In the past half-century or so, the average American lifespan has pushed out from sixty-plus years to eighty-plus. And yet the buzz in research circles is about radically extending longevity with hi-tech interventions using stem cells or gene therapies. But here’s what I know. If we’re not thinking about how we can live as long as possible, in good health, then we’re missing the boat.
Researchers call this “healthspan,” as opposed to “lifespan,” and it’s a basic, easy-to-grasp concept that neatly encapsulates everything that I’m guiding my patients and my readers to achieve. If we can enjoy our seventies and eighties and beyond without being diminished by chronic conditions like heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and arthritis, then we’ll have realized the goal of the anthropologist Ashley Montagu, who put it this way: “to die young as late as possible.” Because at a certain point in all of our lives, a different point for all us, we will fall apart, no matter how well and wisely we’ve lived. Whether that end-point is programmed in our genes, and whether research scientists can succeed in kicking the genetic can down the road, I couldn’t say. I’m not so interested in radical life extension. My mission is to radically compress the time we spend seriously ill near the end of our lives, from years (or decades) to months or even weeks. In other words, expanding healthspan!
Here’s the big picture:
It’s all about lifestyle.
Your health really is in your hands. The choices you make everyday, about how you eat, how you sleep, how you move and how you treat your family, friends and colleagues, play a huge role in what your body looks and feels like in your middle and senior years. The physical, the psychological and yes, even the spiritual are all part of the organic whole that is you. And, as I tell my patients, you want to follow a plan that addresses all of these dimensions. But do it at your own pace, week by week, month by month. Don’t overwhelm yourself by trying to change everything all at once.
In health or sickness, everything is connected.
There’s no such thing as being kind, or mean, to just one system in your body. Let’s say you overindulge with alcohol. You’re not just punishing your liver, you’re mucking up your metabolism, your brain function, your cardiovascular system. Same with sitting at your computer all day. Or eating a diet heavy on processed foods. The negative health effects cascade throughout the body. But thankfully for us, the reverse is true. When we eat clean, sleep well, move our bodies at regular intervals, and make sure not to get over-stressed, we are giving the gift of health to every system, every organ, every cell in our bodies.
Cool the fires of inflammation.
Nothing connects the health dots like chronic inflammation which we now understand helps drives most if not all of the common chronic diseases associated with aging — as well as the aging process itself! When we live the junk-food, sleep deprived, high-stress lifestyle, we’re provoking a defensive reaction that, unchecked, further undermines our health. The good news is, you have the power to stop it, and in so doing, protect yourself from a litany of health problems for years to come. For more specifics in tamping down chronic inflammation, check out my 17 simple fixes to help you tame inflammation.
So, how can you work on upgrading your healthspan game? Here’s my six-point guide to help get you there:
Green leafy vegetables. They’re your #1 ally: raw, sprouted, steamed, roasted, it’s all good. Most any kind of veggie provides an unbeatable combo of low calories and high doses of micronutrients, minerals and fiber, so eat them at every meal. Always think: real food, with as little processing or exposure to toxins as possible. In practice, that means buying organic or from your local farmer’s market. Don’t forget avocados, coconuts and extra virgin olive oil, all packed with healthy fats, and, unless you’re vegan or vegetarian, moderate amounts of organic, pasture-raised animal foods, plus small, oily or pole-caught fish to round out your healthspan-supportive diet.
Respect it and what it can do for you and then give it a higher priority in your life. Sleep is the body’s time to repair and recharge and, as we’ve recently discovered, it’s when the body cleans out the cellular garbage that builds up during the course of the day. Make sure you’re getting a restful 7 or 8 hours a night to protect both short and long-term memory. If you need a refresher on how to sleep well, check out these sleep tips.
Notice I didn’t use the word “exercise” which for a lot of people means squats and treadmill at the gym. Nothing wrong with that, in moderation, but a lot of us simply aren’t going to make the time. The key is movement, built into your regular day — getting up from your office chair to stretch every hour or so, or taking a walk in the neighborhood, or up and down office stairs, a couple of times a day. The body was built to move and if you plant it in a chair all day, bad things will happen, to your metabolism, your cardiovascular system, your muscles and joints. And if you can supplement the everyday stuff with a more vigorous work-out in the gym or a yoga or Pilates class, or with a swim or a jog, so much the better. For the time-pressed, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) provides the most bang for the exercise buck.
Our bodies are under assault, even if we’re usually not aware of it, from the thousands of toxic chemicals that are built into our convenience-driven consumer society. So, do a little research and only buy the cleanest, healthiest products (organic, where that’s applicable) across the board. When you’re shopping for routine items like household or personal care products, think low toxin. Same goes for anything you wrap yourself in, like clothing and bedding too. The fewer toxins, the better.
This one is definitely not optional. I urge you to consciously reserve time every time to slow down and give yourself a psychological and physiological mini-vacation. Some people do this best by tuning into their bodies with, for example, restorative yoga, others are better at just sitting in a hot bath or a steam/sauna chamber. But by far the best way to relax your body and quiet your mind is meditation, which comes with side effects of numerous other health benefits.
You can eat and exercise and de-stress like a morning TV talk show champ but if you’re feeling cut off from family and friends, not only will you be lonely, your healthspan will likely suffer too. Wherever you are in your life journey — a senior citizen who’s resigned to a shrinking social circle or a millennial who mostly connects through social media — push back against isolation. Consciously work on building new relationships (in person!) and renewing old ones. Take a moment every day to connect with the universe by letting yourself experience a moment of gratitude.