Leave it to baby boomers to turn gerontology into a growth profession. The forever-young generation may be getting older, but we're not about to take it lying down.
The irony is that we're the ones who, back in the '60s, built a counterculture out of rebelling against anything that our parents said was good for us. Well, the times they are a changin'. Want to get a rise out of the average boomer in his forties or fifties — the one with a potbelly, a receding hairline, slightly high blood pressure, and a bum knee? Just tell him how to improve his health or slow his aging. Mortality, after all, is the ultimate bummer.
As psychologist James Hillman writes in his new book, "The Force of Character and the Lasting Life" (Random House, 1999), "Aging has become the major fear of a generation." Call up the subject on Amazon.com, and you'll find an astonishing 4,058 books. Scientists, physicians, philosophers, nutritionists, stress-reduction specialists, and New Age gurus are all weighing in with advice for a price. Most of it is prosaic — the kind of stuff that our parents were telling us all those years back. But now we're willing to pay for it.
We live in an era that celebrates youth as never before — not only in popular culture but also in the business world. Twentysomething Web millionaires are outshining vastly more experienced executives. In a marketplace that prizes adaptability, celebrates speed, and rewards those with enough energy to work around the clock, youth (or at least, youthfulness) is at a premium.
At the same time, because of negligence and laziness, many of us have been growing older faster than we should. Despite everything that we now know about good health, far too many of us smoke, drink too much, sleep too little, overeat or eat badly, avoid exercise, and carry on blithely as if we're destined to live forever. By behaving in this way, we're not just hastening our demise — we're also putting ourselves at a competitive disadvantage.
So what exactly do these behaviors cost us, and to what degree would changing them make a difference? Is there a middle ground between an obsession with aging and an intelligent commitment to a healthier lifestyle? How much time, money, energy, and angst should we devote to the fight against senescence? What, to be blunt, is the value of any given investment that we make in living longer?
The most provocative and accessible contributor to this debate turns out to be neither a gerontologist nor a philosopher, but an anesthesiologist and internist at the University of Chicago who has a passion for statistics and a hunger to "change the health of the nation." He is Dr. Michael F. Roizen, the author of "RealAge: Are You as Young as You Can Be?" (HarperCollins, 1999).
"How old are you?" I ask Roizen the first time we talk. "I'm 53," he says. "But my 'real age' is 39." And how does he come up with this Jack Benny-ish age? Roizen has set out to quantify what, until now, have been confusing, contradictory, and anecdotal suggestions from experts about what's healthy and what's not. The resulting "real age" equations are replete with covariants and regression analyses that are designed to factor and weigh variables. But, in simple terms, Roizen is out to show just how much any given behavior affects a person's rate of aging — for better or for worse.
The "real age" analysis takes into account not just how much longer you might expect to live but also the quality of life that you're likely to have along the way. People who control their blood pressure, for example, not only live longer than those who don't but also have lower rates of disability in the later stages of their lives. "RealAge is a calculation of the net present value of your health behaviors," Roizen explains, in familiar business-school language.
In 1995, Roizen and four other scientists began spending their Saturday mornings poring over more than 800 scientific papers — mostly large-scale epidemiological studies — in order to settle on 44 key behaviors that they agreed make the biggest difference in aging. They found, for example, that excessive alcohol consumption hastens aging, while moderate drinking — up to one drink a day for women, no more than two drinks a day for men — tends to reduce a person's "real age."
Sex is a good age reducer too, as long as it's practiced safely. The average sexually active American has sex about once a week. But, according to Roizen, "The more orgasms you have a year, the younger you are." Double your average annual orgasm count, and you'll knock about a year and a half off your "real age." (I know your next question. Sorry, but it's not yet clear whether masturbating produces the same benefits.)
Nutrition also plays a central role in aging. It's no news, of course, that you're far better off eating fruits and vegetables than fats and sugars. But Roizen also found that eating 10 servings of tomato-based products or two portions of fish each week, or maintaining a diet that is high in fiber (at least 25 grams a day), will produce a bigger age-reducing effect than cutting fat consumption to 20% or 30% of overall calorie intake. Nor is fat all bad. Extremely low-fat diets, such as Dean Ornish's 10% regimen, clearly reduce the risk of death from heart disease. But for preventing mortality overall, Roizen says, a 25% fat intake appears to be ideal.
When it comes to fitness, Roizen's findings confirm the anti-aging value of physical activity: More is generally better, and 90 minutes a day seems to be optimal. And it's healthiest to spend at least 60 minutes a week taxing the heart at 65% or more of its capacity. Even more surprising is Roizen's finding that strength training — a form of exercise whose value has gone largely unrecognized — has nearly as much impact on the battle against aging as aerobic activity.
No one makes the case for weightlifting more effusively than Bob Arnot, in "Guide to Turning Back the Clock" (Little, Brown, 1995) — my second-favorite book on the subject of age reversal. "If there is a fountain of youth," Arnot rhapsodizes, "it is the heavy metal in your local gym. If you undertake only a single new step to regain your youth, build new muscle." It is possible, the evidence suggests, to build bone density and muscle mass — and to do so both dramatically and quickly — at virtually any age. The result of weight training is not just an increase in strength and mobility, but also a speedier metabolism, a conversion of fat into muscle, and lower blood-sugar levels. Perhaps most encouraging, all of these effects can be attained with as little as 30 minutes a week of weight training.
Sadly, I know from my own humbling experience that adding any new regimen to your life — particularly one that requires conscious effort — is an uphill battle. Sedentary habits die especially hard. Much as we may dislike aging, we still find it hard to embrace what's good for us.
Roizen believes that he's got even this angle covered. "The point isn't to be perfect," he explains. While he dutifully follows 41 of his 44 prescriptions, Roizen acknowledges that he still gets too little sleep, endures too much chronic stress, and can't always resist the pleasures of chocolate.
"This isn't some kind of recipe that you have to follow," he avers. "It's more like a supermarket or department store: You can pick and choose the activities that are easiest for you. The most successful people start with 3 or 4 changes, and then come back in 90 days and add a few more."
For several weeks, I have been testing Roizen's theory in my own life. Nervous by nature, I was already following nearly two-thirds of his prescriptions. Now I've added several more. Along with my vitamins, I now take an aspirin a day — to lower my chances of blood clots, heart attack, stroke, and colon cancer. Because dental disease causes significant aging of the immune system, I'm abiding by Roizen's instructions to floss every day and to brush my tongue as well as my teeth. I'm looking for more opportunities to eat tomatoes. I'm having a drink every day or two — even though it makes me fall asleep embarrassingly early.
What I'm not doing is driving within five miles of the speed limit, or giving up using my cell-phone in the car, or worrying less about money, or eating fish — all of which, according to Roizen, would give me more RealAge benefits. My rebelliousness persists. Still, if Roizen's right, what I've done so far should significantly decrease my "real age" — which would be a great return on a modest investment of effort.
Of course, living longer is only part of the story. As James Hillman puts it, " 'Staying in shape' means more than working out." Longevity itself is value-free. The ultimate significance of our efforts to live longer must be measured by how we use the extra time and energy that we manage to accrue. That's a more daunting challenge than eating more tomatoes or remembering to floss.
Contact Tony Schwartz by email (firstname.lastname@example.org). An annotated list of books about aging accompanies his column at www.fastcompany.com/online/29/books.html . You can reach Michael Roizen by email (email@example.com).