Thursday, Feb. 11, 2010

Living Long and Living Well

When explorer and longevity investigator Dan Buettner guided me into the Costa Rican rain forest last year in preparation for an Oprah show on longevity, each of the centenarians I met there greeted me with the customary "Pura vida" — variously translated as "Pure life," "Full of life" or even "This is living!" Those are all fair ways of describing these remarkably vibrant people, who are indeed living the pure life. We'd all do well to learn their secrets.

While we're certainly born with genes that help determine everything from our height to our eye color to our risk of heart disease, we're making a monumental mistake if we assume we can't influence those genes — especially when it comes to aging. Science is rapidly uncovering miraculous biological processes that control how and why we age the way we do, piling up evidence that even our unwanted genes can work in our favor — or at least do us less harm.

Indeed, there's no reason we can't live to 100 — and do so with energy and good health. Here's why: longevity is not really about preventing disease. After all, getting rid of heart disease and cancer gains us, on average, less than a decade of life. And if we lived those extra years still struggling with the frailty that can make a long life less desirable, what would we have gained? No, the real goal isn't to avoid inevitable illness or breakdown. The goal is to recover from them faster and better.

Identifying optimal solutions will require decades, in part because it takes 30 years of research to determine whether taking a pill for 20 years will add a decade of life. So here are some reasonable steps I've offered my own family, culled from what I've learned studying long-living populations around the world and cutting-edge scientific research.

Daily rigorous physical activity not only helps strengthen bones and the heart, but it also teaches balance, critical in preventing the falls that have become a leading cause of death as we age. For all the medical tests we have in our modern arsenal, the ability to exercise remains the single most powerful predictor of longevity. If you can't walk a quarter-mile in 5 minutes, your chance of dying within three years is 30% greater than that of faster walkers.

Humans are designed to be physically active throughout their lives, so don't take it easy on yourself. Shoot for at least three 30-minute workouts weekly — and break a sweat. You should also add a half hour per week of weight lifting and another half hour of stretching. I complete a simple daily 7-minute morning routine that I recommend. You can find it at

Get 15 minutes of sun every day (or take 1,000 IU of vitamin D), and take 1,000 mg of calcium. Supplement the calcium with 500 mg of magnesium to avoid constipation. All of this will help promote bone strength as you exercise. Costa Ricans get these benefits naturally: they're exposed to lots of sun between bursts of rain, which keeps their vitamin D levels high, and they drink hard, mineral-rich water and eat a traditional diet with dairy and legumes that is rich in calcium.

In the U.S. we're not so lucky. Insufficient vitamin D is our most important vitamin deficiency and is possibly a factor in our high levels of cancer, autoimmune ailments and heart disease. If you live north of a line between Atlanta and Los Angeles, the winter sun is probably too weak to give you the dose of light you require, so you'll need supplements. And while hard water occurs naturally in some parts of the country, it's by no means found in all of them.

Choose foods that look the same when you eat them as when they come out of the ground. The powerful phytochemicals and micronutrients in whole foods (ones without food labels) support the natural rejuvenating processes of the body.

Obese people, in whom such processes become compromised, tend to die younger in part because of systemic inflammation that occurs as a result of their weight. That leads to elevated blood sugar, lousy LDL-cholesterol levels and high blood pressure. These damage the thin lining of our arteries. The fat also wreaks metabolic disarray that increases cancer rates and leads to joint pain that limits physical activity. Automate your meal choices to create routines that make it easy to eat the right foods. Snacking on healthy foods every few hours helps you avoid hunger and the associated overeating.

Sleep more than seven hours a day. Sleep increases your levels of growth hormone, a critical vitality booster. Half of mature Americans have difficulty sleeping, and all of them may pay a longevity penalty. Try some simple sleep hygiene like dimming the lights 15 minutes before bedtime to stimulate melatonin.

Finally, have a purpose — your family, your work, your community. There may be no better longevity booster than simply wanting to be here. You have one life; it makes sense to love living it.

Mehmet Oz is the vice chairman and a professor of surgery at Columbia University, a best-selling author and the host of the nationally syndicated television talk show The Dr. Oz Show