Extending Time's Sponsorship: Is There a Secret to Living a Long Life?
When Time Withdraws His Sponsorship
is a limiting, inhibitive, sponsor man
of greed, hunger, one-eyed
telescope and key-hole peeping -
armed with a foreclosure on your life.
withdraws sponsorship of all
these personal implicitly complicit complexities
of the truth of what is
really and objectively -
as against subjectively - there - stop!
Put your trust in your gods
The breath of life has abandoned you - and you are
crossed, eye-to-eye, dead;
cross-eyed-to-eyed dead … Ooooo!
diddly-eye, dyed-in-the-wool dead.*
Death. In the form of a random mutation of cells, a blood clot, tragic accident or peacefully in one’s sleep. It will happen to all of us. Some sooner than others. Death has touched my family and my friends. It has not been fair and it has not been the fault of the victim. When awful things happen we look for someone to blame. If the person who died prematurely was overweight then we judge, if they didn’t exercise we judge. If they had a stressful life we judge. This doesn’t make sense though. If we plug their stats into a life expectancy calculator it will probably still give them a retirement period and a chance at old age. I did this with my father-in-law in mind and overestimated his weight, the amount he drank and his stress levels while underestimating his level of exercise and vegetables eaten. Still he calculated out as living into his eighties. Trying it with my forest living, vegetarian, non smoking, daily exercising Aunt and she was given a life expectancy into her 90s. They were ripped off. Ben died in his early 60s, Kerry in her early 50s.
The life expectancy calculator I used was developed using Canadian Community Health Surveys from 2001 to 2005 (sample size of 550 000). It’s quite fun but It doesn’t factor in chance. Nora Ephron likens death to a sniper, and I don’t know if my life will be cut short by cancer, stroke or car accident. If I do live into my 90s or even 100s I have some very good role models. My neighbour Mrs Behrman died earlier this year aged 107. She was a refugee twice in her childhood, first from Latvia then Russia. She trained as a journalist in London and during World War Two she arranged for Jewish refugees to work on farms in the UK. After the war she was recruited to Mossad and escorted Jewish orphans to Palestine. She was a woman who was concerned not just with her local community but the state of the world.
My Nana Ann is similarly engaged and interested in the world around her. She has always been very active in Trade Aid and had to stop going to University of the Third Age when she lost her drivers licence in her 90s. She is 101 and is still living in her own home, gardening, jigsaw puzzling and reading avidly. Ann moved to NZ from London after World War Two, leaving behind the rationing, the memories of lost loved ones and the rubble. She started a new life on the other side of the world and met her husband there, he had been a in a German Prison of War Camp. She described the two of them as being drawn to each other as they were both traumatised by the war in a way that many New Zealanders didn’t understand. They wanted and needed a gentle and simple life, they decided to run an orchard together. But they also needed to stand up against injustice. They were activists, they marched against Nuclear testing, against destruction of native forest, against the Springbok tour of NZ, against Vietnam. They made friends with local politicians. Their two closest friends came to be like second parents to their children. Ann’s family were on the other side of the world she had to make her own tribe in her new country.
Ann admits that she is now feeling her old age in that she uses a walker for long walks. She doesn’t always have words or people’s names instantly to hand. She no longer cooks her dinners, these are provided by Meals on Wheels.
In Renata’s last years of life she was bed bound and would tell her lovely carer that she was ready to go but she had fought for life for a century and it was not easy to undo a such a strong survival instinct. She passed away in her sleep in January.
Two old birds on the opposite sides of earth, one gentle and sociable, one a formidable force of nature. Is there a secret to their longevity? Olivier de Ladoucette is a French gerontologist who categorises people into three groups. There are Gamblers, those who exhibit harmful behaviours and live for the moment. There are Mechanics, who approach life like a car; if it isn’t broken then it doesn’t need to be fixed. Mechanics only change their lifestyle in response to ill health. The last group is that of the Gardeners those who tend, cultivate, listen and anticipate. I think Ann and Renata in their curiosity for life and their interest in people fit this category.
So how does one live the life of a gardener? Nic Marks is a statistician and happiness researcher and he has written a very simple list of “five ways to wellbeing’ To live a long and happy life he advises that we connect, move, take notice, keep learning and give.
To connect is to have a conversation with friends, family or neighbours. Ideally, it is in person because online interactions don’t trigger the neuro transmitters dopamine and oxytocin as strongly as face to face interactions do. But Skype, a letter or a phone call is strengthening a social bond and in my opinion (as a woman with family and friends living twelve time zones away) still counts.
Susan Pinker says that social isolation is the public health risk of our time. She studies centenarians in Sardinia and ascribes their long lives to daily contact with extended family, neighbours and friends. She cites the psychologist Julian Holt- Lunstad’s findings that the number one predictor of long life is a person’s level of social integration. How many people they speak to and interact with everyday, the postie, the person who makes your coffee, parents at drop off, every interaction counts.
Robert Waldinger’s Ted Talk on happiness concludes that good relationships keep us happy and healthier. People who are more socially connected to family friends and their community are happier, physically healthier and live longer than people who are less well connected. He also states that conflict is bad for health and it is good warm relationships that are protective. He cites anthropologist Joan Silk’s research that found that if a person had three stable relationships in their life they had a “biological forcefield against disease and decline”
The next thing a gardener must do is move
Nic Marks doesn’t specify how you move, he doesn’t use the word exercise, he just asks that you move every day. This doesn’t mean that you need to run, or go to a class it means that you should move your body in many and varied ways. Examples are playing on the jungle gym instead of your phone; hanging as often as possible to undo computer/desk/phone posture while stretching your entire body; and inverting regularly, even if it just means resting your legs on the wall as you lie on your back.
Dan Buettner studies the common denominators in blue zone cultures (areas of high centenarian populace) The first thing they have in common is that none of them exercise. Instead, they set up their lives so that they are constantly nudged into physical activity - walking, squatting, going up stairs for example. When they do do intentional physical activity, it's the things they enjoy.
Gardeners also need to Take Notice and be aware of the world around you, appreciate what matters. Dan Buettner’s blue zone communities all take time to “downshift” This might mean prayer it might mean meditative movement such as tai chi, it might be mindfulness. Slowing down for just 15 minutes a day turns down our stressed out, fight our flight, cortisol producing nervous system and turns up our parasympathetic, rest and digest, anti-inflammatory nervous system.
Which then gives us the mental energy to
Keep Learning or keep curious and interested in the world, keep building neural connections and keep using and exercising your brain to keep mentally fit. Again Buettner’s studies show that older people who keep learning and who are curious have much better health outcomes than those who aren’t. Examples are earning to cook a new dish, picking up an instrument you played as a child, reading that book that everyone is raving about. The process of learning and the journey that this takes one on helps people have a sense of purpose, which according to Buettner is worth about seven years of extra life expectancy.
This agency and purpose is also found when we Give. Generosity gives us a chance to gain perspective on all that we have, reminding us to look out as well as in. Giving also creates connections with others by helping us appreciate others who give and by understanding those who need our help. Our altruism is hardwired to the reward mechanism in our brain. We feel good if we give. Nic Marks researchers gave two groups of people a hundred dollars in the morning. They told one group to spend it on themselves and one on other people. They measured their happiness at the end of the day, those that spent the money on other people were much happier that those that spent it on themselves.
Renata and Ann didn’t consciously follow Nic Mark’s five ways to well being. But through their interest in people, by being regular walkers, by putting aside time to pray or do a jigsaw puzzle, by being voracious readers, by being active in their community and caring about the state of the world they have modelled how to live a long and fulfilling life. These women have given me a new perspective on my community commitments and even better than that, they have helped eliminate the guilt I feel when I meet friends for coffee. Work, washing and admin never go away. By spending time with friends, going on dates with my husband, by chatting to the (long suffering) postie I am investing in my happiness and my longevity.
Pen and Ink drawing of Renata Behrman by the Israeli artist Nachum Gutman
*From Small Holes in the Silence Hone Tuwhare 2011 p291