Life is a Journey, not a Destination”  – Ralph Waldo Emerson

We have come a long way in advances to maintain health and prolong fruitful life. The latter part of the 20th century brought a renaissance in medical research and discovery. That knowledge is working today, as a colleague so aptly observed as “…it is a great time to be a patient.”

Let us examine how these advances have improved our chances of a long healthful life. Many of the improvements to our health have been added by vaccinations and new therapies, but the predominant improvement was in the realm of public health and the delivery of clean water sources and improved public work systems. Those protean changes have allowed us to be able to control and react to acute causes of illness.

In the 1960s the life expectancy in the United States was 67 years of age for men and 74 years of age for women. Today it is about 78 years old for men and 80 years old for women. This average increase of about 12% in 50 years appears conservative at best. Why is that?

With acute illness under better control we have become more susceptible to chronic illnesses. These cause us to age faster than we might like. The three leading causes of death in the United States today are cardiovascular disease (and its’ risk factors, obesity and diabetes), cancer and respiratory disease. All of these have a component of behavioral and social factors accounting for greater than 55% of premature mortality.

So, if 60 is truly the new 40, it can be so, if you want it to be, to a great extent.

Recent research supports basic tenets to these effects. This year the Journal of the American Medical Association reported the results of a study on over 90,000 participants in the Adventist Health Study noting that certain diets reduce colorectal cancer risk. A vegetarian diet can reduce the risk of colorectal cancer by up to 20%, with the fish eating, or pescovegetarian, benefiting the most. The Cooper Center Longitudinal Study reiterates the American Cancer Society research results noting midlife individuals who take part in regular moderate to high level physical activity can reduce the risk of breast, colon, uterine and prostate cancer by up to 20%.

The Lancet reported in 2014, using data from over 5 million patients in the United Kingdom’s Clinical Practice Research Datalink, that increased Body Mass Index (BMI) above normal for the individual, was associated with a major increase in the risk of gallbladder, kidney, liver and uterine tumors. We continue to confirm the importance of regular physical activity and healthful nutrition as the basis for good health.

That being said, there is hope in studying centenarians, those of us who live beyond 100 years of age. Despite the observation that longevity is related to good genetics in about 30% of cases, not all healthy older adults have “good genes”. The Leiden Longevity Study observed that many participants over 90 years of age were found to carry a number of risky genetic factors for expressing serious illness. It led them to the conclusion that other combinations of genes, along with a person’s environment and lifestyle, worked in concert for healthy longevity. Dr. Nir Barzalai, Director for Aging Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine New York, in studies performed has made the observation that in addition to heeding the advice regarding diet and physical activity the healthiest elders were outgoing, optimistic and easy going . There is growing worldwide consensus that a simple positive attitude toward life itself may be the key factor in remaining healthy and well.


These findings are supported by The Legacy Project headed by Dr. Karl Pillemer of the College of Human Ecology at the Weill Cornell Medical College. Their 10 Principles of Optimal Living are,

• Choose a career for the intrinsic, not financial, rewards.
• Act, as you will need your body for a hundred years.
• Say “Yes” to opportunities.
• Travel more.
• Say it now, at some point it may be too late.
• Time is of the essence.
• Happiness is a choice, not a condition.
• Time spent worrying is time poorly used. Be concerned if need be, and act upon that which you may have some control over.
• Think small. Attune yourself to simple daily pleasures.

With our major advances in knowledge, coupled by these basic observations, and of course, a checkup with your Doctor, “60 is the new 40”, can be a reality.

Be Well,

Rick Levine, MD