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Aging Well, Living Long
By Susan Vannucci, PhD, RDN, Nutritionist
June 21, 2019
I was in my late 60s when I retired after decades as a professor of neuroscience. I worked on brain development and health, and my research focused on how diet, diabetes and stroke affect brain health. After setting that aside, I spent time taking care of and enjoying my granddaughters. But after a few years, I began looking for a larger purpose in retired life.
I saw, throughout my career, that aging is not a disease – there are, instead, diseases of aging. And so I decided to turn my energies to working with people individually, counseling them on aging strong and living well. First, I start by helping people understand the physical changes that come with age.
A sneaky thing happens to all of us as we get older, starting as early as our 30s. The balance in muscle metabolism starts to shift, so the equilibrium favors breakdown – with a resultant loss of muscle and its replacement with fat. With an increasing percentage of body fat, our overall metabolic rate actually goes down. That means it becomes easier to gain weight with age, even if we continue to eat the same as always.
We all want to live long, healthy lives. Yet our daily lives are filled with multiple challenges including long work hours, stressful commutes, too much food (including unhealthy and fast food) and a society increasingly plugged-in and less connected.
My basic approach to lifelong wellness is actually quite simple. First, the goal is to achieve and maintain a healthy body composition – that is keeping to a reasonable proportion of body fat and maintaining our muscle mass. The second component is achieving lifestyle balance.
Healthy centenarians around the world have something to teach us about this. In his book, The Blue Zones, Dan Buettner looks at diverse communities like Okinawa (Japan), Sardinia (Italy) and Loma Linda (California) that are characterized by high numbers of the world’s healthiest and longest-lived people. Extensive study of these areas and their inhabitants has generated “longevity lessons” as components to their success. These include: regular physical activity; a plant-based diet with moderate caloric intake; a sense of life purpose; strong ties to family and friends; and involvement in spirituality or religion. Importantly, they all have down-time built into daily life – whether that is naptime in Okinawa or happy hour in Sardinia – when stress can recede.
How we achieve this balance in our own daily lives will look different for everyone. The good news is that genetics only account for 25% of longevity – the rest is in our hands.