The Secret to Aging with Grace

by Gina Simmons, Ph.D.

I heard an old joke that still makes me laugh.  An old lady in a red Rolls Royce drives into a crowded shopping center parking lot.  She waits for an old truck to pull out so she can drive into that space.  As the truck pulls out, a young man driving a blue Porsche speeds around the old woman and takes her parking place.  The young man hops out of his car, flashes a grin and says, “that’s what you can do when you’re young and fast.”  He struts off to the store.  The parking lot clamors with the terrible sound of crunching metal.  He turns around to see the old woman push his car out of the parking space and replace it with her now dented Rolls Royce.  She slowly gets out of her luxury automobile, smiles and says, “That’s what you can do when you’re old and rich.”  If we’re lucky enough to reach old age, we’ll hopefully retain our sense of humor and dignity in a world that values youth and speed over wisdom and experience.
red RR exterior
We can learn a lot from spunky old people.  I met a 93 year old woman and her much younger senior friends as they volunteered at a local theater.  Ann said “I walk my dog two times a day.  I have one fat knee and one skinny knee.  I get aches and pains like everybody else but I keep them to myself because they’re mine.”  She plays piano for her church choir, keeps in touch with family on Facebook, and nurtures close relationships with family and friends.  You could easily picture her living well beyond 100 years of age.

Research on centenarians, those who’ve lived a century or more, shows they have several characteristics in common.  Blue Zone researchers call it the “Power 9“.  These traits can add 12 or more years to your life.  Exercise gives you 4 years.  Having a purpose, and healthy ways to cope with stress adds another 4 years.  If you eat right, and drink no more than 1 to 2 alcoholic beverages a day you get 8 more years.  You can gain 4  more years by belonging to a social group, church or community.  Centenarians put their loved ones first, and they tend to connect with positive friends and acquaintances throughout their lifespan.  If you go to the Blue Zone website you can take tests to measure your biological age, life expectancy and get some tips on how to increase your healthy life expectancy.

I took the Blue Zone test.  I learned that my biological age is several years younger than my chronological age.  My life expectancy is 95.8 years (better call that insurance agent) and my healthy life expectancy is 83.6 years.  I accrued 12.9 years because I have a healthy lifestyle (regular exercise, lots of vegetables, no smoking, etc).  The website says I can earn another 2.9 years by eating more fruit, getting better sleep, and spending more time with friends.  My loyal friends will attest to the truthfulness of that item.
Fruits and Vegetables
We need loved ones, belonging, exercise, fruits and vegetables, and some sense of purpose for optimal health.  John,  40 years of age, overweight, cranky, with high blood pressure and a temper, came to my office for help.  I recommended some lifestyle changes. He winced and groaned, “I can’t change everything I do.  It’s too much.”   I said, “John, you feel depressed and stressed because you treat yourself like garbage.  Let’s talk about one thing thing you can do everyday to improve your health.”  John agreed to start walking every morning before work.  The following week he said he felt better.  I shared with him the Japanese principle of kaizen.  This comes from the word kai meaning change, and zen which means good.   Kaizen means that small changes add up to a lot over time.

So if you want to live a long, healthy, happy life, start with small little changes in your lifestyle.  You don’t need an extreme life make-over to get healthier and happier.  In fact, extreme changes don’t add years to our lives, so don’t bother with that.  Take the Blue Zone Vitality test to identify ways to slowly improve your longevity.   Pick one new healthy thing and make a commitment to do it everyday.  At the end of the year you’ll notice the scale tipping in the right direction, your ab muscles will ripple, and your friends will appreciate all the attention.  That reminds me, I better go eat a banana and call a friend.

Photos courtesy of srqpix and farhad_omar.