Mastering the Art of Longevity


by Frederic M Hudson


Longevity means to be as well and active as you can, for as long as you can. (Read David Mahoney and Richard Restak, 1998, and John W. Rowe and Robert L. Kahn, 1998.) Longevity means to stay engaged with life, to take responsibility for designing the future you want, to stay vitally connected to friends and loved ones and to the society at large. The concept of longevity is something to be practiced during young and middle adulthood, so your body and mind are prepared for the long haul. Here are some of the key ideas:

The sooner you commit to living to one hundred, the sooner you commit to having a vision and a plan for the rest of your life. Not everyone who aims at one hundred will get there, but more and more are, and the statistics point toward a marked increase in the numbers of centenarians during the next twenty years. Assume the odds are in your favor. Challenge all your stereotyped ideas about aging. Plan to get older and better, even as your body may get worse in many ways. Take a long view of your life, and pace yourself daily and weekly with shorter views. Live into a future vision, and your brain (frontal lobes) will actually be stimulated to help you reach your vision through daily actions. Take executive control of yourself and your journey.

There is a difference between aging and getting old. Aging is finding ways to manage your life changes so you can be optimally alive, active, and engaged. Healthy aging includes a positive attitude toward life, good stress-coping skills, health-promoting behaviors, human skills to deal with everyday problems of living, and the good fortune to avoid infectious diseases and serious injuries. On the one hand, centenarians score high on optimism; they are rarely depressed. Getting old, on the other hand, means taking on the characteristics that our society expects old people to have, losing interest in life, accepting the notion that itís too late to change, believing that life doesnít matter anymore, failing to set goals and commitments, losing a sense of surprise, and giving in to passivity and boredom. Aging is not a spectator sport; step out of the stands and do something now to increase your chances for a long life and do your part to change our national attitudes toward aging. None of us can stop aging, but we donít have to grow old.

Donít blame your genes; invest in your best choices. Heredity accounts for only one-fourth of the variation in human life spans. Gerontologists have found that nutrition, exercise, and social relationships are more important than genetic structures.

Keep up, mentally, with your fields of expertise, with new knowledge and skills, with areas of emerging interest. If you neglect your talents and skills that have been essential to your life, they begin to wane, and then you begin to wane. If you are interested in new skills rather than the ones youíve been performing, that will work fine. Learning is a central feature of creative aging. Practice keeping all of your neurons active in the networks you wish to maintain. Resilience will be sustained best if you make small, consistently applied efforts at sustaining your competence and skills. Your brain is the most important organ to invest in for positive aging. Tweak the high-performing parts of your brain through reading and reflecting, and through discussions with others of all ages. Relax about normal slips and slowings of brain functions as you get older. The reservoir is huge from all the experience you have had, so respect the slower speed of your internal operating system. Give your brain smaller assignments as you age, but keep it on duty at all times. Understand the degenerative diseases of the brain and what you can do to stay healthy and able to avoid Alzheimerís, Parkinsonís, schizophrenia, depression, cancer, heart attacks, and strokes.

Maintain as high a level of physical fitness as you can: muscle strength, agility, and endurance to sustain vigorous exercise. If you neglect your body, keeping it from being the best it can be, you will not age as well. The object is not to appear to be young but to manage your body effectively at the age you are. If you can, follow the Rule of Ten. Each month for the next six months, introduce a 10 per-cent increase in the following areas of your life: physical activity, dietary complex carbohydrates, fiber intake, sleep or naps, reading and other mind-expanding, intellectually stimulating activities. Each month, decrease by 10 percent the following areas of your life: calories, fat, alcohol (no more than 2 - 3 ounces per day, maximum), and stress. Eliminate all smoking, including breathing second-hand smoke; eliminate or reduce TV-watching and other passive pastimes. The most important decision is the decision to change.

Develop mental attitudes that promote positive aging: basic optimism, healthy self-esteem, a willingness to adapt to new situations, a sense of personal power and readiness to take responsibility, self-motivation for continued resilience and staying power, involvement in meaningful projects and relationships.

Longevity depends on how well you handle stress. When your brain is healthy, your body does a better job of resisting illness. When your body is functioning at its best, your brain is stimulated and your feelings are more positive. It is essential to manage information overload so you are not overwhelmed by media invasion and its consequent feelings of helplessness. Let go of things that are outside of your control or influence. The opposite of feeling stressed is a feeling of well-being. Stay connected to friends, networks, and other people. Donít withdraw into yourself or into your marriage. Lack of trust has great mental health consequences. Practice trustful optimism along with self-talk. Sustain a healthy sense of humor.

Continuous learning tops the list of factors that scientists have found to promote longevity and the retention of mental acuity. Stay curious about something, preferably something that evokes a sense of purpose in you. Pursue enthusiasm and zest as you learn.

Invest in your relationships with family and friends. Frame your life around the concerns of your extended family or friends. Appoint yourself a mentor to them. If you donít have a family, create one and then nurture it to make it your highest priority. The goal here is to be an intimate player to the very end, investing in your family as your most precious asset and legacy.

Maintain several task areas in parallelóareas of commitment and rewards for your life. Some may be work. Others may be avocations, but schedule yourself into multiple areas of interest, through training, consultation, leisure engagement, and leadership roles.

Live on the edge of your possibilities, but be able to lose and adapt. As you age, you become freer and freer to have your own voice, your own projects, your own impact. Spice up your life with risk. Know how to cut back if you have to.

Keep up with longevity research. The twenty-first century will be the century of increasing numbers of elders. Scientific research that is relevant to longevity is appearing daily. It may well apply to you. The idea is not to live forever but to live fully as long as you can, or, as one person put it, to help you die young, as late as possible.

From The Adult Years: Mastering the Art of Self-Renewal by Frederic M. Hudson. Copyright © 1999 by Jossey-Bass, a Wiley company. Excerpted by arrangement with Jossey-Bass Inc. $24.95. Available in local bookstores, online booksellers and from the Jossey-Bass web site at, or call 800-956-7739.