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Quality of life is the key:  our goal shouldn’t be just to live to a ripe old age.  No one wants to be old and decrepit (or decrepit at any age, frankly).  But old and healthy – now that’s an exciting goal.

Jeremy Walston, M.D., a gerontologist at Johns Hopkins, co-directs the Biology of Frailty Program and is co-principal investigator of the Older American Independence Center.  He has spent his career studying how we age.  In addition to many studies on specific aspects of aging, he has looked at what healthy older people have in common — at what they eat and don’t eat, and how they live – and has come up with some practical tips.  I recently interviewed Walston for Breakthrough, the magazine for the Johns Hopkins Center for Innovative Medicine.

The secrets of healthy aging, he has found, aren’t so secret after all.  The best “fountain of youth” we have right now are some common-sense building blocks that can help everyone, at every age, live better.

Nutrition:  Make Every Bite Count

If you do it right, just about everything you eat can help your body.  This doesn’t mean you have to have an ascetic diet of nuts and berries, or be a food martyr who never eats birthday cake, macaroni and cheese, or a BLT with chips and a pickle.  But comfort foods and flat-out junk should be the exception, not the rule, and you should make most of your dietary choices good ones. 

Now, what does this mean?

Eat Fresh Fruits and Veggies

healthy food“Fresh fruits and vegetables are very important,” says Walston, “particularly ones that are rich in potassium.”  High-potassium fruits and veggies – including bananas, oranges, strawberries; dried fruits, like raisins, apricots, and prunes; spinach, tomatoes, avocados, beans and peas, and potatoes – are the best way for you to get potassium.  Potassium is also found in dairy products, in whole grains, meat, and fish.

Here’s some of what potassium-rich foods can do for you:  Blood pressure:  When you get your blood pressure tested, you’re told it’s one number over another one.  That number on the top is systolic blood pressure, and potassium can lower it by several points.  Heart: Potassium helps your heart beat, which happens about 100,000 times a day.  It can help regulate the heart rhythm, too.  Cholesterol:  Potassium, by itself, is not a designated cholesterol-lowering agent; however, if you are eating foods rich in potassium, this means you’re not loading up on saturated fat.  Just eating this good food instead of junk can lower your cholesterol.

Fresh fruits and vegetables are also are anti-inflammatory.  This is very important, because inflammation has been linked to many diseases, including several forms of cancer.  When you eat these healthy foods, don’t blow it, Walston adds:  “Don’t add salt and don’t overcook them.”

Get More Protein

Protein is increasingly important; we need it more now than we did when we were younger.  “Protein helps muscles function better, and it is also important to help maintain muscle mass.”  True, you can get protein from a cheesesteak sandwich, but it’s better to “choose high-quality protein that is low in fat,” says Walston.  Salmon, for example, is a great source of protein; so are chicken, lean beef and pork, eggs, beans, soy, and low-fat dairy products like yogurt.   “We need about 30 grams of protein at a sitting to stimulate muscle growth optimally,” and the best time to take in protein is after exercise; this helps the muscles recover and grow.  “You can also get it from a protein shake or energy bar.”

Get Plenty of Vitamin D

Vitamin D helps keep your bones strong.  It also helps keep your muscles, heart, brain and immune system healthy, and can help prevent cancer.  Having low levels of Vitamin D is bad: A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that people with the lowest levels of Vitamin D had more then twice the risk of dying from heart disease and other causes, compared to those with the highest levels.  The researchers listed “decreased outdoor activity” as one reason that people can become deficient in Vitamin D.  You can get it in milk, oily fish, mushrooms, eggs, and meat.  You can also take a supplement.  The National Institutes of Health recommends 600 IU (international units) of Vitamin D a day if you’re under 70, and 800 IU a day if you’re over 70.

sunshineAnd get some sun:  “Your body needs direct sunlight exposure to activate the vitamin D.”  A pretty amazing reaction happens when the sun hits your skin: the UV-B rays activates vitamin D into a form that your body can use best.  You don’t need to bask in the sun for hours; just a few minutes – 20 or so – a couple of times a week  is plenty of time to gain this benefit.

Get your shots

Lower your risk of getting the flu, or pneumonia, or shingles by getting a shot.  Many pharmacies, grocery stores, and big-box stores like Walmart and Target offer these shots at a low cost.  Take them up on it.  The risks of getting one of these illnesses far outweigh the inconvenience and minor expense of a vaccine.   

Coming up next:  Part 2:  Keep Moving, Don’t Fall, and Keep Your Mind Active.

©Janet Farrar Worthington

Regular disclaimer: This is a blog. It is not an encyclopedia article or a research paper published in a peer-reviewed journal. If a relevant publication is involved in the story, I mention it. Otherwise, don’t look for a lot of citations, especially if I’m quoting from a medical professional.

sand_sun_beachIn 2002, when I ghostwrote the first edition of The Paleo Diet for Loren Cordain, I thought we were writing sacrilege when he said people need sunlight.  That’s because our view of what’s normal and natural has gotten skewed.  “Oh, no!” I thought.  “Must have sunscreen.  Sunscreen good, sun bad!”  Just a few steps away from Frankenstein being terrified of fire.

I’ve lightened up, so to speak, since then.  Cordain was right:  Yes, excessive sunlight exposure is linked to skin cancers, including squamous cell cancers, which form on the top layers of the skin; basal cell cancers, which form on the bottom layers of the skin; and melanomas, which form within the skin’s pigment-producing cells, the melanocytes.  However, avoiding sunlight is not the way to prevent disease.

“The experience of our hunter-gatherer ancestors proves helpful,” Cordain wrote.  “Many studies have shown that people with high lifetime sunlight exposure, similar to that of hunter-gatherers, have lower rates of melanoma than those with low sunlight exposure.  Also, indoor workers have a greater risk of melanoma than outdoor workers.  Even more puzzling, melanomas often arise in body areas that are infrequently or intermittently exposed to sun.”  Many scientists believe that severe sunburn during childhood — like that time where you went to the beach and came home red as a lobster, and maybe your mom (as mine did) treated it with baking soda and/or aloe, apple cider vinegar, or other home remedies — or intense burns in areas that usually don’t see the sun are bigger risk factors for the development of melanoma.

“When your exposure to sunlight is gradual, moderate and continuous,” Cordain explained, your body responds “in a manner guided by evolutionary wisdom.”  Your skin begins to get tan, because your body is ramping up its production of melanin.  The darkened skin helps protect you from the sunlight’s most damaging ultraviolet rays.  Also important: Vitamin D levels in the blood start to increase, too, as the UV light hits the skin and your body starts to convert cholesterol into Vitamin D.

Vitamin D is a really good thing.  It’s actually a hormone, which is mostly formed in the skin.  As an aside, jumping to other books I’ve co-written: In Dr. Patrick Walsh’s Guide to Preventing Prostate Cancer, Walsh, the noted Johns Hopkins urologist, points out that “over the last 25 years, the death rates from prostate cancer in America have been the highest in the regions of the country that get the least sunshine” (north of 40 degrees latitude).  However, Walsh cautions, taking too much Vitamin D is not a great approach, either.  If you’re going to take a Vitamin D supplement, he advises not taking more than 4000 IU per day.

Cordain cited evidence from population studies confirming that people with the greatest lifetime sun exposures have the lowest rates of prostate, breast, and colon cancers.  But most important to Cordain, from years of study of our Stone Age ancestors, is this: “Exposure to sunlight is natural for humans.  It is part of our evolutionary heritage.  Without sunlight, it is virtually impossible to achieve an adequate intake of vitamin D from the natural foods that were available to our hunter-gatherer ancestors.  Our food supply has been a significant source of vitamin D for a very short time — less than a century, when dairy producers began adding it to the milk and later, to margarine.  Sunlight exposure is healthy as long as it occurs in a slow, gradual, and limited dose over the course of a lifetime.”

©Janet Farrar Worthington