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Growing old is no great accomplishment, but staying healthy is

August 26, 2016

8-minute read

"If I’d known I was gonna live this long, I’d have taken   better care of myself." —Eubie Blake, on reaching the age of 100.

The Nonagenarian's NotebookMy family and friends treated me to celebratory birthday bashes on my 60th, 70th, 80th, and, most recently, my 90th birthday, and they plan another one for my centenary in 2026.

Each successive milestone has increased the requests I get for the “secret” of my longevity. I keep giving the same flippant answer: that all it takes is patience; that all you have to do is wait long enough. But of course it’s not that simple. One’s genes, lifestyle, physical and mental activity, and a bit of luck are all decisive factors.

Every human being is different. We all have different upbringings, different qualities of life, different incomes, diets, strains and stresses. So the determinants of good health that helped prolong my life span would be unlikely to apply to others.

The one vital requisite that I think does apply to most people is to have a good sense of humour. Admittedly, a jocular disposition is sometimes hard to maintain, especially during the rough periods that we all have to go through, but whenever it is easy and natural to laugh, take advantage and enjoy it. That exuberance can be amazingly beneficial to your health – and a lot cheaper than anti-depressant drugs. As Dr. Patch Adams always claimed, “laughter is the best medicine.”

Old age itself has been the subject of hilarious jests by aging comedians, including the one above by Eubie Blake. At my birthday party in June, I quoted from more than a dozen others, including Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Phyllis Diller, George Burns, Red Skelton, and Lucille Ball.

Another barbed witticism among my favourites – by Claudia Young – demolishes the myth that we all tend to become wiser as we get older. “If age really did impart wisdom,” she quipped, “there wouldn’t be nearly as many old conservatives.”

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that almost all these comics lived well into their 70s, 80s, and 90s. As Michael Pritchard put it: “You don’t stop laughing because you grow old. You grow old because you stop laughing.”

Old age and good health often don’t match

Laughing or not, Canadians are living longer, with current life expectancy now averaging 81. Statistics Canada reports that last year there were 749,000 Canadians in their 80s, and 280,000 in their 90s, with women significantly outnumbering men in both those categories. (Of the 280,000 nonagenarians, more than 200,000 were female.)

But StatsCan can’t measure the well-being of these senior citizens. One of its recent studies found that the health of most Canadians starts to deteriorate at the age of 69, but the extent and cause of that decline varies considerably at the individual level and is not measureable. Obviously, it depends on the different internal and external determinants of health that affect each of us, and whether we can exert any control over them. But even when we eat well, exercise, and do our best to avoid illness, we can still be incapacitated by one of “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” In either case, the “golden years” are not even bronze.

You’ve heard the old cliché that “there’s only one thing worse than growing old, and that’s not growing old.” But there’s another eventuality that is arguably worse: growing old and sick. Very sick. So sick that you become a burden on your family and a financial drain on the country’s health care system.

That’s the horrible fate of far too many of our senior citizens. So many that our nursing homes, long-term and palliative care institutions can’t accommodate all of them. Thousands are bed-ridden or otherwise incapacitated, many in their own homes or the homes of their children.

I cite this unpleasant reality, not as an inevitable consequence of aging (it isn’t), but because I’m convinced that most of the ills associated with old age are preventable. Well, not indefinitely, of course – we all have to die of something, sometime – but for much longer than the age at which most of our elderly now succumb.

This is not a new idea. Some geriatric specialists and health reformers have been arguing for years that the priority should be to prevent ailments rather than trying to alleviate them after they occur. Such a switch would not only improve and prolong life spans, but also save many billions now spent on remedial surgery, drugs, hospital stays, and home care.

In the absence of an emphasis on prevention, we are basically left to fend for ourselves. Those who don’t smoke or overeat or drink too much alcohol, and keep physically and mentally fit have a good chance of enjoying a long and salubrious life. Nothing is guaranteed, of course. Accidents do happen, and our fate is predestined to some extent by the genes we inherit; but the lifestyle we adopt can often be a deciding factor.

Many people, however, are not free to choose the kind of lives they’d like to lead and their quality of life is often beyond their control. They need help from local, provincial, and federal governments, but such caring and progressive politicians are in short supply in Canada. When it comes to promoting good health, and apart from efforts to discourage tobacco use and drunk driving, most politicians are pretty much content to let Canadians look after themselves.

But this is an onerous responsibility. Even those among us who are affluent and live in luxury are not invulnerable to the dangers of an increasingly contaminated environment.

Our powerful personal defence

Nature endowed each of us at birth with a tremendously powerful defence mechanism – the immune system – which in theory (and for some of us in practice) can repel or destroy microbial attackers.

A crucial flash of enlightenment in my life came in 1976 when I read a book by an unorthodox U.S. physician, Dr. Ronald J. Glasser. It was titled The Body is the Hero, and it advanced the then heretical proposition that our immune system, if properly nurtured, can defeat any virus, infection, or other foreign matter that invades our body.

The message of Dr. Glasser’s book can be summed up in these few words: Medicine doesn’t cure us – our bodies cure themselves. He argued that, for most maladies, all a doctor can really do for a patient is help the immune system do the job it was designed to do.

I couldn’t agree more. Better still would be helping the immune system prevent the patient from getting sick in the first place – a task I’ve been doing my best to accomplish in the 40 years since I read The Body is the Hero. (Dr. Glasser practises what he preaches. He’s still alive and active. He recently updated and republished this book.)

Hypothetically, our bodies should be able to keep the immune system strong enough to maintain optimum health and vigor. That would require, among other things, providing the immune system with the organic “armaments” it needs for an effective defence capability.

There was a time when it was possible to do that simply by eating the right foods – foods rich in all the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that the human body and its immune system require. But that was in a time when such natural organic foods were widely available, when people weren’t crowded into cities and workplaces conducive to the spread of disease, and when the air, water and soil were not contaminated.

Today, most of our food is grown in denatured soil doused with pesticides and herbicides, and “processed” in ways that leach out much of its natural goodness. And this has happened at a time when our bodies are exposed to harmful chemicals, to smog and polluted air and water – and thus more urgently in need of a strong immune system than ever before.

Cancer and chemicals

I’ve lived long enough to remember when far fewer people fell victim to cancer. But rates of affliction have quadrupled over the past 50 years. Perhaps not coincidentally, the rates of carcinogenic chemicals spewed into our air, water, soil and food have also quadrupled. And only about one in a dozen of these industrial chemicals is properly tested before its release is officially approved.

We can’t avoid ingesting these toxins. They are spilled into the environment in such quantities that no one can escape them. A study conducted several years ago by Environmental Defence Canada (EDC) tested the blood of 11 volunteers across the country for the presence of 88 toxic chemicals. It found that every one of these Canadians – including renowned wildlife artist Robert Bateman – had many of these contaminants in their blood. But, because only 11 people were tested (such elaborate tests are expensive), Health Canada dismissed the results as “not statistically significant.”

The fact that the 11 volunteers varied in age, gender, location, occupation and lifestyle, and that every one of them had chemically contaminated blood, is surely significant.

Dr. Rick Smith, former executive director of EDC, responded sharply to Health Canada’s rejection of the test: “The bottom line is that we are all polluted. It doesn’t matter where we live, how old we are, how clean-living we are. We all carry inside us hundreds of different pollutants, and they are accumulating inside our bodies every day.”

The 88 chemicals tested for in the study included heavy metals, PCBs, pesticides, and other carcinogenic and hormone-disrupting substances. They are so pervasive and are disseminated so widely that, short of living in a glass bubble, it has become impossible to avoid them. The strain on our immune systems to keep these chemical invaders from afflicting us with cancer or strokes has also been enormously increased.

The lack of government protection

 Our governments have failed to protect us from exposure to harmful chemicals. One such chemical was Red Dye 2, an artificial colouring that was widely used in candy bars, cakes, salad dressings, pill coatings, lipstick, and numerous other products, before being belatedly recognized as a carcinogen. It was then quickly banned in Europe and cited as a dangerous ingredient by the World Health Organization. But, shockingly but not surprisingly, it continued to be approved for unlimited use in the United States and Canada for several more years. Why? Because the corporations that made and sold the dye and those that put it in their products wielded enough political influence to keep it on the market.

That was 45 years ago, but the situation hasn’t improved since. On the contrary, it’s gotten worse with the infusion of many thousands of additional carcinogens in the air and the goods we buy and consume.

In a scathing indictment of the politicians and protection agencies entrusted with our safety and health, Dr. Glasser accuses them of not just allowing, but encouraging us “to use, unknowingly and uncomplainingly, these deadly products – for no other reason than greed and profits.”

Yes, we now have the misfortune to live at a time when the gratification of greed and maximization of profits are extolled by our business and political leaders. It’s a world in which we will continue to be denied protection from preventable cancers and other diseases if that protection involves constraining greed and lowering profits.

I’ll delve further into this subject in the next passage from my notebook.

Ed Finn was Senior Editor at the CCPA and editor of the CCPA Monitor from 1994-2014. Formerly, as a journalist, he worked at The Montreal Gazette and for 14 years wrote a column on labour relations for The Toronto Star. He also served for three decades as a communications officer for several labour organizations, including the Canadian Labour Congress and the Canadian Union of Public Employees. And yes, Ed is a true nonagenarian, having celebrated his 90th birthday this past summer. Stay tuned for more passages from The Nonagenarian's Notebook.

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