Growing old no longer a great feat, but staying old and healthy is

If I’d known I was gonna live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself.
Eubie Blake, on reaching the age of 100.

As I approach my 93rd birthday while still remaining in good health, the requests increase that I divulge the “secret” of my longevity.

My flippant response is usually that it takes patience – that all you have to do is wait long enough.

But of course one’s longevity is determined by a host of different factors. Inherited genes, lifestyle, physical and mental activity, and even luck are all decisive factors. Every human being is different. We all have different parents, different upbringings, different qualities of life, different incomes, diets, strains and stresses. So the determinants of good health that helped prolong my life span don’t necessarily apply to others.

But there are two vital prerequisites that I think do apply to most people.

One is to maintain as much as possible a good sense of humour.

The other is to maintain as much as possible a strong immune system.

1. A lively sense of humour

Admittedly, a jocular disposition is sometimes hard to preserve, especially during the rough periods that we all have to go through; but whenever it is normal and natural to laugh, let’s not stifle our mirth. Exuberance can be amazingly beneficial to our health – and a lot cheaper than anti-depressant drugs. As Dr. Patch Adams always claimed, “laughter is the best medicine.”

Readers who have seen the movie Patch Adams, a real-life physician played by Robin Williams, know that he wasn’t a traditional doctor. Although many of his patients were seriously or chronically ill, he often showed them funny movies. The antics of comedians such as Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton, and the Three Stooges made them laugh. Even the sickest of them chuckled.

Patch Adams didn’t believe that laughter could cure these patients, but he was convinced that it had a marvelously salubrious effect. It alleviated their distress and often stimulated their recovery.

Old age itself has been the subject of hilarious jests by aging comedians, including the one above by Eubie Blake. I often quote quips by eminent oldsters, such as the following:

Red Skelton: “You know that old age is gaining on you when the candles on your birthday cake cost more than the cake.”

Lucille Ball: “I’ve reached the age when my back goes out more than I do.”

Phyllis Diller: “I exercise more than anyone else – every day, for hours and hours. Left, right, left, right, up and down, up and down. Sometimes I lift both my eyelids at the same time.”

Milton Berle: “Birthdays are Nature’s way of telling us to eat more cake.”

Christopher Fry: “When you’re elderly, you don’t need people reminding you how old you are. Your bladder does that for you.”

Alan Bennett: “In England, if you live to be 90 and can still eat a boiled egg, they think you deserve the Nobel Prize.”

Daisy Ashford: “Old age is supposed to be fruitful, if only because you start out as a plum and end up as a prune.”

Francois de la Rochefoucauld: “Old men are fond of giving good advice, if only to console themselves for no longer being able to give bad examples.”

Mary Pettibone Poole: “There are no old people nowadays. They are either ‘wonderful for their age’ or dead.”

Edward Grey: “I’m getting to the age when I can only enjoy the last sport left to me: hunting. Hunting for my glasses.”

George Burns: “You know you’re getting old when you stoop to tie your shoelaces and wonder what else you could do while you’re down there.”

Claudia Young: “It’s a myth that people tend to become wiser as they get older. If age really did impart wisdom, there wouldn’t be so many old conservatives.”

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that almost all these comics lived well into their 70s, 80s, and 90s. As Michael Pritchard put it: “You don’t stop laughing because you grow old. You grow old because you stop laughing.”

I confess to having a predilection for making puns, to which my relatives and friends usually respond with groans. But the pun has been indulged in by writers, poets and playwrights for at least the past six centuries. Shakespeare’s plays are riddled with hundreds of puns, much more than the books of other famous authors who punned a lot, including Lewis Carrol and James Joyce.

Even Jane Austen got in the occasional pun, as when one of her heroines complained that “My home at my uncle’s brought me acquainted with a circle of admirals. I saw enough of Rears and Vices.”

My latest pun was prompted by the prominent stoop that I’ve developed. It’s a legacy of the more than 80 years I spent bending over typewriters and computers. I assure everyone, however, that I have not become a full-fledged hunchback – just a quarterback.

If you groaned at that one, too, here are a couple of others that I consider practically groan-proof:

During my time as a reporter for the Montreal Gazette, I was  assigned to do a story on the perennial problem of persuading passengers to move to the back of the bus or streetcar. I put the problem in a historical perspective, noting that Noah even had trouble getting the animals to move to the back of the Ark.

And when the Greeks rolled their wooden horse to the gates of Troy, the soldiers jammed inside balked at moving to the rear. The crush became so bad that one of the soldiers was accidentally stabbed by another warrior’s spear.

When the Brigadier saw how badly the soldier was bleeding, he yelled out: “Is there a doctor in the horse?”

*   *   *

While a few friends and I were visiting New York, we strolled past the city’s magnificent public library on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. We were puzzled to see, at each side of the entrance, the huge statue of a lion.

“What have lions got to do with a library?” one of my friends wondered.

The answer suddenly came to me. “Why, it should be obvious. The statues were put there for the benefit of library patrons who like to read between the lions.”

*   *   *

While I was editor of the quarterly newsletter of the  condominium of garden homes where I live, we had a problem with several residents who walked their dogs, but failed to scoop their poop. Our board of directors was bombarded by complaints from other residents who inadvertently stepped in piles of excrement.

I rebuked the culpable dog owners in the next newsletter, urging them to pick up after their pets. It seemed to have the desired effect, but maybe it was at least partly because of the heading I put on the editorial: “We’re having too many close encounters of the turd kind.”

I don’t have room to include any more of the puns I consider among my best (or least punishing), but I remain as convinced as Patch Adams that humour in all of its whimsical forms is a significant promoter of longevity.

2. A strong immune system

Laughing or not, Canadians are living longer, with current life expectancy now averaging 82. The most recent Statistics Canada data I can find reports that 749,000 Canadians have lived into their 80s, and 280,000 into their 90s, with women significantly outnumbering men in both those categories. (Of the 280,000 nonagenarians, more than 200,000 were female.)

But StatsCan can’t measure the well-being of these senior citizens. One of its studies found that the health of most Canadians starts to deteriorate at the age of 69, but the extent and cause of that decline varies considerably at the individual level and is not measureable. Obviously, it depends on the different internal and external determinants of health that affect each of us, and whether we can exert any control over them. People who choose a self-indulgent and dissolute lifestyle can shorten their life-spans to 70 or sooner.

But even when we eat well, exercise, and do our best to avoid illness, we can still be incapacitated by one of Shakespeare’s “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” In either case, the “golden years” turn out to be not even bronze.

We’ve all heard the old cliché that “there’s only one thing worse than growing old, and that’s not growing old.” But there’s another eventuality that is arguably worse: growing old and sick. Very sick. So sick that you become a burden on your family and a financial drain on the country’s “health care” system.

That’s the sad fate of far too many of our senior citizens. So many that our nursing homes, long-term and palliative care institutions can’t accommodate all of them. Thousands are bed-ridden or otherwise incapacitated, many in their own homes or the homes of their children.

I cite this unpleasant reality, not as an inevitable consequence of aging (it isn’t, by any means), but because I believe that most of the ills associated with old age are preventable. Well, not indefinitely, of course – we all have to die of something, sometime – but for much longer than the age at which many of our elderly now succumb.

This is not a new concept. Some geriatric specialists and health reformers have been arguing for years that the priority should be to prevent ailments rather than trying to alleviate them after they occur. Such a switch would not only improve and prolong life spans, but also save many billions of dollars now spent on remedial surgery, drugs, hospital stays, and home care.

Left on our own

In the absence of such an emphasis on prevention, we are basically left to fend for ourselves. Many people, however, are not free to choose the kind of wholesome lifestyle they would prefer. They can eschew bad habits, but if they’re poor, not well-educated, unemployed, or mired in menial and low-paying jobs, with arduous family responsibilities, their quality of life is largely beyond their control.

They need help from local, provincial, and federal governments, but such caring and progressive politicians seem to be in short supply in Canada. When it comes to promoting good health – apart from efforts to discourage tobacco use and drunk driving – most politicians are pretty much content to let Canadians look after themselves – at least until they get sick enough to require the services of doctors, hospitals, druggists, and old-age homes.

Staying well on our own is an onerous responsibility. Even those among us who are financially well off are not invulnerable to the dangers of an increasingly contaminated environment. Much of our water and soil is polluted, and the air we breathe is laden with toxins that are inimical to our health. They are so pervasive and are carried so widely by air and water and in the food we eat that, short of living in a glass bubble, it is impossible to avoid them.

Our powerful personal defence

Fortunately, Nature endowed each of us at birth with a tremendously powerful defence mechanism – the immune system – which in theory (and for some of us in practice) can repel or destroy even the most dangerous microbial attackers.

A progressive U.S. physician, Dr. Ronald Glasser, wrote a book many years ago titled The Body is the Hero, in which he argued that, for most forms of illness, all a doctor can do for a patient is help the immune system do its job. And that job is to prevent the patient from getting sick in the first place.

Think of the immune system as an engine that, like all engines, operates most effectively when provided with the best fuel and maintenance. There was a time, long ago, when it was possible for someone to do that simply by eating the right foods – foods rich in all the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that the body and its immune system require.

But that was a time when such natural organic foods were widely available, when so many people were not crowded into cities and workplaces conducive to the spread of disease, and when the air, water and soil were not contaminated. Today, much of our food is grown in denatured soil drenched with toxic pesticides and herbicides, then “processed” in ways that leach out much of its natural goodness.

And this has happened while our bodies are exposed to thousands of harmful chemicals, smog, and pollution – and thus more urgently in need of a strong immune system than ever before.

The traditional medical system has been scoffing at this alleged need for a stronger immune system for a long time, even ridiculing Nobel Prize winner Dr. Linus Pauling when he advocated taking daily megadoses of Vitamin C – at least 1,000 IU — to complement the deficiency of that essential vitamin from the sun alone. But many recent studies have confirmed the therapeutic benefits of this and other vitamin and mineral supplements, especially those with antioxidants that help the immune system stave off carcinogens.

I started a supplementary vitamin/mineral/herbal regime about 60 years ago. It may be just a coincidence that I’ve never been seriously ill since then – and I know I’m tempting fate by even alluding to my ongoing wellness! – but I’m convinced I would be far less healthy today if I hadn’t.

Some skeptics would claim it was be an example of the “placebo effect” where candy pills have a health-inducing effect because the patient believes they do – but I don’t think so. Neither does my family doctor, who, after finishing my annual checkups, always says with a feigned sigh, “Sorry, Ed, but I still can’t find anything wrong with you.” The time will ultimately come, of course – mortality being unavoidable — when he will have a much less positive prognosis for me, but, until then, I continue to enjoy my life a day at a time.

For millions of other seniors, however, the older they get, the more their health deteriorates. They become victims of a pseudo-health-care system that perversely is fixated on “treating” sickness and searching for elusive cures instead of helping people stay well. So  doctors, pharmaceutical companies, hospital administrators, nursing home owners, medical equipment makers — even the scores of public charitable organizations – all operate on the assumption that “health care” begins only after people get sick. Whether they admit it or not, the grim fact is that they all have a vested interest in sickness, not health.

This is not to denigrate the dedication and integrity of the professionals who staff our health care system. In the toxic-stew environment we’re now immersed in, and in the absence of preventive and protective measures, their services are indispensable They do their best to heal us when we sicken, and sometimes succeed.

But surely it would be far better to have a system that puts a priority on helping people avoid illness. It would be far less costly, in the long run, to eliminate hunger, poverty, squalor, and the other social causes of ill-health than to try to cope medically  and belatedly with their terribly debilitating effects.

Unfortunately, such a beneficial reversal of our profit-driven system of “health care” will never happen as long as the lack of preventive measures benefits the powerful corporations and organizations that run it and thrive on it.

We are therefore left to do the best we can, as individuals, to maintain our own health and keep our immune systems as strong as possible. That includes the ingestion of nutritious unprocessed real food, supplemented daily by at least a good multi-vitamin-and-mineral capsule, plus extra vitamins B, D, and C, and – if you can afford them — krill, acidophilus, and Coenzyme Q-10.

In the absence of government efforts to support a preventive approach to health care, our immune systems need all the help we can give them on our own.

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