November, 2005. I shove way too much luggage into the trunk of my green Jetta, and slip into the front seat. It’s the day before Thanksgiving—a time to supposedly be thankful. Instead, I’m feeling a rush of anxiety and I try some of those breathing exercises I learned in my one and only yoga class a few years ago. Then I let the car warm up, and I’m off to Los Angeles to visit my 92-year-old grumpy grandmother and her 96-year-old husband. Grandma Martin is miserable, in chronic pain, and her body is hunched over in the shape of a banana. Although she’s physically a mess, her faculties are all in order, and her mind is still fast enough to tell you, “Don’t get old like me. It’s horrible. I’m ready to die.”
Once upon a time, rumors had it that my grandmother looked like Elizabeth Taylor. There’s no telling how she took care of herself over the years—she was a nurse, so it’s probable that she ate well. Exercise? Who knows? And the telling factor that many believe influences how you age, and your state of mind and health in later years—your quality of love relationships. Well, she had it tough: One whirlwind (doesn’t count, according to her) marriage, another marriage to an abusive husband, the love-of-her-life marriage (he died too early from a heart attack) and, finally, her happy-go-lucky marriage to her current husband. There’s more. Her only son (my father) died when he was 51. Like all of us, Grandma Martin has had an unfortunate number of tragedies in her life. Residual bitterness and resentment still run through her system, and play out sometimes in verbally abusive ways.
No wonder I feel anxiety about visiting.
On the other hand, her husband is planning to live past 100, if he can convince God to give him a few more years. He takes a walk every day, plays in the church band, keeps himself busy with mentally stimulating activities like crossword puzzles. He’s trying to make the most of his remaining years.
The Local Spin
The experiences my grandmother and step-grandfather are having in their elder years are remarkably different from one another. I couldn’t help thinking about them when a new book made a blip recently on my work radar: “Healthy at 100: How You Can—at Any Age—Dramatically Increase Your Life Span and Your Health Span.” The 357-page tome certainly would have a positive impact on my grandmother. With plenty of intriguing, often frightening statistics, it also seems destined to propel any junk food junkie to quickly discard their Pringles and Coca-Cola, don a pair of sneakers, and literally pound the pavement. Aside from the bountiful research, the book explores different cultures and different people on the planet who live extraordinarily long and healthy lives. Interestingly enough, readers are told that healthy aging is not just credited to inheriting a set of lucky genes.
The other thing that caught my attention: The book was written by a local, national best-selling author—John Robbins.
Robbins is 59 years old; he’s lean, six feet tall and his biceps bulge on his slender frame. Obviously, he works out. In fact, Robbins admits that he can do a 250-pound single bench press. This might be surprising to some, because society says he’s “over the hill.” Or maybe others might find it surprising, considering that he was, more or less, raised on ice cream.
As many know, Robbins is the only son of Irv Robbins, founder of the Baskin-Robbins kingdom. (John has two sisters.) With a paved, gold brick road, and 31-flavors ahead of him, young John turned his back on the family business and abandoned what was expected of him in favor of a healthy life. He was concerned about how foods like ice cream are damaging to people’s health. His uncle, Burt Baskin, died from a heart attack at age 51. John’s own father, Irv, dealt with some serious health problems, including high blood pressure and diabetes. Curiously, Irv, after reading John’s books, including “Diet for a New America,” changed his own diet, no longer eats ice cream and is a “non-card-carrying vegetarian,” experiencing a much healthier existence. Although John walked away from his inheritance, he’s found his own niche—as a best-selling diet and health author. He has spoken to the United Nations, on the Oprah Winfrey Show and even garnered the praises of spiritual health queen Marianne Williamson as being, “One of the most important voices in America today.”
I have to admit that personally, I see few men who are Robbins’ age that don’t have a potbelly. Robbins’ abdominals are flat. Every morning, he drinks water, stretches, does yoga, then goes for a run in the woods behind his home in the hills outside of Santa Cruz. Upon returning, he plunges his body into a small pool of chilly water. This is something that the people of Hunza reportedly do.
Hunza, as Robbins notes in “Healthy at 100,” “lies at the northernmost tip of Pakistan, where Pakistan meets Russia and China. The average height of the peaks in these mountain ranges is 20,000 feet, “with some, such as Mt. Rakaposhi, soaring as high as twenty-five thousand feet,” Robbins writes. He also tells the story of a visiting mountaineer who claims “that he saw a Hunzan, in midwinter, make two holes in an ice pond, then repeatedly dive into one and come out at the other, apparently finding the near-freezing water invigorating, as comfortable as a polar bear.”
The people of Hunza are said to be, by many researchers, in extraordinarily good health. According to one study conducted by Dr. Paul Dudley White and retold in Robbins’ book, 25 Hunzan men were, “On fairly good evidence, to be between 90 and 110 years old … Not one of them showed a single sign of coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol levels. They have 20-20 vision and no tooth decay. In a country of 30,000 people, there is no vascular, muscular, organic, respiratory, or bone disease.”
But the Hunzan people are not alone in their wondrous aging ways and healthy lifestyles.
The “cold plunge” that Robbins does is one of the many enriching things he’s borrowed from cultures he’s studied. “I have been inspired by the peoples I’m writing about and the way they are there for one another and the importance they put on relationship,” he says, relaxing in the home he shares with his wife, Deo, son Ocean, Ocean’s wife Michele, and the young couple’s twins, River and Bodhi.
The people of Abkhasia (a place that Robbins describes in his book as, ‘three thousand square miles between the eastern shores of the Black Sea and the crestline of the main Caucasus range. It is bordered on the north by Russia, and on the south by Georgia)” wake each other up in the morning by singing to each other. “We have alarm clocks that jar the nervous system,” he adds. “I hate alarm clocks, the idea of being woken up by someone singing fills you with something very positive.”
Robbins is one of those guys who actually practices what he preaches, going so far as to live in a solar-powered home. In addition to exercising daily, he’s chosen a regimented diet—his breakfast consists of quinoa and dried apricots. Sure, he’s not perfect—he’s the first to admit that—but who’s going to listen to a guy who writes a book about how to live “Healthy at 100,” unless he’s really trying to live a rich—non-materialistically rich—life from now till 100?
As for those cold plunges, “I love it,” he says. “Like a person would love ice cream on their tongue. We have become a society that has become comfort obsessed and convenience oriented, that doesn’t recognize that certain kinds of stress to our functioning can be helpful, for example weight lifting … or the cold plunge.”
You are What You Eat
Robbins tackles the topic of diet headfirst in “Healthy at 100,” and he attributes dietary choices to how long a person might live. If the intention is to live a long life, the author reveals what the quality of those later years might look like.
“Here are four different cultures in different parts of the world with different ecosystems, different latitudes, different religious orientations, different ethnic backgrounds, and yet they all seem to have and exemplify healthy aging,” Robbins says. “I find that their diets are remarkably similar, and (similar) to what we’re learning in science.” And what has he found?
These four cultures (those who live in Abkhasia, the Hunzans, the elderly of Okinawa and those living in the mountainous ranges of Vilcamba, Ecuador) follow similar diets:
Overall low-calories (by Western standards).
High in good carbohydrates (plenty of whole grains, vegetables, fruits).
“Whole-foods” diets—very little (if any) processed or refined foods, sugar, corn syrup, preservatives, artificial flavors, or other chemicals.
Dependence on fresh foods, eating primarily what is in season and locally grown rather than relying on canned foods or foods shipped long distances.
Low in fat—the fats come from natural sources, including seeds, nuts, and in some cases fish, rather than from bottled oils, margarines, or saturated animal fats.
Protein sources are primarily from plants, including beans, peas, whole grains, seeds, and nuts.
Similarly, Robbins and his family eat the same type of diet as these long-living cultures.
“Your body needs nutrients from the food you eat,” Robbins says. “If you’re taking in empty calories, and those are things like sugar and high fructose corn syrup, your cells are still hungry and you’re going to eat more food, so you instinctively know you need to feed yourself to get those minerals and vitamins and various things. So what that means is you’ll end up eating more calories than you would have if you ate an optimum nutrition diet … and then you’re going to gain weight. … I don’t eat junk food or food with empty calories, as a rule. Am I perfect? No. Am I zealous? No. But I don’t want to forget the importance of this because if you look at people in our society, an increasing number of people are having problems with their weight, particularly as they get older, and even children. Obesity, an increasing rate of diabetes, heart disease and cancer, it’s not a pretty picture. … It’s not that I want any overweight person to be stigmatized. We can as a society be incredibly cruel to people whose body image doesn’t fit the idealized norm, but there are real medical issues.”
In “Healthy at 100,” Robbins discusses an array of diseases from cancer to Alzheimer’s disease, and reveals the links between these diseases and diet.
I ask about arthritis.
“That’s an interesting one,” he says. “The prevailing opinion and conventional wisdom is that arthritis is not diet related. However, a great number of people have reactions to certain kinds of proteins in their body, and their body develops inflammatory responses that can take place in their joints. Those are often dairy proteins or peanut proteins, often animal proteins. The body is recognizing those as foreign. … Very often, people with arthritis, or any illness really, (when they) become more careful with their diet and stop eating artificial flavors and preservatives, and highly processed foods, they find their joints getting cooler and there’s less swelling and there’s improvement.”
The Love Connection
Tina Turner once sang: “What’s Love Got to Do With it?” Well, pretty much—everything.
I have to wonder: Did my 92-year-old grandmother feel or experience very much love during her life? Why is she bitter nowadays? In fact, as long as I can remember, she’s had a sour attitude.
“If I could ask one question of a person, and from their answer would learn how they would age and what type of health they would … experience in their later life, I would not ask them about their diet,” Robbins says.
I’m surprised to hear this, because he links diet to many diseases and health-related problems.
“I wouldn’t ask about exercise or their cholesterol level or do they smoke,” he continues. “Smokers impair their health, no doubt about that. People who are sedentary impair their health. If I could only ask one question it would be: What is the level of love in your life?”
So, the quality of our relationships with one another has an enormous impact on how we age. It’s a topic Robbins goes into in-depth in his book.
“When I look at these cultures, I try to find out their secret; why do they age so beautifully?” Robbins asks. “I see different components to that and one that stands out is how much they care for one another. They never fear that when they get older they’re going to be left alone.”
He recalls a story from a researcher who visited Abkhasia:“She told them that in America sometimes old people live alone and aren’t visited by their families. She tried to describe nursing homes and they said to her, ‘Please don’t joke like that.’ And one of them said, ‘I understand you’re from a different culture and different things may seem funny to you and to us, but for us, that’s not funny, so please don’t talk about it.’ They couldn’t even grasp the concept or possibility that an older person would be isolated and left to themselves.”
With today’s culture being so fascinated with youth, major portions of society have become not only afraid of aging, but also afraid of the elderly themselves. Family members sometimes neglect relationships with their elders. Don’t want them around? Put them in a retirement home and forget about them. It’s the lucky ones in such homes that receive frequent visits from their families and friends. Robbins, in his book, emphasizes the importance of taking care of and respecting the elderly. And, he suggests changing our viewpoint of growing older, and our viewpoint of those who are older.
“In Okinawa, the main reason for sibling rivalry? They fight over who will get to house and take care of their parents in their later years,” Robbins says. “This is true in Abkhasia too.”
He recalls a story from a researcher who visited Abkhasia: “She told them that in America sometimes old people live alone and aren’t visited by their families. She tried to describe nursing homes and they said to her, ‘Please don’t joke like that.’ And one of them said, ‘I understand you’re from a different culture and different things may seem funny to you and to us, but for us, that’s not funny, so please don’t talk about it.’ They couldn’t even grasp the concept or possibility that an older person would be isolated and left to themselves.”
I finally arrive in the Los Angeles area, and I’m speeding down the 405 freeway. I’m late. Grandma’s going to be annoyed. But there was traffic, I’ll explain to her, hoping for some grace, but not sure if I’ll get any. It’s difficult to see her. She can be cutting and rude. But sometimes there’s a glimmer of happiness that eeks out of her. I think it’s her husband’s influence. He brought love into her life, in her older years.
I’m at the entrance of Leisure World. A giant revolving water fountain of the world sits out front. Some seniors, wearing traffic cop clothes, stop me at the gate. This place is under a sort of lockdown. You can’t get into Leisure World without being on the “list.” Only this isn’t some posh gated community. While it’s more or less gated (there are walls that surround the perimeter), inside these walls are thousands of cozy condominiums belonging to the elderly. Most residents are self-sufficient, living alone, or with a spouse or friend.
The traffic cop waves me through. “Going south,” she yells, and a gray-haired, bespeckled man points me in the right direction.
Leisure World is home to about 10,000 seniors. Rarely are there young people in sight, and if there are, you know they’re visitors. Unfortunately, “visitors” are few around these parts. I’ve been coming to Leisure World for years, since Grandma Martin moved here in the ’80s, and I never see enough people visiting their elders. This seems wrong. There’s even something that seems a little bit wrong about the mere existence of Leisure World. Here is a place where people come to live out their remaining years, with large walls around them, sequestering them from the outside world. While management offers the residents of this little elderly town plenty to do, surely many are lonely for companionship and loving relationships. “Loneliness kills people faster than cigarettes,” Robbins says.
Healthy at 100. It’s a package deal. You might be old, nearly deaf and happy-go-lucky like my step-grandfather, or grouchy and ready to die like my grandmother. Or you might turn out like how John Robbins is planning to spend his final years: “I want to live as long as I’m healthy and happy, and contributing and learning and growing, which I anticipate will be a long time. However long it is, I want every day to be full of gratitude, love and celebration. It may well be that as I age, certain faculties diminish, but I think they’ll diminish a lot slower than if I didn’t take good care of myself. How many men my age can bench press their weight? I can do it many times.”
Life and Death
Note the notables from “Healthy at 100”:
By 2025, the annual cost of managing chronic conditions in the United States will exceed a trillion dollars.
Close to half of all Americans over the age of eighty-five have Alzheimer’s disease.
Loneliness … can kill you faster than cigarettes.
In November 2005, National Geographic published a cover story … at the conclusion of the issue, National Geographic summarized the “secrets of long life” in two words: “Go Vegetarian.”
At present, the average American consumes a staggering total of 53 teaspoons of sugar each day.
Nearly a third of all calories in the average American diet come from refined sugar and corn syrup.
In 2006, the International Journal of Pediatric Obesity announced that nearly half the children in the western hemisphere will be obese by 2010.
… most of the Okinawans’ advantage stems not from genetics, but from the way they live and the food they eat.
In May, 2005, a major study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that regular exercise reduces the death rate among women who have already had breast cancer.
If you want to lower your risk for Alzheimer’s markedly, here’s the central thing you need to know: Study after study is finding that a whole-foods plant-based diet built on fresh vegetables, whole grains, and legumes—such as the diet eaten by the Abkhasians, Hunzans, Vilcabambans, and elder Okinawans—is good for brain function and dramatically lowers the incidence of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
Government figures show that American children now obtain an incredible 50 percent of their calories from added fat and sugar.
… a single slice of Cheesecake Factory’s carrot cake has more than 1,560 calories.