Michael Brickey, Ph.D., ABPP – Dear Dr Brickey Interviews Ani Aging Experts
Answer yes or no to the following 42 questions. Count the number of yes answers you give. The test is intentionally transparent (yes answers being healthier) to make scoring easy and to make the test more instructive. Rationales for the items follow the instructions for scoring and interpretation.
1. Do you average at least half an hour a day reading things that you do not have to read?
2. Do you have a passionate interest in at least one special interest other than your job and family?
3. When someone gives you a compliment, do you usually believe it and accept it graciously?
4. Do you think that most people are good?
5. Do you think that next year will be better than this year?
Self-reliance and independence
6. Do you consider your doctor’s advice but regard yourself responsible for your health?
7. Do you seek solutions to health problems other than taking medications?
8. When deciding what to eat, do you use your own criteria for what agrees with you and keeps you healthy and energetic (as opposed to deferring to friends or experts)?
Sense of humor
9. Have you laughed out loud in the last 24 hours?
10. Can you tell a joke or say something funny and get others to laugh?
11. Are you cheerful?
12. Do you smile a lot?
Resilient coping skills
13. When you think of family members, friends or pets that have died, do you usually think of them fondly?
14. When there is new technology, do you welcome the change?
15. When someone cuts in front of you in traffic or tailgates you, do you take it in stride?
16. Would you be willing to pursue a new career if your current career were no longer satisfying?
17. When someone disappoints you, are you able to let go of any resentments within a week?
18. Do you engage in an activity several times a week that gets you in a relaxed, meditative state (e.g., yoga, classical music, breathing exercises, prayer, fishing)?
19. When you get upset, do you have a reliable way to quickly get yourself into a resourceful state?
20. At the end of each month do you have more savings than the previous month?
21. If you chose to quit your job and took a sabbatical, could you live comfortably for six months?
Sense of purpose
22. Do you believe in God or some form of higher power or truth or purpose in life?
23. Do you have a sense of purpose for your life?
24. Aside from work, do you spend at least four hours a week with friends?
25. Do you spend at least four hours a week with family members (or friends who are like family)?
26. Do you spend at least an hour a week with friends who are chronologically younger than you are or with children?
27. Are most of your friends positive, optimistic people?
28. When you “talk to yourself,” is most of the conversation positive?
29. Do you have sexual relations with someone you care about at least once a week?
Physical risk taking
30. Do you always wear a seatbelt and not drive more than ten miles over the speed limit?
31. Have you been free of any serious sports injuries in the last ten years?
32. Do you get a 30-minute cardiovascular workout at least twice a week?
33. Do you engage in activities that keep you physically flexible at least twice a week?
34. Do you engage in exercises or sports that require physical strength at least twice a week?
35. Do you breathe deeply (from your abdomen rather than your chest) at least a few minutes each day?
36. Do you take a daily multiple vitamin?
37. Do you floss and brush your teeth at least once a day?
38. Do you drink at least six glasses of filtered water a day?
39. Do you refuse to “go on a diet?”
40. Do you maintain a fairly constant body weight that is within 20 pounds of your “ideal body weight”?
41. Does your lifestyle not include smoking cigarettes, cigars, or marijuana?
42. Do you believe that you will live past 100?
Give yourself one point for each yes answer.
37-42 You have excellent mental longevity skills. The concepts in Defy Aging will feel natural and comfortable and help you reinforce and sharpen your excellent skills.
31-36 You are off to a good start. Defy Aging should be very helpful in filling in some gaps and reinforcing and honing your mental longevity skills.
25-30 You are doing a number of things well. It would be prudent to focus first on being clear and vivid about why you want to live a long, vital life. Begin with the easiest changes and take on the more difficult ones as you make progress.
< 25 You need to seriously consider what your life will be like as you age. Defy Aging can be extremely helpful. Make a vivid mental image of what you could be like if you really take care of yourself mentally and physically. Notice how you exude energy and vitality. Now make a vivid mental image of what it probably would be like if you don’t make changes in your attitudes, beliefs, coping skills, and lifestyle. Perhaps this image has you hunched over, bored, in pain, and in a wheelchair in a nursing home at 80. Keeping those images in mind to motivate you, begin with the easiest changes and take on the more difficult ones as you make progress.
RATIONALE FOR THE ITEMS:
While centenarians are a diverse group, virtually all of them are very active mentally and cite being mentally active as vital to long life. Like physical skills, mental skills are “use them or lose them” faculties.
Martin Seligman’s research, summarized in his book, Learned Optimism, provides an abundance of data on how optimistic people have better physical health, are more successful, and experience less depression. Depression is the “common cold” of mental health and the incidence of depression is becoming epidemic. Although many centenarians have had difficult lives, including dealing with two World Wars, the Great Depression, loss of loved ones, and in many cases poverty, few centenarians have reported problems with depression. Depression impairs people’s immune systems. A major difference between centenarians and people who die at younger ages appears to be that most centenarians avoid depression and its effects–impairing sleep, appetite, energy levels, the immune system and enjoying life. Most researchers report that in interviews and psychological testing the vast majority of centenarians are upbeat.
Self-reliant and independent
Self-reliance and independence are major traits distinguishing centenarians. Researchers reported that the older centenarians become, the more they make decisions on the basis of what they believe as opposed to what others expect. Most take few medications and many only see a doctor when they have to. (They would be wiser to see a doctor for annual checkups.) They place responsibility for their health with themselves and not their doctors. They “march to a different drummer.”
Sense of humor
Humor is commonly cited in centenarian interviews and observed by centenarian researchers. Humor requires flexible thinking (to understand word plays, double entendres, etc.). Laughing stimulates a lot of movement in the body and stimulates the immune system. Unlike the heart, the lymph system does not have a pump and relies on breathing to force lymph to circulate. In his book, Anatomy of an Illness, Norman Cousins describes how he used laughter to overcome a usually fatal illness (ankylosing spondylitis).
While research data on cheerfulness are scarce, cheerfulness certainly appears to be a close relative of optimism. Research and interviews often cite centenarians as satisfied with life. In her autobiography, Bubbles, opera diva Beverly Sills says she was asked if she was happy. She has two children; one is deaf and the other is mentally retarded. Her singing career was shortened by cervical cancer. She replied that, in view of the tragedies in her life, she doesn’t know if she would describe herself as happy, but she is cheerful. Happiness is a by-product of having purpose and passion. Cheerfulness is a trait that can be learned and practiced.
Resilient coping skills
Hans Selye’s classic 1956 book, The Stress of Life, documented how stress prompts the body to respond with a general adaptation syndrome. The syndrome begins with adrenalin and other hormones rallying for the crisis (the alarm stage), and continues into the resistance and exhaustion stages if the stress is prolonged and severe. Everyone experiences stress. A certain amount of stress, especially from desirable events like a promotion or getting married, is good. Prolonged stress, however, takes its toll on our bodies and makes us vulnerable to illnesses. Centenarians’ skill at dealing with stress protects their bodies from becoming run down and vulnerable to illnesses.
One of the most difficult stresses centenarians face is dealing with the loss of loved ones. People who cope effectively with loss focus on what was good about the loved ones and remember them fondly. They often think of their loved ones as a resource that they can call on for support and guidance. People who do not cope effectively focus on the loss and how things will never be the same.
Change is inevitable and becoming more and more rapid in our society. If you see each change as an ordeal (e.g., dreading the newest computers and software), then change becomes one more stress and one more factor that can contribute to depression.
Perspective is also important. Treating minor events, such as being cut off in traffic, as no big deal prevents your body from triggering its stress response. Perspective on larger stressors, for example, losing a job, can minimize the body’s stress response and vulnerability to depression. If pursuing a new career is an ordeal, it can be very stressful. If you see it primarily as an exciting challenge, most of the stress will be eustress (good stress).
Hanging onto disappointments, resentments, and should-have-beens prompts the body’s stress response, ties up emotional energy, and distracts people from finding solutions. Often people hang onto resentments, thinking the resentments will protect them from getting hurt again. Instead it just prolongs the hurt. Most centenarians have excellent skills at letting go of painful events and resentments. They live in the present.
Relaxation skills are essential to keeping the body in a harmonious state and avoiding stress responses. Just as muscles need both challenges and relaxation, our conscious minds need challenges and time off so unconscious and meditative states can do their intuitive work. People who are deprived of dream sleep (REM or Rapid Eye Movement sleep), even if they obtain an adequate number of hours of sleep, become extremely irritable. After several days of REM sleep deprivation they become irrational. Even when awake we appear to need periodic meditative states to be relaxed, flexible, and function well.
Quickly and effectively getting yourself out of an upset state is a micro resilient coping skill. It short circuits the stress response and helps us problem-solve and relate to people better.
What do couples argue about the most? Money. For most people finances are one of the most stressful areas of their lives. Feeling financially secure and knowing that you have some financial reserves helps you feel better emotionally and physically. If you are saving money (or paying off mortgages and debts) it is easier to feel optimistic about the future. The issue isn’t how much money you have in absolute terms but living within your means, or better yet, living below your means and having the security of savings.
Sense of purpose
While it might be partially a generational phenomenon, most current centenarians profess a strong belief in God. It is possible to have a sense of purpose without literally believing in God. We all know people who do not believe in God but whose commitment to truth, justice, morality, or a cause makes them spiritual people and gives them a sense of purpose. When people lose their sense of purpose, they become vulnerable to depression and their immune systems become compromised and vulnerable to illness.
In his book, Real Age, Michael Roizen calculates how different factors affect one’s life expectancy. For socialization he cites three factors: 1) being married, 2) seeing at least six friends at least monthly, and 3) participating in social groups. The “real age” for a 55-year-old man who meets all three criteria is 46, two criteria 49, one criterion 53, and no criterion 60. For a 55-year-old woman the real ages are 49, 53, 59, and 61. Presumably the effect is a little stronger for men because women in our culture are better at social networking. When a partner’s spouse dies, his or her risk of illness or death skyrockets for the first year. Retirement also changes social networks and can be very stressful.We become like the people with whom we socialize. A natural part of forming rapport with people is sharing interests and values. If most of our friends are older, we get pulled into their lifestyles and beliefs about aging. If many of our friends are younger, we get pulled into their younger lifestyles and beliefs about aging. If we associate with grumpy people, we are likely to develop negative banter. If we associate with positive, optimistic people, we are likely to develop upbeat thinking and conversations.
If you find yourself saying, “You stupid idiot, why did you say such a dumb thing,” it is time to reprogram your self-talk. Motivational speaker and author Anthony Robbins makes a strong case that the quality of our lives depends on the quality of questions we ask ourselves, e.g., How can I make this better? What blessings am I grateful for? How can I make this a great day?
Sex enhances emotional intimacy, relaxes us, decreases stress, and is one of life’s great pleasures. Michael Roizen in Real Age reports that women who are unsatisfied with the quality or quantity of their sexual relations have a life expectancy ½ a year less than is average for their age while women who are satisfied with both the quality and quantity have a life expectancy 1½ years longer than average. For men, fewer than five orgasms a year shortens life expectancy by 2½ years while more than 300 orgasms a year adds three years to their life expectancy.
Physical risk taking
There are many things people can do to lessen their physical risks. Driving a safe car, wearing seat belts, and not speeding are some of the easiest. Sports can be a great way to have fun, have a network of friends, and stay fit. Quite a few people become addicted to sports, however, and continue sports even when their bodies are telling them to change to a safer sport or exercise. A common example is runners who develop knee problems but “have to” continue running.
Fitness does not need to be an obsession. It does need to include cardiovascular, strength, and flexibility activities. One of the things that often causes elderly people’s health to deteriorate is falls. Many falls are due to weak muscles, poor balance, a lack of flexibility, and slow reflexes. Minor miracles have been performed in nursing homes just by getting residents to do some physical fitness exercises.
Many physically healthy people become addicted to sports and pursue the sport even when the pursuit is harming their bodies. For example, they may continue running despite knee problems or a cessation of menstrual periods. Longevity requires that we listen to our body’s feedback and do something different if our physical activities are causing injuries or health problems.
Most people in our society have very constricted breathing. They breathe primarily from their chest cavity instead of their abdomens. Even a few minutes a day of deep breathing helps enormously. Unlike our hearts, our lymph system does not have a pump and is dependent on our breathing to circulate lymph.
Most Americans do not receive all the vitamins and minerals they need from what they eat. Soil depletion has resulted in some of our fruits, vegetables, and grains no longer containing micronutrients such as copper, zinc, sulfur, iron, and magnesium. A daily multiple vitamin is an easy way to make sure you receive all the vitamins and minerals you need. (Note: Most men and many women should not have iron in their vitamins as it fosters free radical damage.) Taking individual vitamins and minerals can create imbalances between vitamins and minerals and needs to be carefully thought out. High doses of some vitamins or minerals can cause health problems.
Flossing and brushing your teeth not only promotes good dental hygiene and helps teeth and gums last a lifetime, but poor dental hygiene is linked to cardiovascular disease, strokes, and infections. Apparently the same bacteria that cause periodontal disease prompt an immune response which causes arteries to swell. Michael Roizen in Real Age reports that the absence of periodontal diseases can add 6.4 years to your life expectancy. Thus, daily flossing and brushing are extremely time and cost-effective health practices.
Most city tap water is probably OK but we would be healthier without the chlorine. Our bodies are 80% water and water is the primary vehicle for our bodies to circulate blood, lymph, hormones, cerebral spinal fluid, etc. and to eliminate wastes. Filtering water is easy and inexpensive. It removes chlorine and other chemicals but leaves in the minerals. Filtered water also tastes better than chlorinated water. Distilled water leaches chemicals from our bodies (and tastes flat). The Natural Resources Defense Council tested 103 brands of bottled water and found that one-third of them did not meet California standards and guidelines for bottled water.
When people reduce their calorie consumption, the body adapts by reducing its metabolism. When they go off a diet, the metabolism bounces back. There is a substantial body of research indicating that “yo-yo dieting” is hard on our body’s systems, rarely works, and is worse than being overweight. Losing weight needs to be gradual and the result of ongoing health practices. The easiest way to lose weight, for most people, is to increase the muscle-to-fat ratio and metabolism by exercising. One of the few physical factors that distinguish centenarians is that they maintain a fairly constant body weight their whole adult lives.
The research on the health problems caused by cigarette smoking is overwhelming. Cigar smoking is associated with mouth cancers and some smoke is inhaled. Marijuana has 50% more carcinogens and 400% more tar than cigarettes. Prolonged use of marijuana also affects motivation, which in turn leads to less physical and mental activity.
Our minds try very hard to fulfill our beliefs and expectations. Just believing something does not make it happen, but if you believe you will live past 100, it is more likely to happen. To build this belief, study the supporting data, e.g., medical advances, the increasing number of centenarians, increasing resources, and the generally good health of many centenarians.