They say when it’s your time to go, it’s your time to go.
But are there things we can do to stick around productively longer than our ancestors, perhaps even hitting triple digits?
There are locations where people routinely outlive the commonly prescribed expectancy of about 80 years. One location, deep within the Aegean Sea off the coast of Turkey, is the Greek island of Ikaria, where residents are three times more likely to reach the age of 90 than in the United States.
According to New York Times best-selling author of “The Blue Zones,” Dan Buettner, there are five geographical zones where individuals consistently live longer, fuller lives, and only one of them is in the land of the free and home of the brave — in Loma Linda, Calif., a high Adventist population with healthy habits included as part of their religious lifestyles.
The connection between the otherwise unrelated locations, explains Beckley physician Dr. Mebrahtom Tesfai, is found in three key pillars: diet, physical activity and stress levels. He, along with many within the medical community, second these notions of clean living.
Stick around long enough to discover what’s inside the third pillar — the answer may surprise you.
“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food,” recorded Hippocrates.
“With the wrong diet, no medicine can help. With the right diet, no medicine is needed,” translates an old Indian proverb. Or, perhaps more in tune, “I’m on a 90 Day Wonder Diet. Thus far, I’ve lost 45 days,” said Unknown.
It isn’t a diet problem, it’s a common-sense problem. Most physicians will agree, eating right doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated.
Tesfai, an internist who also specializes in weight loss management through education, puts forth a formula including less and more. “Less sugar, less fat, less meat and less fast food.” More veggies, more fruits, more oats, nuts, beans and seeds.
The combination of less and more can add productive years to our lives. Like the locations identified in The Blue Zones (www.bluezones.com), people within the zones eat chiefly Mediterranean diets, which are rich in whole grains, olive oil, nuts, fruit and moderate amounts of fish.
“Less food is always better than more, than eating until you are stuffed. Also consume less alcohol, and eat as much as you can of organic and less modified, processed and preserved food. This is what represents a healthy diet.”
In order to maximize the nutrition potential of your daily intake, Tesfai also suggests the addition of supplements … especially vitamin D, Omega-3 and a daily multivitamin.
Move it or lose years, concurs the medical community.
We know it’s relevant if it is so far-reaching, ancient philosophers saw it coming.
“Lack of activity destroys the good condition of every human being, while movement and methodical physical exercise save it and preserve it,” quoted Plato. Or, as English statesman Edward Smith Stanley put it: “Those who do not find time for exercise will have to find time for illness.”
When physicians say let’s get physical, they aren’t envisioning the general population in terms of Olympic-qualifying athletes.
“What we mean is to have optimal physical activity. This shouldn’t be very expensive and not boring or stressful, rather it should be an affordable and enjoyable part of daily activity,” Tesfai explains.
Benefits of daily exercise include weight maintenance or loss, a reduction in blood pressure, heart and lung disease, and improved mood and immunity.
If you have yet to find your knack in exercise, start with what most interests you.
“Shop by walking to the nearest shopping center, garden and work in the yard, work out in residential areas by bicycling or walking, these are all good activities,” says Tesfai.
Resistance training, aerobic exercise and group yoga? All good, too, but in terms of what you used to eat, it’s the gravy on your figurative base of mashed potatoes.
Don’t knock yourself out just yet. “This isn’t about appearance. It’s about optimal health and longevity. Three times a week, 30 minutes a day.”
Stress is not what happens to us, Tesfai paraphrases. “It is our response to what happens to us. It is something we can choose our response to.”
Stress, the heart-pounding, head-aching drop into an emotional lion’s den, contributes to multiple health problems, including heart disease, obesity, diabetes, depression and memory loss, to name a few.
“If we are able to reduce our stress, we will be in better position to live healthier and longer,” says Tesfai. He adds that in order to reduce or avoid excess stress, we need strong social and emotional support, like that provided by family, friends, religious communities, in churches and synagogues.
“Spirituality can help us cope better with life’s stresses.” It also generally promotes optimism, a positive outlook on life that is undaunted by daily stressors.
“It is important to find happiness, purpose and meaning in life,” explains Tesfai. This cannot be accomplished at inordinate stress levels nor, as believers believe, without God.
The most powerful exercise in our spiritual inventory is to practice forgiveness, Tesfai adds. “Forgiveness is very important in reducing stress. When we think about the bad thing that happened, we stress ourselves.”
Forgiveness helps us let go of what is only hurting us.
Another factor Tesfai believes contributes greatly to patient stress is lack of adequate sleep or sleep hygiene. He rarely finds adult patients with high enough quantity (7-8 hours within a 24-hour period) or quality sleep.
Things that can improve sleep are regular physical activity; fewer cups of coffee, stimulants and energy drinks; less television and phone usage before bedtime and adequate sunlight during day hours.
Other factors Tesfai cites to increase longevity include stopping smoking, driving safely and using a seatbelt, avoiding unsafe sexual encounters and getting optimal sunlight, which not only improves mood but contributes to bone strength through natural vitamin D production.
“Sunlight also improves the sleep and rest cycle. It is a natural gift and we can use it for free.”
In addition to the three pillars of diet, exercise and stress reduction, says Tesfai, the key to living longer is detecting that which may rob us of life earlier.
“When we feel sick or ill, we have to seek medical attention as early as possible,” says Tesfai. “Any condition will have a better outcome and be less expensive when diagnosed and managed earlier.”
Keys to living longer, healthier lives
They say when it’s your time to go, it’s your time to go.
Stories give us kinship with strangers
Editor’s note: This column by the late Bev Davis originally was published April 10, 2010.
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