Aging Gracefully: Insights from Dr. Andrew Weil
Andrew Weil, MD, is a world-renowned leader and pioneer in the field of integrative medicine and a New York Times best-selling author of 15 books on well-being. He is founder and director of the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, where he is a clinical professor of medicine and professor of public health. We spoke with him about how much of healthy aging is truly within our personal control.
1440: What are some key elements of healthy aging?
Dr. Weil: It is vital to recognize that aging is natural and inevitable.
Everything ages: stars, mountains, animals, and human beings.
The modern Western world tends to vigorously deny the reality of aging, and a great deal of nonsense is posted on the internet and elsewhere about “stopping” and even “reversing” the aging process.
In my view, this denialism puts many people into an unhealthy relationship with aging. They focus on fruitlessly “fighting” the aging process, even resorting to untested, dangerous interventions such as injections of human growth hormone or embryonic stem cells.
While medical research may eventually develop safe, effective antiaging therapies, there are none I would recommend today.
I believe we are better off embracing aging’s positive aspects such as the fruition of talents and skills, the deepening of relationships, and a broader, wiser perspective on what matters and what does not. After all, we all acknowledge some things naturally get better with age: whiskey, wine, cheese, and violins, for example. Why not human beings?
One can optimize physical and mental health at any age, through a variety of scientifically validated practices including appropriate nutrition, regular moderate exercise, stress-reduction techniques, optimized sleep, and maintaining a rich social and spiritual life.
If these are practiced diligently—and if one has a bit of luck, as there is always unpredictability in the realm of health—one can achieve what Stanford professor of medicine James Fries called “compression of morbidity.” This means that one enjoys a long, robust life largely free of chronic illness, with the period of infirmity leading to death compressed into as short a period as possible.
1440: What exactly is inflammation? Does inflammation inevitably worsen as we age?
Inflammation in the body is a normal and healthy response to injury or attack by germs.
We can see it, feel it, and measure it as local heat, redness, swelling, and pain. This is the body’s way of getting more nourishment and more immune activity into an area that needs to fend off infection or heal. But inflammation isn’t always helpful. It also has great destructive potential, which we see when the immune system mistakenly targets the body’s own tissues in (autoimmune) diseases like type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus.
Whole-body inflammation refers to chronic, imperceptible, low-level inflammation. Mounting evidence suggests that over time this kind of inflammation sets the foundation for many serious, age-related diseases including heart disease, cancer, and neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
Recent evidence indicates that whole-body inflammation may also contribute to psychological disorders, especially depression.
Blood markers of inflammation typically increase as we age, even in the absence of acute infection or other stressors. Still, the relationship between chronic, elevated inflammation and aging isn’t clear—probably, inflammation is both a cause and effect of aging.
In any case, inflammation at higher-than-average levels for any individual at any age probably accelerates biological aging.
1440: Is there a way to lessen or reverse this?
Fortunately, most of the lifestyle changes I recommend can help people of any age reduce inappropriate levels of whole-body inflammation.
Eat an anti-inflammatory diet featuring nutrient-dense vegetables, low-sugar fruits such as berries, which provide protective antioxidants, and fatty cold-water fish including wild Alaskan salmon, a rich source of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
Regularly practicing mindfulness meditation and breathing exercises can help to calm the sympathetic nervous system, which in many of us is chronically in “fight or flight” mode.
I am a great advocate for walking at a brisk pace for at least 30 minutes daily. It requires no training or special equipment, fits easily into busy lives, and, when done with a friend, helps counter social isolation.
Sleep deprivation’s side effects include dysregulation of the hormones that regulate appetite, leading short-sleepers to chronically overeat. To sleep well—limit caffeine, invest in light-blocking shades and a quality mattress, and avoid staring at screens after 8:00 p.m.
Research suggests that social isolation is as hazardous to health as smoking 15 cigarettes daily or being an alcoholic. It’s vital to remain connected to others as we age through church membership, volunteering, part-time employment, or in any way that makes sense for a person’s situation and inclination.
Americans in general are overmedicated and often subjected to inappropriate, ineffective surgeries. Physicians trained in integrative medicine can provide direction in safe, gentle, inexpensive lifestyle-based therapies for a wide variety of conditions including the “diseases of aging” such as cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, or mild cognitive impairment.
One more that’s a particular favorite of mine: consuming turmeric, the traditional spice from India that gives curries their distinctive orange-yellow hue. Turmeric and its active constituent, curcumin, have been shown to exhibit potent anti-inflammatory activity.
To take advantage of turmeric’s benefits, take turmeric extracts.
They are available in tablet and capsule form at natural food stores. Look for supercritical extracts in dosages of 400 to 600 mg, and take three times daily or as directed on the product. I favor formulations that contain piperine, a black pepper extract that enhances absorption.
1440: You have studied dietary and lifestyle trends in communities across the globe where longevity far surpasses average standards. What are some surprising features of those pockets of the world?
Dr. Weil: Health researcher Dan Buettner has traveled the world identifying what he terms “Blue Zones.” These are areas in which people tend to live longer, healthier lives than the global average. He has discovered many commonalities in elderly Blue Zone community members, including:
- Diets rich in vegetables and fruits
- Not overeating
- A tradition of lifelong exercise including walking and gardening
- Not smoking
- Having a specific purpose in life
- Moderate intake of alcohol
- Involvement in spirituality or religion
- Engagement with family and community life.
My favorite place to study a culture that promotes health and longevity is Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost prefecture. Its residents had the longest life expectancy of all of Japan’s prefectures for almost 30 years prior to the year 2000. Its recent, unfortunate decline in longevity ranking seems directly traceable to the widespread adoption of Western culture, and worst of all Western food, including American fast-food franchises.
But pockets of happy, healthy, tradition-bound citizens remain there, and they are the ones I seek out. An elder in that culture will introduce herself by saying, “I am 90 years old. How old are you?”
Okinawan customs hold that elders are repositories of wisdom, and young people often seek the counsel of the old.
In my view, we have much to learn from this culture.