I saw a video recently that I found to be incredibly moving. It is the band “A-ha” doing an unplugged version of their famous song “Take on Me.” I obviously remember this hit song from the 1980’s but to be honest I had not thought about it in probably 20+ years. However, this version, recorded this year, is so different, moving, and beautiful that it struck a chord with both my wife and myself. We have probably listened to it 10 times in the last few days and find the leader’s singing quite touching. Watch the video here and see if you agree:
The other thing that struck me while watching this is how great the singer looks for a music star who has been around for over 30 years. I looked it up and he is 58 years old and his name is Morten Harket. Comparing him to most other of the musicians from the 1980s he looks downright glowing. Google pictures of Vince Neal, Axl Rose, or even Simon Le Bon (lead singer of Duran Duran) who are similar ages and see how the rock star lifestyle typically ages most musicians.
Sure genetics plays a part in all of this. Morten Harket and the rest of “A-ha” are Norwegian. I remember when I was at Naturopathic medical school we had to interview someone over 70 years old for our geriatrics class. At the time I was going to a barber shop with an older man who would cut my hair. I knew he was older, but one day I asked him how old he was. I was surprised when he told me he was 84 years old. He still worked 5 full days a week, driving himself to work, using hot shaving cream and a straight razor to clean around the neckline and ears. I asked him if he would be okay with being interviewed – he said sure if I met him for lunch. When I asked him for the secret to his longevity and health, he said, “I don’t know, maybe because I am Norwegian.”
We can’t all be blessed with these apparently magical Norwegian genes, and even if we are, more of our aging and health depend on our lifestyle choices. In interviews, Morten Harket and bandmates talk about not being typical music stars – in fact, they were quite reluctant about their success. They did not smoke or have substance abuse problems. Harket preferred studying theology or discussing philosophy over the usual trappings of stardom, quoting Søren Kierkegaard in interviews that wanted to discuss his looks or more typical gossip column questions. Not quite the typical partying we associate with rock stars.
One of the unusual things in medicine is that you know the age of everyone who comes to you. We always have the patient’s date of birth on the chart in front of you when you talk to people. I don’t say this to make anyone feel self-conscious, but I am often surprised when I see some people’s ages. Some people look significantly older or younger than their chronological age – sometimes by as much as 20 years. And often, those who look much older than their age have health problems associated with much older patients.
Thinking about this I began to notice certain things that tend to prematurely age us. Some of these are uncontrollable, but many of them are things we can change.
- Smoking cigarettes. This is by far the number 1 thing that will age us prematurely. According to the Mayo Clinic website, nicotine constricts the small vessels in our skin preventing blood flow providing oxygen and nutrients to the outer layers. Also, chemicals in tobacco smoke can damage collagen and elastin fibers and lead to premature wrinkling. If you needed another reason to quit smoking, perhaps this may be the tipping stone to make you finally make a change.
- Eating lots of junk and fast food. I ask almost everyone coming in to see me about their diet choices. Those who eat more processed and fast foods usually look older. Those whose diets are more real foods with fruits and veggies look younger. Studies have shown that those who get more Vitamin A, Beta-carotene, and Vitamin C in their diet tend to have healthier skin. Taking synthetic vitamin capsules did not usually make up for this if it was not in the diet from foods.
- Lack of regular exercise. Exercising literally gets the blood flowing and helps move oxygen and nutrients throughout our body and helps remove waste and move the lymph. I haven’t seen studies, but those who move regularly look younger.
- Alcoholism/substance abuse. Hard drugs like methamphetamines and opiates dramatically age people quickly. There was heartbreaking photo series years ago where an Oregon police department shared mugshots of addicts over a period of years and the results were dramatic. Alcohol can be healthy in small quantities (1-2 glasses per day – especially red wine with its beneficial polyphenols and flavonoids), but large quantities tend to lead to bloating and redness of the skin that ages us prematurely.
- Lack of sleep. Sleep is when our bodies can heal and renew. Not getting quality sleep will make us look older – even the next day. I look in the mirror the day after I haven’t slept well and I look terrible. Repeat this cycle over weeks and months and the effects become cumulative. If you are not sleeping well, talk to us, we may be able to find some solutions to help you overcome this.
- Grief. This is a hard one to avoid, especially when multiple episodes happen over time. If we live long enough, all of us will experience loss of loved ones. I have seen grief age people, but I have also seen people grow and mature from the process. If you are feeling stuck in your grief, which can definitely happen, talk to someone. A counselor, clergy, or even your naturopathic physician can help you find tools and resources to process through a loss and get to the point that you are living a full life again. I have seen people who suffered immensely with grief and loss, go on to be able to help others who are dealing with their own loss.
- Chronic Illness. This one again can be hard to avoid. Heart disease, respiratory diseases, diabetes, and other illness can age us prematurely, especially if they are not controlled well. This is another reason to do every thing we can to prevent future illness, but if you already have something, managing it closely can help you look and feel better for a long time.
Each of us comes to this planet with our own genetic potential. I was aware from an early age that I was not going to be an Olympic level sprinter – I usually came in the middle to the back of the pack when we did sprints at school. We all have different physical abilities and predispositions to health and diseases. Some people are dealt a difficult hand, with congenital disease or strong family histories of certain illnesses. However, our choices we make can dramatically change the final outcomes.
A metaphor I have used is a graph. We all have a highest potential health curve. Here is one I found online, I have no connection to the business being promoted:
That highest potential for each of us is different, but our goal should be to get as close to these curves as possible. Ideally, we would sit right near it and stay as healthy – physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually – as possible up until the end. I moved away from my octogenarian barber 12+ years ago, but I like to think that he is still cutting hair as he approaches 100. Or that he chose to retire on his own terms because he wanted to do something else.
I wish the same for each of us as well, that we have the health and stamina to choose our paths as we age and not be forced by our health problems to make choices we don’t want. And may we all look youthful and healthy while doing it.