Thoughts on aging

I associate aging with deterioration, disease, and suffering. Loss of mental and physical agility is inevitable. The indignities of old age harass the elderly relentlessly. Moreover, old age is accompanied by a growing physical repulsiveness. Our physical features and bodies become repellent in various ways, exacerbated by frailty, despair, and pain. Chronic, debilitating illnesses force people into feeble, unproductive, and grouchy lives. I dread and fear old age. I’d rather die than suffer the ignominy and humiliation of senility.

At least, that’s how I used to think. But recently my youngest daughter Jenny gave me for my 64th birthday John Robbins’ book Healthy at 100: How You Can Dramatically Increase Your Life Span And Your Health Span. Reading this inspiring and evidence-based book has given me new hope that it is possible to live a long life with vigor and vitality, and that aging can be a time of good health filled with purpose, meaning, exuberance, creativity, joy, love, learning, and laughter.

In favor of his argument that old age can embody deep wisdom, profound joy, and vibrant good health, John Robbins marshals the evidence in favor of a plant-based diet, daily rigorous exercise, and strong, loving relationships so skillfully and fairly that it is hard to imagine how anyone could possibly refute it. It is amazing how wrong doctors have been in the past (for example, claiming that women doing strength training would endanger their ability to have children).

One particular story fascinated me, and that was the story about runner Jim Fixx. He wrote books extolling the virtues of running, and when he died of a heart attack at age 52, everybody scoffed and said, “That just shows exercise and running won’t stop you from dying early from a heart attack.” Late night comics found in Fixx’s early death rich material for barbed humor aimed at health nuts like me. Jim Fixx’s death seemed to say that it was OK to be a sedentary couch potato.

It was only in reading John Robbins book that I learned the full story. Apparently Jim Fixx did not eat wisely. He attached little value to good nutrition, and in fact criticized people who stressed how important it was. He ate fast food meals without enough vegetables and fruit. An autopsy revealed that three of his coronary arteries were more than 70 percent blocked, and one was 99 percent obstructed. Poor eating habits killed him, not running, which is not the impression the media gave in 1984 when he died.

My goal is to never eat anything again with a mother or a face. If I eat like a vegan (as President Bill Clinton now does), keep exercising, and surround myself with a loving family and friends, I’m convinced that it is possible to be vigorous, purposeful, creative, and wise while also being in my 90s or even older. I don’t have to be ill, grumpy, irritable, and irrelevant.