Monday, January 12, 2015

How long do you want to live?

I always find people's responses to this question fascinating. Broadly speaking, they fall into one of two categories:

#1 "I'm here for a good time, not a long time," and

#2 "I have so much that I want to experience and accomplish, I want to make it to 100 - or beyond!"

When I dig a little deeper, I usually find that those in category #1 associate aging with an inexorable decline into physical and mental decrepitude. Often, they've endured the almost unbearable pain of having to watch helplessly as a parent or grandparent succumbed to an incurable, progressively debilitating condition such as dementia or emphysema. This shapes their concept of aging to such a great extent, that they simply can't imagine wanting to be alive past the age of say, 70.

People with this negative concept of aging aim to pack as much pleasure into their lives as possible in the here and now, assuming that all too soon, they'll be so sick, worn out or demented that they are no longer capable of experiencing any pleasure and just want to end it all.

The sad thing is, the pleasures that they usually seek - rich food, illicit and licit drugs including alcohol and cigarettes, sedentary entertainment - almost inevitably lead to them developing the conditions that they fear!

It's a self-fulfilling prophecy: Heart disease, stroke, dementia and common types of cancer such as bowel, breast and prostate are 'age-related' only in the sense that if you consistently apply the causes of these diseases (the Western diet, too much booze, smoking and not enough exercise), your risk of developing them rises as you get older, in the same way that water running over a rock will eventually carve a channel in the rock. It's not time that creates the channel, or the illness; it's the application of cause over time.

Conversely, the consistent application of the 'causes' of health including a high-nutrient diet, regular exercise, nurturing relationships with others and a sense of purposeful engagement with life, results in physical vitality, mental sharpness and enthusiasm for life in one's latter years.

So if you're currently in category #1 - afraid that living longer just means enduring illness and incapacitation for longer - I highly encourage you to study and become inspired by individuals who are physically and mentally healthy in later life... like 100 year old Dr. Ellsworth Wareham, pictured above, who only retired at the age of 95 and still maintains his garden and home all by himself.

And if you're already in category #2 - keen to live a long and fulfilling life while maintaining your physical health and mental sharpness - then you'll want to pay close attention to the latest research on eating for longevity.

Researchers tracked over 70 000 Swedish men and women who were aged between 45 and 83 at the time of enrolment, for 13 years. They found that compared to those who ate 5 servings of fruits and vegetables per day, those who never consumed fruit and vegetables had a 53% higher mortality rate, which translated to lopping a full 3 years off their lifespan. Vegetable consumption accounted for the lion's share of extra lifespan.
Imagine how much extra healthy life-span you could enjoy, if you ate more than 5 servings per day! Personally, I eat 5 or more servings of vegetables just at lunchtime, and even more for dinner!
Previous research found that regular consumption of legumes (dried peas, beans and lentils) also provides a longevity leg-up. The "Food Habits in Later Life" (FHILL) study examined dietary patterns in 5 cohorts of elderly people (aged 70 +) in Japan, Sweden, Greece and Australia, and found that for every 20g increase in daily intake of legumes, the risk of dying dropped by 7-8%. Now that's worth more than a hill of beans!