1. Abkhasia: Ancients of the Caucasus
1. Abkhasia: Ancients of the Caucasus
For many of us in the industrialized world today, our aging is a source of grief and anxiety. The elderly people we see are often senile, frail, and unhappy. As a result, rather than looking forward to growing old, we dread each passing birthday. Rather than seeing our later years as a time of harvesting, growth, and maturity, we fear that the deterioration of our health will so greatly impair our lives that to live a long life might be more of a curse than a blessing.
It is extraordinarily important for us today to replace the prevailing image and reality of aging with a new vision -- one in which we grasp the possibility of living all our days with exuberance and passion.
Few of us in the modern world are aware that there have been, and still are, entire cultures in which the majority of people live passionately and vibrantly to the end. Few of us realize that there are in fact societies of people who look forward to growing old, knowing they will be healthy, vital, and respected.
Even if you've eaten poorly and have not taken very good care of yourself, even if you've had more than your share of hardships and pain, I've written Healthy at 100 to show you how the choices you make today and tomorrow can greatly improve your prospects for the future. It will give you a chance to right any wrongs you've committed against your body. You'll see how to regain the strength and passion for life that you may have thought were gone forever.
Whether you are in your twenties or your eighties or somewhere in between, whether you consider yourself superbly fit or hopelessly out of shape, I believe you'll find in Healthy at 100 what you need in order to regenerate rather than degenerate as the years unfold. This book will show you how to regain, and to retain, more mental clarity, physical strength, stamina, and joy. In this book are steps you can take to shatter stereotypes and misconceptions about aging and to rejuvenate your mind and body. Here are practices you can start today in order to live with greater health and joy no matter what your age.
2. You talk about four specific cultures -- Abkhazians, Vilcabambans, Hunzans and Okinawans as examples of the world's exceptionally healthy and long lived peoples. How are their diets similar?
They are all low (by Western standards) in overall calories.
They are all high in good carbohydrates, including plenty of whole grains, vegetables, and fruits.
They are all "whole-foods" diets, with very little (if any) processed or refined foods, sugar, corn syrup, preservatives, artificial flavors, or other chemicals.
They all depend on fresh foods, eating primarily what is in season and locally grown rather than relying on canned foods or foods shipped long distances.
They are all low (though not super-low) in fat, and the fats come from natural sources, including seeds, nuts, and in some cases fish, rather than from bottled oils, margarines, or saturated animal fats.
They all derive their protein primarily from plant sources, including beans, peas, whole grains, seeds, and nuts.
3. You've long been an advocate for a vegetarian way of life. How do you know this bias hasn't colored your perspective?
In November 2005, National Geographic published a cover story that came to similar conclusions as I do in Healthy at 100. Titled "The Secrets of Living Longer," the article featured three contemporary groups of long-living people, all of whom turn out to eat a plant-based diet. At the conclusion of the issue, National Geographic summarized the "secrets of long life" in two words: "Go vegetarian."
There is no doubt that animal products are the main culprit in what is killing us. We can absolutely live better lives by minimizing our consumption of them.
4. Might the underlying reason for the Okinawans' health and longevity be some kind of genetic status? Might they be blessed with favorable genes that enable them to remain healthy when others fall ill?
The health and longevity of the elders in Okinawa have been studied with an extraordinary level of scientific rigor, and it is now widely understood that Okinawa is home to the world's healthiest documented elders, to the world's longest recorded life expectancies, and to the highest concentrations of verified centenarians in the world. Most importantly, the Okinawan elders are remarkably healthy even unto their last years. Despite living to such extremely old ages compared to Americans, they are 80% less likely to ever experience heart disease, and their cancer rates are orders of magnitude better than those found in the West. Compared to someone in the United States, an Okinawan elder is 85 percent less likely to die from breast cancer, 88 percent less likely to die from prostate cancer, 70 percent less likely to die from ovarian cancer, and 70 percent less likely to die from colon cancer.
Migration studies have found that when Okinawans move elsewhere and adopt the diets of their new locations, they get the same diseases at the same rates, and die at the same ages, as the people whose customs they embrace.
But by far the most dramatic evidence that genetics is not the primary reason for the blessings of Okinawan health can be seen today in the lifestyles and health of the younger Okinawans, who of course share the same genes as their elders. Sadly, the way of life that has produced such outstanding results for the elders is being abandoned by younger generations.
How has this happened? At the end of World War II, the American military seized massive amounts of Okinawan property in order to build numerous military bases and housing estates for American military families. Today, there are still more than fifty thousand U.S. military personnel and thirty-nine U.S. military bases in Okinawa. This massive presence has had a mammoth impact on the culture and lifestyle in Okinawa.
With the soldiers have come American fast-food restaurants. McDonald's, KFC, A&W, Burger King, and Baskin-Robbins have become commonplace. Okinawa now has more hamburger restaurants than anywhere else in Japan.
As a result, younger Okinawans today are eating a much more Western diet than their elders have ever eaten. They are consuming far more calories, far more fat, far more processed food, far more meat, sugar, and corn syrup.
The contrast could hardly be more striking. The elders are still eating their traditional diets filled with sweet potatoes, fresh vegetables, and tofu. But the younger residents of Okinawa, heavily influenced by the tens of thousands of U.S. troops based there, now spend three times more money per capita on processed meat and nearly five times more on canned foods than do the residents of any other Japanese prefecture.
The elder Okinawans, whose health and longevity have been so thoroughly documented, eat a diet that contains very little sugar or processed food. But when members of the younger generation buy food at markets, their shopping carts are filled with bacon, jelly rolls, sausage, and soda pop.
As you might expect, there have been health consequences to abandoning the ancestral Okinawan ways. Younger Okinawans today have the highest level of obesity in Japan, the worst cardiovascular risk profile, the highest risk of coronary heart disease, and the highest risk for premature death. What a stark and painful contrast this presents to their elders, who are the healthiest and most long-lived people ever thoroughly studied by modern science.
Today, Okinawans in their forties and fifties are increasingly overweight, and are more likely to die of heart attacks and cancer than their elders who are in their nineties and beyond. One of the saddest parts of life for Okinawan elders today is how often they must attend the funerals of their grandchildren.
The rapid shift in dietary habits and in health between the generations in Okinawa is a source of deep sorrow to anyone who sees the calamity that is taking place. And yet, at the same time as we mourn what is being lost, we can also realize that we are being offered an opportunity to learn something important. In Okinawa today we can see both an ultimate example of healthful living and its opposite‹both within the same gene pool, and both taking place at a time when they can be studied carefully by scientific investigators.
5. At the current rates, fifteen million elderly Americans will be stricken by Alzheimer's disease by 2050. What can people do to ensure their mind and their body will remain healthy and vital?
* Eat a healthful plant-based diet with lots of fresh vegetables, whole grains, legumes, fruits, seeds, and nuts. This is a diet that provides plenty of antioxidants and fiber and produces clean arteries enabling a rich blood supply to the brain.
Avoid foods that are high in fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol.
Keep your homocysteine levels low by making sure you consume plenty of vitamin B12, folic acid, and vitamin B6, and by keeping your meat intake to a minimum. One study found that subjects who ate meat as their main source of protein were nearly three times as likely to develop dementia as their vegetarian counterparts. A survey of the medical literature on diet and Alzheimer's noted how frequently a meat centered diet raises homocysteine levels. The report was titled "Losing Your Mind for the Sake of a Burger."
Make sure you consume plenty of DHA, the long-chain omega-3 fatty acid.
Get lots of regular physical exercise.
6. You mention getting plenty of DHA. Can you briefly summarize your views on eating fish?
If I tried to briefly summarize this issue I wouldn't do justice to it. I do, however, discuss this question at length in Healthy at 100, and I invite people to read what I've written in the book. I am providing a perspective that I haven't seen elsewhere.
7. What surprised you most as you researched and wrote Healthy at 100?
I had known that diet and exercise play a major role in our health and wellbeing. But I hadn't realized how incredibly important are our relationships with one another.
If I could ask only one question of someone, and I wanted to learn the most I could from their answer about their health and how long they are likely to live, my question would not be "Do you smoke?" It would not be "Are you overweight?" Nor would I ask "What's your cholesterol level?" or "How's your blood pressure?" It's true, of course, that smoking, being overweight, having unhealthy cholesterol levels and having high blood pressure are directly linked to many diseases and shorten people's lives considerably. They are extremely important risk factors. But if I had only one question, that is not where I would focus. Instead, I would ask, "How much love is there in your life?"
I would ask that question because the medical significance of the love in your life, or its absence, is actually greater than whether or not you smoke. Loneliness kills people faster than cigarettes.
Not that long ago, anyone who said there were profound medical consequences to human relationships would have had their sanity questioned by modern science. But in the last few decades there has been an explosion of scientific understanding about the deep connections between interpersonal relationships and health. An ever-increasing body of medical research is coming to the definite conclusion that the quality of your relationships with other people may be the single most important determinant of your health and longevity.
Chronic loneliness now ranks as one of the most lethal risk factors determining who will die prematurely in modern industrialized nations.
8. In a recent photo you look to be in incredible shape. Has your physical activity and exercise routine changed over the years? What kind of exercise do you engage in these days?
I workout at a gym 2 or 3 times a week, typically for an hour or an hour and a half. For cardio, I run in the hills, generally about 15 miles a week. And I swim, though not as regularly as hitting the weights or running.
It's much more fun to have a workout partner. What's made my exercise program so enjoyable for me is that I usually work out with my son, Ocean. He and I are very (playfully) competitive, which has spurred me on to levels I would never have reached on my own. We run together, and we lift weights together. I am at 8 percent bodyfat. He is at 4 percent, which is truly remarkable.
One of the indicators of strength that is commonly used is the bench press. Ocean can bench press his weight 22 times, while I can do mine 18 times. So he's a bit ahead of me, but I'm not doing too badly.
It's been very bonding to do all this with my son. He is a terrific young man and I feel tremendously blessed to have him in my life and heart.
9. Do you think some men have developed an unhealthy obsession with developing muscle?
Yes, certainly. I find nothing attractive or healthy about the enormously muscled men whose photos you can find in "muscle" magazines. Most of them are using steroids and other agents that enable them to bulk up but at a huge cost to their health. They seem to have an obsession with their appearance and body image that reminds me, in a strange way, of the obsession some women develop regarding being thin. It's wonderful to be lean and strong, but let's not get psychopathic about it.
10. How do you feel about people getting face lifts, coloring their hair or getting Botox to look younger?
Some say that people do these things because they are vain and unable to accept nature and life's realities. But I think there is a deeper truth. I think people do these things because they are trying to ward off the invisibility that all too often comes with aging in a culture where looking older is equated with a loss of beauty and value.
It doesn't matter to me whether you get a face lift or color your hair or get Botox injections. What matters is that you greet the signs of your aging with love and acceptance rather than disdain.
Every life stage has its unique gifts and powers. What's most important is that your inner beauty shine through your life. We all know people who, when
they look in the mirror and see signs of aging‹a new gray hair, a new wrinkle or blemish‹rush to cover it up with some cream, ointment, or dye. There's nothing wrong with wanting to "look your best," but if you are at war with the aging process, you are going to lose.
11. There are many in the anti-aging movement who say that aging is a disease that can be prevented. Do you believe that by eating well, exercising, and doing the other things you recommend in Healthy at 100, a person can live a life without illness and perhaps live forever?
A healthful diet and lifestyle almost always lead to a longer and healthier life. They provide increased vitality, improved resistance to disease, and a greater sense of wholeness and freedom. But even the finest exercise and diet plancannot forever overcome the inevitability of aging. Eventually, even the best-cared-for bodies begin to weaken and no longer function as once they did.
In our appearance-oriented society, aging can seem like a misfortune. But in the process of aging, people often come to understandings that are crucial to the completion and fulfillment of their lives. They learn something about loss and acceptance. They may have to cope with enormous difficulties‹a husband dying, a wife getting cancer, even the death of a child. They come to know how vulnerable everyone is. They understand that life is hard at times for everyone.
We have so much to learn from the old. There was a cartoon in The New Yorker entitled "Yuppie Angst." A man is saying, "Oh no, I spilled cappuccino on my down jacket." Elders, who have seen their families and friends die, who have seen generations of people come and go, can have a deeper understanding of tragedy. Closer to death, they are much more in touch with the cycles of life. They understand what makes a life worth living. They know there is little point in having low cholesterol and rock hard abs if you don't love your life.
There are people who make healthy choices hoping that as a result they will never become ill or die, but my motivations are different. I know that suffering occurs in every human life, and I want to prevent as much illness as I can and alleviate as much suffering as I am able. I ask people to take as much responsibility for their health and life as they can, not to avoid everything painful in the human experience, but to lessen suffering and to enrich and illumine who they are with wisdom and love.
A wise man once said, "If you go forward, you will die. If you go backward, you will die. It is better to go forward." The point of going forward, of working to make your life a positive expression of your highest vision, is not to avoid all suffering and death, for that is not within the realm of human possibility. The point, rather, is to meet all of your life experiences, including the most difficult ones, with the greatest powers of love and healing within you. The gift of going forward is not that you will never physically decline or fall ill, but that you will be less likely to do so prematurely, and better able to meet whatever life brings you with grace and wisdom.
We are all vulnerable and naked before the mysteries of life. Sometimes when we look deeply and honestly at our woundedness, we discover our power, our joy, and our will to live. We realize that we can accept imperfections, and that things become beautiful when we love them.
A human life has its seasons, much as the earth has seasons, and each one has its own particular beauty and possibilities. When we ask life to remain perpetually spring, we turn the natural process of life into a process of loss rather than a process of celebration and appreciation.
DO You Want to be Healthy at 100?
A conversation with John Robbins, author of the just-released Healthy at 100: The Scientifically Proven Secrets of the World's Healthiest and Longest-Lived Peoples