by

Charles A. Bertrand, M.D., FACP, DIM-CD (Ret.)
Associate Clinical Professor of Medicine at New York Medical College
and at the Medical University of South Carolina

RX FOR A LONG LIFE

Some years ago, the famous French entertainer, Maurice Chevalier, celebrating his birthday, was asked by a reporter how he liked being 75. Chevalier replied, "I prefer it to the alternative."

Most of us would agree: Being old is better than being dead, provided you maintain your health and mental faculties. With the advances made in medicine over the past decades, people are living longer and longer. But this longevity has posed its own set of problems.

For example, the longer we live, the more likely we are to have Alzheimer's disease, which afflicts people of all ages but is far more common in those who are 80 or older. So if you live longer, you're more likely to die of Alzheimer's.

Likewise, the older a man gets, the more likely he is to develop cancer of the prostate. In 1900, few men had to worry about this form of cancer... but that was because the average lifespan of the American male at the turn of the century was 44-45 years old.

Fortunately, researchers are working on both Alzheimer's disease and prostate cancer. I would anticipate real progress in treating these disorders within the next few years.

But if you're willing to risk these two killers by living a long life, then there are a few things you can do to lengthen your life.

First, you should pick your parents carefully.

If they lived a long life, then you have a better chance to survive into old age yourself. Of course, just because Mom and Dad lived to 90 doesn't mean you can smoke three packs of cigarettes a day and do the same. You may die of lung cancer at the age of 42. How you live makes a big difference, so don't expect your genes to protect you against the abuse of your own body.

Drinking too much and eating too much can likewise overcome any hereditary tendency to live until you're old and gray. Obesity is one of the greatest health hazards in contemporary America... usually caused by eating too much of the wrong kinds of food. A good healthy diet can help you maintain a reasonably normal weight. And taking off weight usually will reduce cholesterol levels and diminish the risk of heart attack.

The best way to lose weight is through a diet rich in fruits and vegetables. (Such a diet, by the way, also reduces the risk of colon cancer.) In addition, you should avoid foods with a high fat content. Instead of eating a hamburger and fries for lunch and steak and potatoes for dinner, you should eat multiple servings of fruit and vegetables.

You should also reduce your intake of salt. The total amount for 24 hours should be less than a teaspoonful. And you should drink at least six glasses of water a day.

While you're maintaining this healthy diet, you can also improve your chances of longevity by dietary supplements... particularly vitamins B6 and B12, folic acid, and vitamin D. A standard multi-vitamin tablet can be of great help. You can take calcium tablets, particularly if you're a post-menopausal woman. And you might also take vitamin E supplements in the form of 400 I.U. per day. (There's some evidence that vitamin E in this amount may reduce the risk of a heart attack.)

If you're a drinker, you can drink and even improve your chances to live forever... but only if you limit yourself to one drink a day, whether beer, wine, or whiskey. If you're not a drinker, don't start.

In some cases, preventive medicine is helpful, particularly the use of estrogen for post-menopausal women. Such medication may contain only estrogen, or it may also contain some progesterone. (There is some evidence that this treatment might lower the risk of Alzheimer's, though studies have been inconclusive.)

In order to avoid heart attacks, many people take aspirin on a regular basis. Doctors often prescribe a daily 65mg tablet... so-called "baby aspirin." This treatment may sometimes cause stomach bleeding or blood clotting problems, so you should be guided by your doctor.

Another factor in longevity is stress control. People who live with high levels of stress don't usually do so for very long... they either calm down or die earlier. Stress and anxiety can send your blood pressure soaring and also impair your immune system. Try to seek new mental challenges and develop new relationships. The more active and satisfying your social life, the more likely you will live to enjoy it.

Having said all of the above, there is one factor in longevity more important than all the above... and you may be sorry when I tell you what it is.

It's exercise.

Everyone should engage in some form of exercise on a regular basis. The minimum time: 20-30 minutes per session at least three days a week. But more is better.

By the way, you don't have to do the same exercises every session. In fact, it's more interesting to vary what you do. Walking, jogging, and bicycling are the most popular forms of exercise in this country.

I would recommend bicycle riding... whether moving or stationary... because you don't bear any weight. People with back trouble, bad knees, or other problems can ride a bicycle without aggravating their condition... and sometimes the pedaling actually helps.

If you don't have a bicycle and want to get outside and move around, I would recommend "wogging", or fast walking. The lower extremities and back are not traumatized when you wog, as they sometimes are when you jog. A recent study found that a fast 30-minute walk three times a week reduces blood pressure and probably extends life.

Of course, there are numerous forms of exercise, from sports to exercise machines. To each his own. But it's important that you exercise on a regular basis and continue to do so year in and year out.Maintaining your physical fitness will not only extend your life, but will improve its quality.

If you follow all this advice, you may be able to say. as Casey Stengel did on his 75th birthday: "Most people my age are dead."

December 1998



The advice provided on this website is intended to be general in nature and should not be relied upon for specific treatment. If you need personal medical attention please contact your physician.

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