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A Quest for Longevity by the "Experts"

written by Thu Tran, MD,FACOG
on Sunday, 18th March ,2018

Three years ago, on Father’s Day, I wrote a blog about my father and how strong he was at 92 years old.  Last weekend, we celebrated his 95th birthday.  I was on call and delivered two babies, a boy and a girl.  My patients were both beaming when I told them how their babies now share a birthday with my father.  My patients were surprised to hear how my father still drives, lives alone, cooks, and maintains his apartment by himself.  He has declined to live with any of his children for fear of “losing my freedom.”

My father stopped playing tennis late last summer.  He could no longer run fast enough for the balls from his much younger partners.  He was always the oldest player on the team, more than forty years older than some of his partners.  Recently, his physician was concerned that his heart rate had slowed down too much and suggested a pace maker.  My father has declined this offer for now and, instead, has started using the rowing machine in his apartment building’s gym to exercise.  He complained how walking on the treadmill didn’t seem to elevate his pulse adequately.  He said his cardiologist seems pleased with his heart rate since he started his rowing workout.

Last year, my father’s oldest sister died in Vietnam at 105 years old. His younger brother is now 90.  The environment or lifestyle between my father and his oldest sister was very different.  She lived a much more simple life than his, and probably a harder life, because she was not wealthy and was living in a generally impoverished country.  Genetics probably plays a significant role in my father and his siblings’ longevity. It is not, however, the only factor that determines how long we will live.  Longevity is quite complicated, and many scientists have been conducting active research on this subject to, hopefully, unearth the secrets of longevity.

In a very well written and delightful NewYork Times article, Pagan Kennedy, author of “ Inventology: How We Dream Up Things That Change the World,” tells many fabulous stories about the surprisingly brief life of experts in longevity.  These scientists often do self-experiments to test their theories of longevity.  Anatoli Brouchkov, a geologist, ate some prehistoric bacteria that survived the arctic climate, while the director of the University of Southern California Longevity Institute Dr. Valter Longo fasted multiple days to test the theory of restricting calorie intake and longevity.  

Kennedy’s curiosity led her to a search through the obituary pages to see how these dead longevity experts ended and, surprisingly, she found many of them died at a younger than average ages!  One of them, Dr. Clive McCay of Cornell, followed his experiment of long living rats in his labs, by restricting his calorie intake and ate healthy food from his own farm.  He died at 69 years old. Kennedy mentioned nutritionist Adelle Davis who warned millions of  people of the dangers of refined food but died of cancer at 70, or Nathan Pritikin who championed low fat diets and then died at 69.  The most interesting story was that of Jerome Rodale, the founder of a publishing empire dedicated to health.  He was called “the guru of the organic food cult” by the New York Times and was invited on to Dick Cavett’s TV show.  During the taping, according to Kennedy, Mr. Rodale told Cavett how he was going to live to 100, then made a snorting sound and died.  He was 72 and this episode was never shown!

Dr. Thomas Frieden, former director of the Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) attributed the gain of 30 years in lifespan since the 1900s mostly to advances in public health.  Pagan Kennedy alerted the readers that the CDC and EPA have been embattled since the new administration took over in 2016, and we citizens need to fight for environmental causes to maintain our good health which might well lead to increased longevity. 

My father, who never claimed to be a longevity expert, follows the common sense rule of healthy living.  He drinks a little wine occasionally, exercises a few hours a week, eats moderately but eats anything he likes, has many social activities with friends of different ages, sleeps eight hours  or more a night.  He uses his computer extensively to communicate to his friends and children, or to explore the world through his computer. He is still writing poetry and is a great poet.  He even knows how to pair his poems with beautiful photos relevant to the topics of his poems!  He has become very detached to material things, as elderly people tend to be.  He lives for the moment and is very aware of his mortality but is grateful for each healthy day.  He doesn’t get bothered by his age, because he realizes each day is an extra gift.  

I try to follow the path of my father’s life and hope I will stay healthy like him until the end.  Eat a little bit and not just lettuce leaves, exercise enough, read a lot, and sleep adequately.  I also have been following Pagan Kennedy’s advice, to fight for clean water, clean air, funding for medical research on curing illnesses, so not only I can help extend my longevity, but also give the next generation a chance to live a long life.  It is time for all of us to realize we are responsible for each other’s health.  We cannot change each other’s genetics, but we can change each other’s environment.  Let us fight together for that long, healthy life.

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