A few weeks back, our high school and college batch held its annual Mass (via Zoom) for all our classmates who had passed on. Counting the nine classmates who had departed since last year, the total stood at 130 out of about 200, or about two-thirds of our original number. For a group of seniors in their early ‘80s, it’s not a bad record, since the average life span of male Filipinos was 67.4 years in 2020.
Still, the accelerating rate of attrition did not go unnoticed, and we knew that fewer and fewer of us would be around to attend the annual Mass in coming years. In fact, we have a standing joke that the last man standing would have his hands full calling out the individual names of everyone else and ringing the bell for each one—a tradition we observe during the commemorative Mass.
With the various perspectives on life, especially on aging and its accompanying frailties that I heard from my classmates in the online fellowship that followed the Mass, I wanted to write something that might help fellow seniors optimize the quality of their remaining years.
As usual, synchronicity manifested out of the blue. A close friend came to my house before he left for Canada (where he spends six months of every year). As a parting present, he gave me a very interesting special edition of Time Magazine titled “The Science of Living Longer,” saying, “This issue has a lot of valuable information for seniors, and you may want to use it in an article.”
True enough, I found it a veritable treasure trove of contemporary essays on longevity and optimizing quality of life. I also discovered that the age-old search for the “fountain of youth” has become a full-fledged science, an undertaking relentlessly pursued by doctors and medical researchers around the world to extend human life span. Without getting into the technical details here, I gleaned and compressed what I thought would be the most helpful inputs and insights from some selected articles.
Most interesting and very revealing is the piece that asks, “Do Married People Live Longer?” The short answer is yes, married people outlive singletons.
A 2013 study found that having a partner during middle age, when chronic diseases often first appear, is protective against premature death. It was also discovered that people who never married were more than twice as likely to die early as people in stable marriages. The caveat, of course, is that the quality of the marriage could matter a lot. Researchers are learning that the way people treat each other daily clearly impacts physical health.
Next, where and when do the usual signs of aging in the body become noticed? The section, “Age More Slowly—All Over” identifies the organs that need extra care early on to help maintain wellness: eyes—by age 40, the range of sight declines (suggestion: don’t smoke and wear sunglasses; smoking and sun exposure accelerate cataract formation); lungs—lung function begins dropping 1 percent a year at 30; muscles—muscle loss and fat gain start at 40 (exercise avoids muscle decline); heart—at age 20 to 30, peak aerobic capacity decreases by about 10 percent per decade, and heart disease kicks in at around age 65; kidneys—decline in kidney function starts around 50 (suggestion: drink a lot of water); brain—by age 70, related brain changes accelerate (suggestion: keep activities that engage and stimulate the mind); ears—age-induced hearing loss is gradual, but one in three people between 65 and 74 has it; skin—from around 18, beneficial collagen and elastin decline about 1 percent per year; bones—after age 35, bone mass decreases about 1 percent per year; gut—villi in the intestines that absorb food nutrients flatten out at around 60, resulting in fewer nutrients absorbed.
What can we do about all this decline in body functions? The article titled “23 Surprising Things That May Extend Your Life” gives some very doable advice; I have selected and compressed the more significant items:
- Steam in the sauna. A 20-year study among Finnish men showed that those who went to the sauna regularly had a lower risk of cardiac illnesses than those who did not.
- Get mindful. Regular meditation practice, including tai chi and yoga, have been linked to increased longevity.
- Don’t get steaming mad. A 2015 study found that people who had an angry outburst were 8.5 times in greater danger of a heart attack within the next two hours.
- Drink moderately. Alcohol in moderation is linked to lower risk of heart disease, heart failure, stroke and dementia (i.e., one drink daily for women and two for men).
- Get physical (with a partner). Studies show that you can boost immunity with each hug or embrace from a pal or partner.
- Find a good boss. Working for a bad boss is linked to a rise in heart disease risk.
- Stop smoking. The many harmful effects of smoking are well documented.
- Don’t stop learning. Higher education is linked to a higher age count. People with a college degree live about nine years longer than those who don’t have a high school diploma.
- Work hard. People who work the hardest at meaningful jobs seem to live the longest, based on an eight-decadelong aging study.
- Exercise a little bit. Even moderate physical activity of less than an hour a week is associated with a 15-percent lower risk of death, with runners enjoying even lower risk—30 percent from any cause and 45 percent from heart attack.
- Get vertical. Stand up more. A study showed that sitting longer than three hours a day shaved two years from a person’s life expectancy, and people who put in six TV hours a day had a life span 4.8 years shorter than those who didn’t watch TV.
The saying goes that it is not the number of years in our life, but the life in our years that matter most. But isn’t it much better to have both? The many simple choices for a long, quality-filled life are ours to make. —CONTRIBUTED INQ