If Dr. Roger Landry was going to write a prescription for aging in America, he might scribble, be leaflike. The directions, he says, go like this: “Become more colorful with age, make more beauty than you can alone, and when your time comes, drop off the tree.”
Another way of stating the Rx is “Live Long, Die Short,” the title of Landry’s new book. It’s his formula for aging happily in America.
A former Air Force colonel and flight surgeon, Landry, 67, has a brand new gig. He’s taking his more than 40 years of experience as a preventive medicine doctor, tapping into research by the respected MacArthur Foundation and others, and trying to change the way America ages. This means changes we make as individuals and also changes in policy.
Senior Planet caught up with Landry by phone when he was in the midst of his multi-city plane-hopping book tour. We wanted details on the prescription.
What exactly does it mean to live long, die short?
It’s a jazzier way of talking about an old public health term, the “compression of morbidity or disease.” All of us want to compress the time we are sick at the end of life. Rather than following the stereotype of aging as a long period of decline, which is expensive, painful and degrading, research is now telling us we can age in a better way, we can compress that sick time.
Lifestyle is what determines that; it’s 70 percent of it. And it’s never too late to start.
What’s different about your outlook?
I base my outlook on science and research, not just some vague concept like fitness. It’s based on data, for instance, from the MacArthur Foundation.
To age successfully, we need to pay attention to our physical, intellectual, social and spiritual sides. We need a general sense of meaning and purpose – why am I here?
To the extent we pay attention to all of these, we develop a resilience that on a biological level is good for the immune system, the cardiovascular system, the brain. Heart disease and cancer are like buzzards, always with us and flying a little lower as we get older. But resilience can help us avoid sickness.
What policies have to change to pave the way to successful aging, your way?
Public health policy can make a difference – we saw that with smoking once we knew it was harmful. Now our perceptions of older adults need to change. In Dan Buettner’s book, ”Blue Zones,” he talks about the five places in the world where people often live to 100. What he sees in these blue zones is that these older adults continually engage. Beyond just being respected, they are critical to the society, and the society is better because of it.
We have lost all this in the U.S. ever since the industrial revolution.
I believe we need to begin to recognize that we cannot as a society just throw away this resource – people over 65, with all their wisdom and value – which is basically what we do.
And older adults can’t just say, we want to be respected… They need to give back, too. We need policies that would facilitate giving back – that facilitate and incentivize being active. For instance, policy that would make it easier for older adults to become part of a living history curriculum in schools and might provide tax advantages when they do. We need to revamp programs, such as educational programs, to encourage intergenerational exposure.
Or how about a council of elders that offers non-binding recommendations for national policy? How about older adults who have child care experience helping single parents who need child care?
We need to think about how we have built our cities in a way that makes it difficult for older adults to practice a lifestyle we know is associated with better aging, such as walking to get about.
We need to think differently. Instead of retirement communities, how about calling them centers for successful aging?
Until more policies change, what can one person do to change this status quo, to become more crucial to society?
Adults need to give back, and we need policies to help them do that. But until then, they can take the initiative. I’d go knock on the door of the school and make it happen.
Older adults need purpose. Our society needs guidance. Let’s connect the dots.
In your book, you offer 10 tips for aging successfully. For the impatient or time-challenged, which three do you suggest starting with?
The big three, if I had to say them: continue to move, challenge our brain to learn new things, and stay engaged with others.
We are a sedentary society, but movement is critical. We require it as an organism. Our brain, our cardiovascular system, our immune system, our mood – all of our systems do better with movement.
Second, our brains: We need to understand that the idea that our brains mature and decline – what I learned in med school – is wrong. If we are physically active, our brains build new pathways.
Third, social engagement. As we age, we tend to become more marginalized. Staying engaged with others is important. Online or in person? I believe that online is a terrific way to stay engaged and build relationships. If you are not technically savvy, you are marginalizing yourself. Social media can bring people together.
But connecting through social media is not the same as what we really need as a species – to be with others in person, looking eye to eye. Maybe two-thirds of communication is non-verbal, so it requires that we really need to be with someone to engage.
You talk about become “more colorful.” Can you explain?
One becomes more colorful by embracing age as another period of life that, like others, is filled with both challenge and growth. When we focus this way, we celebrate it and make it more vibrant. Examples would be older adults exploring the arts, or literally dressing with more color than they may have dared when they were younger, or seeking out opportunities to interact with other generations.
What does aging with attitude mean to you?
It means giving the finger to the stereotype of aging as only decline.
Life is going to throw me curveballs, but I can accommodate these losses to the extent that I buck the stereotype and say, as long as I have a pulse, I am going to grow.
“Live Long, Die Short: A Guide to Authentic Health and Successful Aging” (Greenleaf Book Group Press) is available in paperback and Kindle editions on Amazon.