Author John Robbins discusses aging and remaining healthy. His book, Healthy At 100, is now available in paperback. Read part one of this interview.
Why did you write your latest book, Healthy at 100?
Every one of us, growing older. This is true in every country and among every people throughout the world, but the way different cultures have responded to this reality has varied widely.
For many of us in the industrialized world today, our aging is a source of grief and anxiety. We fear aging. The elderly people we see are for the most part increasingly senile, frail, and unhappy. As a result, rather than looking forward to growing old, we dread each passing birthday. Rather than seeing our later years as a time of harvesting, growth, and maturity, we fear that the deterioration of our health will so greatly impair our lives that to live a long life might be more of a curse than a blessing.
When we think of being old, our images are often ones of decrepitude and despair. It seems more realistic to imagine ourselves languishing in nursing homes than to picture ourselves swimming, gardening, laughing with loved ones, and delighting in children and nature.
In 2005, famed American author Hunter S. Thompson took his life. He was only sixty-seven, and had no incurable disease. He was wealthy and famous, and his 32-year-old wife loved him. But according to the literary executor of Thompson’s will, “he made a conscious decision that he … wasn’t going to suffer the indignities of old age.”
It doesn’t help to live in a society where there is so little respect for the elderly. Television shows and movies frequently portray older people as feeble, unproductive, grumpy, and stubborn. Advertisements selling everything from alcohol to cars feature beautiful young people, giving the impression that older people are irrelevant. Colloquialisms such as “geezer,” “old fogey,” “old maid,” “dirty old man,” and “old goat” demean the elderly and perpetuate a stereotype of older people as unworthy of consideration or positive regard.
Greeting card companies routinely sell birthday cards that mock the mobility, intellect, and sex drive of the no longer young. Novelty companies sell “Over-the-Hill” products such as ﬁftieth birthday cofﬁn gift boxes containing prune juice and a “decision maker to assist in planning daily activities” (a large six-sided die, with sides labeled “nap,” “TV,” “shopping,” etc.). Gifts for a man’s sixtieth birthday include a “lifetime supply” of condoms (one), Over-the-Hill bubble bath (canned beans), and “Old Fart” party hats.
We may chuckle at such humor, but negative stereotypes about aging are insidious. They attach a social stigma to aging that can affect your will to live and even shorten your life. In a study published by the American Psychological Association, Yale School of Public Health professor Becca Levy, Ph.D., concluded that even if you are not aware of them, negative thoughts about aging that you pick up from society can undermine your health and have destructive consequences.
In the study, a large number of middle-aged people were interviewed six times over the course of twenty years and asked whether they agreed with such statements as “As you get older, you are less useful.” Remarkably, the perceptions held by people about aging proved to have more impact on how long they would live than did their blood pressure, their cholesterol level, whether they smoked, or whether they exercised. Those people who had positive perceptions of aging lived an average of 7.5 years longer than those with negative images of growing older.
I asked a friend recently how he thought he might age. “I’ll probably end up in a nursing home somewhere,” he replied with some bitterness, “with a feeding tube in my nose, staring at the acoustic squares in the ceiling, incontinent, impotent, and impoverished.” Sadly, such views are not unusual. I’ve seen bumper stickers that say “Avenge Yourself: Live Long Enough to Become a Burden to Your Children.” When you distrust the aging process, it’s hard to imagine yourself enjoying your older years, doing things like dancing, jogging, or hiking. It can be difficult even to consider the possibility that you might, during every phase of your lifetime, have the capacity for growth, change, and creativity.
It has been said that we can destroy ourselves with negativity just as effectively as with bombs. If we see only the worst in ourselves, it erodes our capacity to act. If, on the other hand, we are drawn forward by a positive vision of how we might live, we can shrug off the cynicism that has become fashionable today and build truly healthy lives.
It is extraordinarily important for us today to replace the prevailing image and reality of aging with a new vision — one in which we grasp the possibility of living all our days with exuberance and passion. There are few things of greater consequence today than for us to bring our lives into alignment with our true potential for health and our dreams for a better tomorrow.
It is a loss that our medical model has been so focused on illness rather than wellness. Until recently, there has been so much preoccupation with disease that little attention has been paid to the characteristics that enable people to lead long and healthy lives and to be energetic and independent in their elder years. As a result, few of us in the modern world are aware that there have been, and still are, entire cultures in which the majority of people live passionately and vibrantly to the end. Few of us realize that there are in fact societies of people who look forward to growing old, knowing they will be healthy, vital, and respected.
There are many people today who want to live in harmony with their bodies and the natural forces of life. You may be one of them. If so, it’s helpful to understand that you are not alone, and that you have elders from whom you can learn how to accomplish your goals. There are cultures whose ways have stood the test of time that can stand as teachers on the path of wellness and joy. There are whole populations of highly spirited, vigorous people who are healthy in their seventies, eighties, nineties, even healthy at a hundred. What’s more, they have a great deal in common, and their secrets have been corroborated and to a large extent explained by many of the latest ﬁndings in medical science. New research is showing that we have all the tools to live longer lives and to remain active, productive, and resourceful until the very end.
This is good and hopeful news. It offers us a much-needed paradigm of aging as a period of wisdom and vitality. Through these healthy cultures, we can ﬁnd a compelling vision of how to mature with pleasure, dignity, purpose, and love. We are being shown that something precious is possible—a far brighter future in which aging is enjoyable and desirable. And we are being shown the practical steps we can take to achieve it.
Aging, of course, is not something that begins on your sixty-ﬁfth birthday. Who you will become in your later years is shaped by all the choices you make, all the ways you care for yourself, how you manage your life, even how you think, from your earliest years, about your future. I wrote Healthy at 100 because I have seen too many people grow old in agony and bitterness while others grow old with vitality and beauty, and I know it is possible to age with far more vigor, happiness, and inner peace than is the norm in the Western world today.
What did you learn that surprised you?
No one familiar with my earlier work will be surprised that I am interested in how our diets and exercise can help us to live long and healthy lives. But they may be surprised by some of my ﬁndings, including the great emphasis I am now placing on strong social connections. I have learned that the quality of the relationships we have with other people makes a tremendous difference to our physical as well as emotional health. Loneliness, I discovered in my research, can kill you faster than cigarettes. And by the same token, intimate relationships that are authentic and life-afﬁrming can have enormous and even miraculous healing powers.
What can readers of Healthy at 100 expect to get out of the book?
In Healthy at 100 you will gain clarity about the various essential steps you can take to extend both your life span and your health span dramatically. Reading this book will not only help you add many years to your life, but also help make those added years — and indeed all your remaining years — ones in which you experience the blossoming of your ﬁnest and wisest self.
Even if you’ve eaten poorly and have not taken very good care of yourself, even if you’ve had more than your share of hardships and pain, Healthy at 100 will show you how the choices you make today and tomorrow can greatly improve your prospects for the future. It will give you a chance to right any wrongs you’ve committed against your body. You’ll see how to regain the strength and passion for life that you may have thought were gone forever.
Whether you are in your twenties or your eighties or somewhere in between, whether you consider yourself superbly ﬁt or hopelessly out of shape, I believe you’ll ﬁnd in these pages what you need in order to regenerate rather than degenerate as the years unfold. This book will show you how to regain, and to retain, more mental clarity, physical strength, stamina, and joy.
I have written Healthy at 100 to offer you ways to enhance and improve both the quality and quantity of your remaining years. In this book are steps you can take to shatter stereotypes and misconceptions about aging and to rejuvenate your mind and body. Here are practices you can start today in order to live with greater health and joy no matter what your age.
In our youth-oriented culture, aging is often a source of great suffering. Older people frequently start to see themselves as collections of symptoms rather than whole human beings. But it doesn’t have to be that way. It is within your grasp to realize the opportunities for beauty, love, and fulﬁllment that occur at every stage of your life. It is possible to live your whole life with a commitment to your highest good. I have written Healthy at 100 so that you can learn how to make each and every one of the years of your life more full of vitality and joy, and more worth living, than you may ever have imagined.
Readers who want to learn more about John Robbins and his work can visit the website Healthy at 100.