Longevity as a choice

Walk in my shoes for a moment, please.

I’m a mother and a primary care physician. I aim to give my kids and my patients the best advice for living a long and healthy life.

When it comes to this job, I’m a winged unicorn of optimism. I believe an important fact: Experts estimate genetics contributes to 30% of our risk of early death.

That means longevity is a whopping 70%, you-can-make-it-happen modifiable. And the responsibility for making it happen falls on my right shoulder blade (yup, that’s where I feel the burn when things don’t work out). 

Study after study shows that modifying certain behaviors can improve, mitigate and delay anything from heart diseases to Alzheimer’s to diabetes to cancers to dying early.

What are those behaviors?

In a 2018 public health report, “The State of US Health: 1990 to 2016,” researchers analyzed the burden of 333 diseases and 84 risk factors and carefully tracked the change over the past 26 years.

Among its trove of information, the top three early-death contributors emerge: poor diet is number one, followed by smoking and obesity.

I can fly with this information – but with a handicap. You still with me? Here it goes: It’s one thing to tell people what to do. It’s another to provide them the motivation, means and ways to do it.

In his article "A Prescription for Longevity in the 21 Century," Dr. Philip Pizzo, founding director of Stanford's Distinguished Careers Institutue, zeroed in on two modifiable social factors that might complement and enhance healthy behaviors.

First, having a purposeful life.

“Caring for others,” Pizzo said, “positively affects all-cause mortality.”  

Studies show that 20 percent of young adults aged 12 to 24 years, and 31 percent of adults age 50 years and older professed “a purpose ‘beyond the self’ that included an interest in improving the lives of others, making the world better, teaching, building community, or pursuing spiritual goals.”  

Having a strong purpose could motivate self-directed healthy behaviors.

Second, social connection.

Loneliness is prevalent – and particularly hard on the young and old. It’s a sense that you’re left out, nobody gets you. Even at a party, you can feel alone. About 20 to 50 percent of Americans are at risk.

A frequently cited 2010 Brigham Young University study suggested that the harm caused by loneliness is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and is possibly worse than obesity.

Inspired, in the past week, I’ve made small changes to my life.

When I go out – grocery shopping, renewing my driver’s license, getting gas from Costco (and trying free food) – I swing by and take my mom. I send my homesick, college freshman daughter videos of pileated woodpeckers knocking our suet feeder and her pet rabbit chomping houseplants.  

I don’t know how much longevity my mom, daughter – or me – has “accumulated” so far. But Mom is sleeping better. I get more “hahaha” texts from my daughter.

I do what I can.

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Volume 12, Issue 3, Posted 9:55 AM, 02.04.2020