, etc.). And don’t forget your brain—an active mind is a healthy one so read books and newspapers, do puzzles, take senior college classes, discuss current events with friends, or become a member of a book club. In other words, use it or lose it!

5. Stay connected to people and the world.

Maintaining personal relationships and helping others is good for you physically and emotionally. Isolation from others has been shown to be a risk factor for a variety of chronic illnesses and earlier death. Being able to turn to a network of family, friends, neighbors, and work buddies for support and socializing reduces life’s stresses. People who have regular social contact with others and are in committed relationships have fewer illnesses and recover more quickly from diseases. The same thing is true of those who volunteer in the community—participating in neighborhood projects and activities is associated with better health and feelings of well-being…not to mention the fact that it will give you a sense of purpose, meaning, routine, and identity.

6. Drink in moderation.

Drinking too much alcohol has a long list of negative effects on our physical and mental health – the list is far too long to include here. Know that as we get older, our bodies do not process alcohol as effectively and efficiently as they did when we were younger. Unfortunately, the risk of alcohol (and other substance) abuse is increasing among older adults and is expected to continue to rise as baby boomers enter into old age. Everyone should be especially careful about drinking alcohol if they take multiple prescription drugs because of the possibility of negative interactions and side effects. The basic rule of thumb is that women should have no more than one alcoholic drink a day and men no more than two. If you feel you need to control your drinking try to be conscious of your drinking habits—know how much you have had to drink, plan ahead so you know what days you will drink, pace yourself, eat when you drink, include one glass of water for every drink you consume, avoid situations that entail drinking, and remember how much you want to stay healthy so you can enjoy the good things in life.

7. Get plenty of sleep.

Getting enough sleep is just as important as eating well and staying active. Adequate sleep increases your energy, capacity to exercise, mood, memory, ability to concentrate, skin elasticity, muscle and bone healing, sexual performance, and immunity levels. It also reduces your body fat, cholesterol, and blood pressure levels. Most people should get seven hours or more of sleep every night although there are variations from person to person. Regular aerobic exercise and strength training will help you sleep better and longer. Napping too much during the day can be disruptive to being able to sleep soundly for an extended periods of time.

8. See your doctor regularly and follow his or her advice.

Not seeing your doctor is nothing to be proud of. It is not a measure of strength or independence. If you are over the age of 50 you should schedule a doctor’s visit annually and get all of the preventive screenings that are recommended. Specifically, get a physical exam, blood tests (including cholesterol and a Prostate-Specific Antigen test if you’re a man), urinalysis, digital rectal exam, and blood pressure check annually, an electrocardiogram and a colonoscopy every 3-4 years, and a tuberculosis test every five years. You need to report any troubling symptoms or medical complaints that you have… your own and your family’s illnesses and surgical history. Tell all your good, bad, and ugly eating habits, tobacco and alcohol use, and level of physical activity. This is not the time to be shy so speak up!

9. Stay calm, cool, and collected.

Stress can be a killer. Unchecked emotional strain and tension is associated with diabetes, risk of infections, higher cholesterol, stroke, heart disease, hypertension, poor memory, migraine headaches and cancer. It can also bring variety of emotional complications including exhaustion, depression, and burnout. Find ways to manage it. Take time to relax, exercise, practice good nutrition, and enlist the help and support of others. If need be, consider medications and psychological treatment (cognitive behavioral therapy is the most common—CBT).

10. Don't take unnecessary risks.

You have the ability to completely avoid a number of situations that could be hazardous to your health. This includes not drinking or texting while driving and not driving when you are sleepy or are taking certain medications. It also includes using sunscreen and wearing protective clothing in the sun, keeping your home free of potential hazards that could increase your chances of a serious fall, and practicing safe sex.

I firmly believe that in large part we have the ability to adhere to many of the recommendations for a good life listed above. Does that mean we do not all have moments of weakness when we sway from the straight and narrow and don't do the right thing in terms of own well-being? Of course not. I'm as guilty as anyone else. But, just like when we fell off the bicycle when we were first learning to ride a two-wheeler, we need to get back on and keep trying. Eventually, most of us get it right.

I am convinced that sticking to as much of the lifestyle game plan laid out above as you possibly can, combined with a little bit of luck (and reasonably good family genes), will add years to your life and life to your years well into advanced old age. I may not be able to give you directions to the fountain of youth but please consider these recommendations—the next best thing. Charting the course for your second half of life is up to you and you alone. Hopefully some of these healthy daily habits will help you on that journey. Stay well.



Dr. Len Kaye is the Director of the University of Maine Center on Aging and a professor at the University of Maine School of Social Work.