Longevity 101: Is Living Forever Young Truly A Matter of Mindset?

The Science and secrets to successfully aging

“Health is your chemistry, your biology, your will AND your spirit.” ~ Dr. Taz MD

Scene One: Bookstore browsing.

Observed Titles: Secrets of Longevity, The Longevity Factor, Longevity Through Naturopathy

Backstory: Life-expectancy trends as a whole have been on a rather smooth and steady rise since the 19th century. At the onset of the 20th century, life expectancy at birth in the United States was 47 years. Now that number has increased to 79 years. In tandem with this rise in life-expectancy comes an increase in self-help books concerning longevity. Just as projections of ever-longer life spans come forward, the market for anti-aging books and longevity resources continues to grow .

Buzzwords: Tips and techniques to keep young longer; red wine activates genes for a longer and healthier life; try eating more blueberries, telling the truth, and saying no to undue burdens.

Question(s): How many of these tactics actually work? Should we follow any of them or none of them? And, on a more philosophical note, what are our reasons for seeking the secrets to longevity?

Scene Two: Sitting in the car.

On the radio: Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young”

Backstory: Written for Dylan’s eldest son, born in 1966, the song relates a parent’s blessing to a child. The beginning lyrics include an allusion to the Old Testament scripture: “May the Lord bless you and keep you.”

Buzzwords: May you stay

                     Forever young

Question(s): Does having a loving family and pursuing healthy relationships factor into living a longer life? How does mindset affect the way we age? If we make an effort to stay “forever young” in our minds, does that increase our longevity? Why is youth in particular so highly valued throughout history?

(See: Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth, Tuck Everlasting, the movie Begin Again where the lyrics of a song ask, “God, tell us the reason youth is wasted on the young.”)

Scene Three: A somewhat sunny living room in Northern Italy. There are old paintings covering the walls and an innocuous upright piano rests in the corner.

Observed: A smiling, elderly woman wearing pearls and a brightly striped shawl is sitting in a dated armchair next to the window.

Backstory: Her name is Emma Morano, and she is the world’s oldest person at 116.

Buzzwords: Brandy. Milk. Sleep. Two eggs every day.

Question(s): Does she hold the key to living a long, healthy life? What are her secrets? Is she happy to have lived this long?

Morano in her home. Source: Olivier Morin / AFP – Getty Images.

A couple of years ago, I stumbled across this interview and sat through the whole thing, unmoving and teary-eyed. It was one of the most beautiful and honest conversations I’ve ever heard, and it’s one that I reflect on now and again. Originally meant to promote Maurice Sendak’s final book, the interview carried out by Terry Gross for the NPR program Fresh Air quicly became a conversation on mortality, sincerity, depth of feeling, and simply living life. As the interview continues, Sendak reflects on growing old, the sadness of aging, and the good that exists within it too:

“Somehow I’m finding out as I’m aging – I am in love with the world. I have nothing now but praise for my life. There are so many beautiful things in the world which I will have to leave when I die, but I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready. It is a blessing to get old. I wish you all good things. Live your life, live your life, live your life.”

Sendak’s words came back to me as I sat down to write this article on longevity, and I decided to start with the three scenes above because after perusing the internet for some time (yes, way longer than I’m proud to admit. In full disclosure, here’s my search history for the past couple hours: Secrets to longevity, Oldest Woman alive, Taco trucks near me, National Geographic Article on Living Longer, Should I try the Whole30 diet?*, Chade-Meng Tan happiness, and What was the ending for Tuck Everlasting?), I determined that the “secrets” to longevity really can be simplified to three main categories of health:

  1. Of the Body

Okay, so it’s not really a secret that eating well and exercising regularly is good for your health. Are there certain foods that will kick-start the anti-aging process? Does red wine really activate anti-aging genes?**

Diet is a large part of scientific research, and according to a National Geographic article on the secrets to a long and healthy life, “diet is the key to longevity – but also sex, naps, wine, and good friends.”

Emma Morano of 116-year-old fame eats a raw egg each day, following her doctor’s recommendation when she was diagnosed with anemia at the age of 20. When asked about the secret of her longevity in 2015, she first mentioned a daily glass of homemade brandy.

(Side-note: I have so many questions about this brandy. Where can I find the recipe? What are the ingredients? Is it a family tradition? Do I have to be in Italy to make it/drink it?)

Her physician Dr. Carlo Bava states that her longevity, from a strictly medical and scientific point of view, is a phenomenon. Morano takes no medication and has been in stable health for years. According to Bava, “She seems to go against everything that could be considered the guidelines for correct nutrition. She has always eaten what she wants, not much vegetables or fruit.”

Copyright: Roz Chast for The New Yorker

I’m not entirely convinced on the effectiveness of following an anti-aging diet for the sole purpose of achieving longevity. For me, the purpose of eating well is to feel better, stronger, and healthier in your daily life. If that leads to longevity, then great!

Thank you for summing that up, Michael Pollan! (Design Credit: Robert Kelly)
Thank you for summing that up, Michael Pollan! (Design Credit: Robert Kelly)
  1. Of the Mind

Rest days are a runner’s must during marathon-training, or any kind of training – period. But we don’t often think of rest days for the mind. I believe they are just as important.

Exercising the mind and allowing the mind to rest are both key components to living a healthy life. And mental exercises don’t have to be:

How I felt in math class most days...
How I felt in math class most days…

They can be as simple as this three-second mental exercise on finding joy in ordinary moments. Chade-Meng Tan, a former engineer for Google, argues that temperament is malleable. All you need to reshape your mindset are three-second “thin slices of joy,” that consist of noticing previously unremarkable events: a bite of food, drinking a glass of cold water after a long run, appreciating the sunlight on your skin after being inside all day.

These “thin slices of joy occur in life everywhere,” Tan states, “The more you notice joy, the more you will experience joy. It becomes something you can count on…because you’re familiarizing the mind with joy.”

The basal ganglia region of the brain plays a role in the development of memories, emotions, and habits. By activating this part of the brain during the three-second joy exercise, we can make happiness a habit. It can be damn hard to do sometimes, but savoring moments of joy and appreciation during the day (even if it’s just one or two moments) make letting go of the bad moments so much easier.

What’s on your bucket list? Source: Neon Resolutions
What’s on your bucket list? Source: Neon Resolutions
  1. Of the Heart

There is one feeling that I don’t think I will ever get used to: loneliness. It’s something that I’ve tried to embrace and appreciate. I was incredibly lonely when I studied and traveled abroad, and it wasn’t that I didn’t meet people and form new friendships. I did, and it was wonderful, but there were multiple times when I found myself battling an intensive bout of loneliness.

Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate and sometimes even crave time by myself to recharge and reconnect with my own thought process. But presence is important to me.  I miss having people around me. I look forward to coming home and hearing about everyone’s days. I love sharing experiences, especially travel experiences, with people.

The people in Okinawa, Japan have also identified loneliness as an important factor in aging. A study carried out by Dan Buettner and outlined in his book The Blue Zones Solution: Eating and Living Like the World’s Healthiest People, Buettner found that being lonely in Okinawa takes about eight years off the life expectancy.

The Okinawans have something called a “moai” to help combat the problem of loneliness. As a child, you are placed in a “moai,” or a committed social network, by your parents. In his study, Buettner profiled several 102-year-old women who had belonged to the same moai for 98 years.

In my opinion, human connection is one of the most wonderful things that life has to offer. Buettner, in an interview with National Geographic, states that “Exploration is more about someone going to a place and making observations. Where exploration really earns its keep is when it improves the human experience, or adds to the body of knowledge to make our lives better.”

Exploring the health of the body, the mind, and the heart are all ways to improve your own lifestyle. One of my dad’s favorite reminders to my sisters and me is to “Make good choices.”  In high-school, he would yell it out the door as I ran out to the car, late to whatever-it-was, and juggling textbooks/water-bottle/keys. I would roll my eyes at him and wave back – “I know, I know. Make good choices. Okay, I get it. Bye.”

Source: captainfood

But as college rolled around, and I said good-bye to my family in the unfamiliar freshman quad, the words took on new meaning. Blinking in the bright sunlight after he had hugged me and left me with his familiar mantra, “Make good choices” was imprinted, if only unconsciously, in my mind. I soon looked forward to hearing it from him in the airport after dropping me off. “Make good choices” became a tradition; the parting words, an adage that provided both security and wisdom.

It’s short and simple, sweet and true. And it applies here too. Make good choices, with your body, your mind, and your heart. Seek people who will help you make those choices, or if anything, warn you when you’re making bad ones. It’s a lot easier to say than to do, I understand that. But perhaps the secrets to longevity aren’t really secrets at all. Maybe they’re as simple as making more good choices than bad ones.

A wonderful quote from an otherwise mediocre movie: Bride Wars.*** Source: www.iglovequotes.net
A wonderful quote from an otherwise mediocre movie: Bride Wars.*** Source: www.iglovequotes.net

So in an effort to avoid further traveling into philosophical/existential terrain, I’d like to conclude on this note:

Scene Four: Where you are now.

Observed: Daily life.

Backstory: Your story thus far.

Perhaps the goal is not to live longer or strive for longevity, but to make the most of life as a whole.

Question: How will you live your life, live your life, live your life?


*A solid NO to that question – I have to give up sugar and wheat, which are both definitely included in pumpkin bread. The Whole30 Diet did come up when I typed in Secrets to Longevity, so there’s that.

**Unfortunately, there is not enough scientific evidence for this. To this I say everything in moderation. For instance, on Wednesday, I ran and ate kale salad for lunch & dinner. To counterbalance that, on Thursday, I went to yoga and then made a series of executive taco decisions and chased all of that with a marg. It’s too bad “I feel great” is not an adequate scientific result.

*** I do apologize if Bride Wars is your favorite movie of all time.

Photocredits: One, Two, Three, FourFive, Six, Seven