Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Why We Live Longer Is More Important Than How Long We Live

I recently came across an article written by Michael Wolff that appeared in New York Magazine titled, "Mom, I Love You. I Also Wish You Were Dead. And I Expect You Do, Too." The gist of the article is that there is no good reason to live longer. The author paints a picture that living longer means a more painful, slow death.

It is a frightful article written by someone who is clearly in pain watching his mother suffer from a terminable illness. However, it is also just plain wrong. The fact that the author makes statements with reckless abandonment may be forgiven given his state of mind. But, I don't believe for one moment that what he has to say is true in most cases of extended longevity.  Why? Because the scientific facts speak otherwise.

A recent study from the Longevity Genes Project, launched by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, supports my assertion. The results of the study, focused on near-centenarians, showed that the majority of  them were found to be "relaxed, friendly, conscientious and upbeat about life." Importantly, added the authors, "an easy laugh and an active social life were observed to be a group norm, while neuroticism was notably the exception. What's more, feelings were more commonly shared as they arose, rather than stifled and squelched." Not quite the doom and gloom reported by Mr. Wolff.

Mr. Wolff would have his readers believe that dementia strikes virtually everyone as we age. In fact, less than 50% of Americans over 85 develop dementia and about a quarter of all dementias are now directly linked to lifestyle, and thereby, may be preventable. What I think was missed by Michael is that why you live longer is as important as what that life looks like.

If you live longer only due to the miracles of modern science and technology, such a life may not be worth living. The goal is not to be alive at any cost, strapped to money machines that ka-ching with every passing moment. The reason to live longer is to enjoy more healthy years of life free of disability and pain.

A second recent study, that helps confirm healthy living can extend life even in the retirement years, demonstrates how to achieve such a life.  Led by Emily Nicklett, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Michigan School of Social Work, in Ann Arbor, the study, which was designed to explore the impact of exercise and nutrition together, found that women who were both the most physically active and the highest consumers of fruits and vegetables were eight times more likely to be alive after the study's five years of follow-up, compared to women who scored lowest on both counts.

There you have it. By living a healthy lifestyle, the women in the Michigan study avoided premature death and reported living quality lives. It's not surprising because exercise and good nutrition have been shown repeatedly to keep depression, dementia, falls, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and stroke at bay for long periods of time.

The bottom line is we all eventually die and how we die is often unpredictable. But living a healthy lifestyle increases the probability of enjoying more good years. Michael Wolff ultimately misses the real point. If his mother had taken ill a number of years earlier, would the situation have been any less poignant and painful? Watching a parent suffer at any age is difficult for most children. Having a few more good years with the parent(s) before the process begins is a gift.

So if you want to live a longer, functional, and disease-free life, a word to the wise should be sufficient. Learn how to eat properly and get enough exercise to remain in good form and fitness. Michael Wolff may long for his mother's passing, but I long to keep my patients healthy and enjoying life for many more years because it beats the alternative.

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