We boomers are living longer. In fact, one in every 25 will live to 100 and many of us will see age 85 — almost double the average lifespan expected in 1900. As we live longer, how can we be sure we’re living well?
That’s the question addressed in a new book, A Short Guide to a Long Life. It hit the New York Times bestseller list just six days after its January debut, likely because the book is an easy-to-follow, invaluable cheat sheet for better health through the decades.
I spoke to the author, Dr. David Agus, one of the world’s leading cancer doctors, in his office at the University of Southern California Center for Applied Molecular Medicine. His book offers practical advice based on thorough scientific research and data. It’s the same type of information he brings to his students as professor of medicine at Keck School of Medicine and to his cancer patients, many of whom are celebrities or captains of industry.
The book is written as three lists — what to do, what to avoid and doctor’s orders. I compiled my own list of questions for the doctor.
Next Avenue: We’ve cured major killers and debilitating diseases such as smallpox, cholera and polio. Will we cure cancer in our lifetime?
Agus: The answer we don’t want to hear is “no, probably not." The real reason is because as a society we pour more money into treatment rather than prevention. I focused my book on prevention tips because that is where individuals can make a difference in their lives and the lives of their loved ones, especially our children and grandchildren. By choosing to eat fresh foods — which do not cause inflammation — by exercising regularly and adopting other good behaviors we routinely practice, we can help prevent many chronic illnesses including cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s.
(MORE: Why Predictive Health Should be the Future of Medicine)
A theme throughout the book is taking personal responsibility for our health. You also talk about “individualized medicine.” Tell me more about this.
What it boils down to is what may work for one person may not work for another. I state in the book that “health information is a moving target.” What we know today can change tomorrow. And not everything resulting from one study works for everyone. But there are certain guidelines which boost better health, and we know this based on research and scientific data conducted over the years. It isn’t about reviewing one study and declaring this is the new direction for your lifestyle. You have to look at the cumulative data and compare results of numerous studies to create more substantive, confident advice and rules.
The personal responsibility is our obligation to ourselves and to younger generations — we owe it to our children to be good role models. We need to train our kids to practice healthy behaviors by embracing these tips ourselves. Not only will younger generations live healthier, longer lives, but we will help prevent our own chronic illness from attacking us sooner, which means we delay the day our children will need to be our caregivers as we age.
For instance, taking control of your health information, understanding what works for you, automating your routines such as when you eat lunch every day, making healthier choices and knowing your family’s health history and discussing it with your doctor — this is good advice which will not change for the future.
We have so much data at our fingertips — on the internet, on food labels and on restaurant menus. Yet as a society we aren’t using this information to our benefit. Americans of all generations, including our children, are more obese — how do you explain this?
Baby boomers are the generation who grew up believing in change. We were kids when adults scoffed at the notion we could land a man on the moon, but as kids and teens we watched it happen on TV.
Health is now the next frontier. It’s in our hands to change our cultural thinking about healthy lifestyles. We need better health leadership, and it all starts with discourse, dialogue and discussion. We need to get engaged in what is going on with our bodies, and we have to talk to our families about why health is important.
I tell this story in my book, where I asked my kids to stop drinking chocolate milk because it just wasn’t as healthy for them. It wasn’t until I actually showed them a tape of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver who filled a school bus with the same amount of sugar added to the Los Angeles Unified School District’s flavored milk — in one week. That stopped my kids in their tracks, and they gave up the chocolate milk. The key is not just telling or asking, but explaining why, when it comes to healthy behaviors.
I also believe we should make health competitive. My entire family and my office staff wear an electronic wristband which tracks our healthy behavior — not just steps taken during the day but things like sleep cycles, calories burned and blood pressure It’s a fun, friendly competition to see who has the best stats each day. It’s also a great way to encourage multi-generational activity focused on health.
You have a lot of good advice, most of which is common sense or we’ve heard before. But I was also interested in some of the less mainstream advice in your book, such as getting patdowns at the airport instead of going through the backscatter X-ray screening machine, avoiding high heels and smiling more. Tell me why these things help our health.
The airport screening is simply based on science — we don’t have enough data yet to know how those machines may impact our health. In the 1930s and 40s, shoe fitters used a type of X-ray machine called a fluoroscope to measure people’s feet, and sure enough, it was later proven people exposed to this excessive radiation developed cancers on their feet. I advise readers to play it safe — get a quick patdown by TSA which is safer for your health than the unknown.
And speaking of feet, when you wear uncomfortable shoes it causes chronic inflammation, which we know from science leads to troubling degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, cancer, heart disease, diabetes and accelerated aging. Your goal should be to reduce the inflammation and take the pressure off your joints and lower back with sensible shoes.
(MORE: Step Forward With Proper Foot Care)
Smiling is a great stress reliever. It boosts pain-killing, brain-happy endorphins, and as I say in the book, it takes only 17 muscles to smile and 43 muscles to frown.
I also believe you should avoid multivitamins because studies show they block the body’s natural ability to control itself — you disrupt a system we don’t fully understand yet. However, I do believe in taking statins if you are over the age of 40 because we now know they don’t just lower cholesterol but they lower inflammation, which has a profound effect on reducing things such as heart disease, still the No. 1 killer of men and women. In the end, the data points to multivitamins and supplements raising your health risks but statins reducing death.
Two things I was glad you included, because I know how important they are to the nation’s 65 million caregivers, are the importance of knowing your family’s health history and having a conversation with your family about end-of-life wishes.
We often avoid the tough conversations. But talking about things as a family in a calm environment when everyone is well alleviates the stress and strain of navigating these details when a crisis hits. And again, we owe it to younger generations to lead the discussion. Knowing what illnesses or diseases have been in your family, knowing how we want to be cared for in later years, all contribute to knowledge which can prevent health decline and stress for us and for our kids. Don’t delay, have the talk today.
(MORE: End-of-Life Planning: Starting the Conversation)
I can’t let you go without explaining the “more sex” advice. How does that help our health as we age?
I don’t actually advise having more sex in the book but I do advise things where sex may play a role in living longer. For instance, co-habitating with someone puts us on our best, healthiest behavior — we want to look and feel nice for ourselves and for our roommate, and we avoid risky behaviors and adopt healthy hygiene habits. I also state that having children, while not for everyone, has been proven to help you live longer. And sex is a cardiovascular exercise, so practicing it routinely may help your overall health.
In the long run, it’s not about finding a miracle pill or one thing that will give us better health. It is a collection of how we live that will promote healthy aging.
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