by guest blogger Pam Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP, best-selling author and expert on health, fitness, and nutrition
Recently, the oldest woman in the world, Misao Okawa, celebrated her 116th birthday by devouring a slice of birthday cake as the staff at her Osaka nursing home surrounded her with hearty applause and congratulations. The cake had three candles, one for each figure in her age. Smiling, she expressed amazement about the media attention; reportedly asking “Am I really that old?”
Okawa’s “secrets of success,” as most media have noted, include an uninterrupted eight hours of sleep and a good meal. She’s in good company, a member of an elite group of 24 Japanese centenarians who have passed the 110-year milestone. In addition, two out of three of her children are still alive and in their 90s. Is there something in the water, or could it be, as some experts attest, her diet (fairly low in fat), affordable health care, and good pensions? Other observers believe this extraordinary longevity is rooted in strong social bonds and plenty of physical activity. I say the answer is all of the above.
I was contemplating Okawa’s story when my 95-year-old father-in-law, Eliot, was recently hospitalized with end-stage congestive heart failure. He’s back home and resting comfortably as family and friends come to visit and reminisce about shared memories. As soon as his “big sister,” affectionately known as Aunt Eva, heard of his imminent demise, she commandeered her daughter and son-in-law to drive the 10 hours from Boston to Maryland so that she could be with her ailing “little brother,” perhaps for the last time. Ninety-nine years and four months young, she’s soon to join the more than 54,000 centenarians in the USA, 83 percent of whom are women.
Being in the presence of a master of aging is a remarkable experience. Lurking in the back of my mind were countless questions about how Aunt Eva lived, what she ate, her temperament, and how she faced adversity. Heck, lots of us are wondering about how we’ll fare as we age. After all, there’s an expanding patch of grey in America, with almost 15 percent (about 40 million people) who are now over the age of 65. Even the youngest of the 76 million baby boomers will have made it to 65 by the year 2029. And most are concerning themselves with not just longevity, but also how to also enhance the quality of their later years.
A card-carrying boomer, I took this golden opportunity to sit with Aunt Eva and bombard her with my queries, all of which she graciously endured—and frankly, she enjoyed the attention. Here’s a quick video to start you off, shot as I asked her to share thoughts on how she has lived and continues to live.
I’ve combined these words of wisdom, along with more that I’ve culled from our ongoing conversations, to provide you with highlights of an aging master’s sage advice.
- “Pass the ice cream, please.” Eva’s never been on a diet in her 99-plus years. During her entire life, she’s cooked her own meals using real, whole food. Her daily life has been filled with pride and accomplishment as she’s gifted her family and friend with wholesome meals and snacks. While visiting with Eliot, we offered family members ice cream and little pieces of chocolate. Eva never declined and relished tasting two flavors, followed by two pieces of dark chocolate. The operative term was “tasting,” not wolfing down. She listens to her body and stops when she’s satisfied. Like her Japanese counterpart, she still has a very healthy appetite and, by record, both ladies have actually gained a little weight in the past several years. Their diets are varied and include plenty of treats. Eva’s food-related vernacular includes “tasty, yummy, that’s great; I’ll have some more; that roll was so good.” She has never said, “I can’t eat that because…” or “I hate my body; I’m on a diet; I’m gluten free; I’m watching my carbs/fat/protein (pick one); I only eat plants; sorry, I’m fasting; I have to go juice my meal; I’m skipping dinner so I can get into that little black dress.” Eva’s never spent a mortgage payment on vitamins, herbs, minerals, shakes, or bars. She takes one multivitamin per day, and she buys it at the local pharmacy. And yes, she enjoys occasional wine, tea, and a good cup of coffee on a cold winter’s day.
- “What’s Gold’s Gym?” Even now, Eva spends as much time as she can assuming the vertical every day. With abject embarrassment, she apologizes for depending upon a walker to get around. She can still walk the staircase—albeit slowly—to her daughter’s condo, where she now lives. Eva’s never been to a gym, has no clue what a fitness trainer does, nor has she ever kickboxed or rocked through a Zumba class. She’s just gotten up at the crack of dawn and made herself busy with work, caregiving, errands, friends, and family affairs.
- “Why worry about tomorrow when I’m just so happy to be here today?“ Eva was mindful before mindful was cool. Admitting that as a young mother she used to fret and worry, Eva now declares that as she’s gotten older she doesn’t stress as much and she now cherishes each breath, every hour and day, as well as the pleasure of still awakening in the morning. “You never know! And if I don’t awaken, well, then I’ll be the one who never knows!”
- “Hand me my crossword puzzle, please.” Eva still reads the newspaper every morning, and as soon as she’s done with the cover stories, she makes a beeline to the crossword puzzle. And she’s good. Really good. A sadness is that after having done them together with Eliot over the phone for more than 40 years, Eliot’s dementia forced her to complete the puzzles alone. Her knitting and crossword puzzles have helped keep her mentally crisp, with an extraordinary memory.
- “Breast cancer? Oh, yes, I almost forgot.” About 40 years ago, Eva was diagnosed with breast cancer. She dutifully complied with the treatment plan, and never looked back. It wasn’t a picnic, but she never let it define her. Tom Perls, MD, director of the Boston-based New England Centenarian Study and author of Living to 100, refers to the men and women in his studies as “stress shedders.” They experience the same pain, grief, and angst of life but are experts at regrouping and moving on.
- “I live to care for someone.” Eva’s main driver through life was her passion for caregiving. From the time she was a young adult, she was on the hunt for someone who needed love, support, and guidance through life’s challenges. Clearly she gave to her own family, but she enjoyed casting a wider net. Her 80s and 90s presented a difficult transition for Eva. As friends and family members passed on, she found herself more alone. Realizing this, the family got together and plotted a new purpose for her life, her 100th-birthday party. It’s in eight months now, and we’ve drawn Eva into the party planning. Although she’s not obsessed with hitting three figures, she loves a good party. She talks about it all the time now. Mission accomplished!
Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP, is a Pew Scholar in nutrition and metabolism, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland, and a fellow of the American College of Physicians. A triathlete and mountaineer, she is known as “the doc who walks the talk,” living what she’s learned as an expert in health, fitness, and nutrition. Dr. Peeke is featured as one of America’s leading women physicians in the National Institutes of Health Changing Face of Medicine exhibit at the National Library of Medicine. Her current research at the University of Maryland centers on the connection between meditation and overeating. She is the author of many best-selling books, including Fight Fat after Forty. Her new book is the New York Times best-seller The Hunger Fix.