The Real Fountain of Youth

Imagine living heart-disease-free – and fully, actively, and vigorously – well into our 70s, 80s, and beyond. The authors of a large new study call it “healthy longevity… kind of the fountain of youth,” and lay out a blueprint for achieving it

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Imagine living heart-disease-free – and fully, actively, and vigorously – well into our 70s, 80s, and beyond. The authors of a large new study call it “healthy longevity… kind of the fountain of youth,” and lay out a blueprint for achieving it.

Just about any morning in the gym at the Pritikin Longevity Center, you’ll see them. A few men and women in their 80s, even one or two in their 90s, and they’re all lean and feisty, charging away on their treadmills and laughing and joshing each other like kids at Coney Island.

“My own fountain of youth”

More than three hundred 80+ go-getters come back to Pritikin regularly for a healthy vacation and refresher in Pritikin living. “It’s how I keep up my own fountain of youth,” they often tell us. “And it’s a nice kick in the ass.”

“They need kick?” we all smile.

Our high-octane octogenarians are proof positive of how powerful a healthy lifestyle can be in powering up our lives. As the 100+ studies published over the past 30+ years on the Pritikin Program have shown, healthy living in the form of good food, fitness, and psychological well-being is highly effective in eliminating key risk factors linked with the leading killer in the U.S. – cardiovascular disease.

New JAMA study

Now, the results of a new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) confirm and quantify the enormous benefits of healthy habits. The JAMA study pooled the data from five large previous studies funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. All together, the analysis involved more than 900,000 person-years of data from 1964 through 2008.1

Optimal risk factor profile

The researchers found that people with an optimal risk factor profile (defined as blood pressure under 120 over 80, total cholesterol under 180, no diabetes, and no smoking) at middle age reduced their lifetime risk of a major cardiovascular event, like a heart attack or stroke, by as much as 50% compared to people with two or more of these risk factors at mid life.

14 more years of healthy living

Even more impressive were the study’s findings that an optimal risk factor profile in middle age staved off the onset of cardiovascular disease – and all its problems and pain – for about 14 years.

Summed up lead author John T. Wilkins, MD, of Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, “If you have fewer risk factors, you will live healthier longer.”

How priceless is that? Don’t we all want not only a long life, but one that is active and healthy right up to the end? As Stanford professors Drs. James Fries and Lawrence Crapo described more than 30 years ago in their landmark book Vitality and Aging, adult life can be divided into two periods:

“First, there is a period of independence and vigor. Second, for those not dying suddenly or prematurely, there is a period of dependence, diminished capacity, and often lingering disease. This period of infirmity is the problem; it is feared, by many, more than death itself.”

Today, most Americans are in fact living longer than generations past. But many are also experiencing growing periods of infirmity – 10 years or more of diminished living, often brought on by cardiovascular-related conditions like strokes, heart attacks, angina, congestive heart failure, and diabetes, not to mention the body-slowing, brain-slowing side effects of the multiple medications that often attend these conditions.

Compression of infirmity

What healthy living is all about is the compression of infirmity, asserted Drs. Fries and Crapo in Vitality and Aging. It is the ability, through healthy eating, exercise, stress management and other lifestyle factors, to avoid chronic illness and live out our lives with gusto – fully, actively, vigorously. 

It’s all about, as anthropologist and educator Ashley Montagu wrote: “Dying young as late in life as possible.”

Healthy choices trump DNA

And sure, there are some risk factors, like DNA, that we cannot control, but the role of genetics is “relatively modest,” points out another of the JAMA study’s researchers, Donald Lloyd Jones, MD, also at Northwestern University. “If we are controlling our environment well, and avoiding bad diets, and keeping physically active, trying to limit the amount of sodium in our diet, and not smoking, we can in much, much larger percentages see people achieve the optimal profile.”

Bottom line: The way we live our lives really can enhance the lives we live.

“It’s healthy longevity,” summed up Dr. Lloyd Jones, “and that’s kind of the fountain of youth.”

1. JAMA, 2012; 308 (17): 1795.

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