Photo: Steve and Charlie Markusen on the summit of the Grand Teton, Wyoming. From August 2019, fifty years after Steve first climbed the Grand with his dad Dave Markusen in 1969.
“I just get up every day and don’t let the old man in.”
Aging is like rust—it never sleeps. As we age our body generates cellular waste creating oxidative damage and inflammation. Nature programmed our bodies with a planned obsolescent. There is a limit on how many times our cells can divide. We start damaging our DNA once past that limit opening the door to degenerative diseases. Most of us see a decline in performance as we age. For most sixty year olds, the slope of that declines steepens. For many in their seventies, it drops off a cliff.If at age eighty five, you are free of cancer, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and pulmonary disease you are in an elite club; only two percent of the population can claim membership. The average seventy five year old suffers from three of those diseases.
In the famous Danish Twins study, longevity is twenty five percent genetics and seventy five percent lifestyle. This edition of What I Learned details seven strategies to “Keep the old man out.” My goal for myself and my clients is not necessarily add years to your life, but rather add life to your years.
Resilience is learned by facing hardship and overcoming it. Hardship builds character. Stress is a huge part of aging: what kind and how much. The strategies we create to deal with stress make a difference on how we age. We can choose to be resilient and young; or bent and old.
Physical and mental endurance strengthens the immune system. Acute stress is good for us. It builds waste disposing enzymes, neuroprotective factors and proteins that prevent the natural death of cells. Chronic stress kills: cardiovascular disease, compromised immune systems, high blood pressure and dementia. A body under continuous stress shifts energy to the muscles and shuts down many caretaking functions.
You can learn resiliency. At sixty seven years old, I do it by competitive cycling, climbing a mountain, backcountry skiing or completing a grueling ten day wilderness hike. Doing something difficult, achieving a stretch mental or physical goal builds confidence. By repeating challenges or taking on new ones, you create a cycle of age defeating vitality.
Never Stop Feeding Your Brain
Over time, our brains shrink. It begins around age twenty: brain cells die faster than they can be replaced and neural connections go dark. The average ninety year old has half the neural connections they did in their twenties. The connections themselves degrade so signals travel slower. As we age we develop shortcuts and habits that simplify living, but do little to stimulate the brain. We know from studies that poor sleep and lousy diets work havoc on the brain. You have to work to arrest these declines, but the good news is it can be done.
When exposed to new challenges, the brain responds by growing new neural connections and improving existing ones. Older brains create new wiring, a kind of work-around that makes the brain larger. Learning a new language makes brains more plastic and creates a myriad of new neural connections. Tackling crossword puzzles or Sudoku sharpens cognition. Learning a new skill stimulates brain growth. Challenge your mind and it will respond.
Exercise: Add Life to Your Years
A 1999 study published in Nature and subsequent studies prove that exercise not only stems cognitive decline, but reverses it. In one clinic study, a group of sixty to eighty year olds were put on an exercise program. In six months their brains had grown. Exercise improved all aspects of cognition: reasoning, spatial function, processing speed, learning, balance and memory.
The best predictor of longevity is means—the good fortune to be born in a well-off family in a developed country. The second best predictor is exercise. Exercise buys a ticket to avoiding the five lifestyle diseases detailed above. Exercise can slow aging by promoting stem cell growth in muscles, expressing genes linked to longevity and lengthen DNA protecting telomeres.
Exercise intensity matters. (See my blog post https://crooked-thumb.com/2021/04/16/gaining-fitness-losing-weight-and-slowing-aging-with-interval-training/) Intensity concentrates the benefits of exercise. Conventional wisdom says we need to slow down as we age. Recent studies show this is dead wrong. Aerobic and strength training at eighty percent of maximum heart rate or effort have been shown to produce superior results for any age group, including eighty year olds. Harder is better. Shorten your exercise duration and increase your recovery time as you age.
Do What Your Body Wants
The theory of evolutionary fitness states many of our modern day health problems stem from the mismatch between our genes and our environment. Our bodies evolved through hardship, simple diets, and constant hard work. This is not how we live in the developed world. If you buy into this theory, the key to robust health as you age is to shrink the mismatch.
You are what you eat. A healthy diet is what your body wants. For more on diet read my blog: https://crooked-thumb.com/2021/02/16/get-lean-and-stay-lean-7-strategies-for-losing-weight/
Fascia is the nerve rich connective tissue surrounding every muscle and organ in our bodies. The connective tissue of old people differs from young. The actual fibers get less bouncy. Stretching and deep tissue massage can restore the bounce. The kind of relaxation found in message, yoga and meditation has a positive effect on the immune system.
Your body craves a healthy routine. You can do this by creating healthy habits. See my blog: https://crooked-thumb.com/2020/10/28/creatures-of-habit-small-changes-big-results/
To be healthy fit, you need to have strength, flexibility, power, speed, agility, balance and endurance. Add these factors to your training program and increase your longevity.
Get a Good Night Sleep
There is a pattern of sleep called segmented or polyphasic sleep. You sleep for four hours (First Sleep), wake for thirty minutes to an hour, and then fall back asleep (Second Sleep). Research by anthropologists indicate for most of human history, this is how we slept.
Unfortunately, many of us find our sleep compromised. Ongoing sleep debt can do permanent damage. It disrupts hormones that govern appetite causing insulin levels to spike which triggers an inflammation response. Sleeplessness impairs the formation of nervous system tissue and impedes the repair of cells damaged during our waking hours. While the evidence is circumstantial, many experts believe healthy sleep habits are a strong predictor of longevity.
Nowhere is sleep more important and difficult than in the life of a professional athlete. Study after study shows the impact of poor sleep on performance. Travelling professional athletes and their coaches devote considerable effort to strategies that ensure a good night sleep.
I intend to write more on this subject in future blogs.
Be Positive—Live longer
The link between temperament and lifespan has only recently been confirmed. Mentally healthy people live longer. Positive people live longer because this personality trait drives health behaviors which promote longevity.
Conscientious people prioritize making good decisions. Outgoing people have a social safety net. Those with a sense of humor are less likely to stress the small stuff. Healthy people live in reality. When people think of themselves as capable of continued improvement, they improve.
Healthier people are more likely to feel like living longer because life is more enjoyable when you feel well. There is a correlation between the desire to live and actual life span.
Research in Gerontology indicates strong social ties boost your likelihood of surviving a given period late in life by fifty percent. Meaningful social ties are correlated with healthy cognition. Long-term friendly competition creates rich friendships. We are social animals. Yet as we age our circle of relationships shrinks: friends die, move away, or just lose touch.
Single men die years before married men: more cancers, heart attacks and lower survival rates with each. Having close friends predicts survival, and the more connected, the higher the survival rate.
The was a study of women with metastatic breast cancer. They were divided into two groups, a support group which met once a week for ninety minutes over six weeks. The control group did not. The women in the support group lived twice as long as the women in the control group.
Just as chronic stress suppresses your immune system, love, friendship and being connected may enhance it.
Have a mission in your life, something to get up for, some valuable role to play—that is a huge part of aging gracefully. Having a purpose-driven life has a major positive impact on longevity. Having a reason to live makes us deeply happy. Even a reason as simple as “Keeping the old man out.” Bruce Grierson wrote a book on living longer, happier lives: What Makes Olga Run. I highly recommend it. Olga, a ninety year old track star says, “I don’t care about adding years to my life. I care about adding life to my years.” Clint Eastwood at ninety one years old is still making movies.
Photo: Dave and Steve Markusen summit of the Grand Teton, August 1969