Editor’s Note: Dr. Butler died of cancer on July 4, 2010, at the age of 83.
Don’t be afraid to play.
That’s the advice offered by Robert Butler, M.D., one of the country’s foremost experts on aging, in his latest book, The Longevity Prescription: The 8 Proven Keys to a Long, Healthy Life. The book is a guide to healthy aging with easy-to-follow steps and checklists to help readers not just live longer but better.
It’s also sprinkled with fascinating facts: Holding hands and hugging reduces blood pressure. Fresh flowers reduce stress. Laughter protects the heart.
Butler’s advice is based on sound science and a keen understanding of longevity. The founding director of the National Institute on Aging at the National Institutes of Health, the 83-year-old Butler advises, for example, that to maintain a healthy brain it’s important to try new things, not just continue old routines—even if those routines do include challenges like crossword puzzles. Learn a word a day. Learn a new language. Pursue a passion.
In addition to those cognitive calisthenics, he recommends human activity. For healthy aging, people need to be with other people—volunteering, entertaining or even playing games.
Butler writes, in fact, that people who are having trouble with memory and mental sharpness can, with brain training and increased human interactions, “regain as much as two decades of memory.”
But staving off dementia is just one crucial aspect to vitality. Butler stresses that the other seven—good relationships, sound sleep, less stress, varied social connections, an active life, healthy eating and common-sense medical prevention—are just as important.
Take muscle training, for example.
“One of the most frightening disabilities of old age, aside from dementia, is frailty,” Butler said in an interview with the AARP Bulletin. “If you keep your thigh muscles strong, do squats every day, that can make a huge difference. Those are the muscles you need to get up out of a chair or bed on your own, to keep your independence.” He says frailty also contributes to falls—the 12th leading cause of death in people age 65 and older.
Though much of his book centers on advice we’ve all heard a few times before—eat your vegetables, maintain a healthy weight, exercise, get regular checkups—there are a few surprises.
Whether the subject is good balance or strong friendships, the theme throughout Butler’s book is how to make aging an experience marked by dignity, grace and good health. And the author himself—still sharp and active with a rich professional and social life— is a marvelous model for the experience he envisions for all.
He lives in an apartment in New York City, where he rises at 6 each morning to read several newspapers. Later, he walks across Central Park to his office at the International Longevity Center, where he works full-time as president and CEO. He’s currently chairing a committee on aging for the World Economic Forum and teaching at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health—putting in 60 hour weeks. It’s a heavy load but one he carries lightly.
“I love work, it’s not a burden,” he declares.
Butler keeps a treadmill in his library so he can read while he works out. He also walks five to six miles around Central Park most weekends with a group of friends.
“Exercise is so important and it helps if you do it with friends or neighbors,” he says. “This group has a lawyer, a human rights activist, a publisher—and we’ve been walking together for years. We like the exercise and enjoy the company.”
In fact, Butler adds, “I would love to see a national walking movement. There is no better exercise as you age.”
When he lost his wife a few years ago, even in his grief, Butler says, “I made it a project to go out, to stay connected. That’s so important.”
Today, his life is rounded out by dinners with friends, travel, visits with his daughters and their families, even his dog, Brontë.
Here then are a few fascinating facts gathered by this gerontologist, psychiatrist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author:
- Genes account for only about 25 percent of an individual’s health and longevity, while “our environment and personal behaviors account for the rest.”
- Today’s average 65-year-old man and woman can expect to live to be 81 and 85, respectively. More than 17 percent of 65-year-old men and 31 percent of 65-year-old women are expected to live to age 90 or beyond.
- Within species like dogs and mice, small body size tends to extend life span, and shorter people are relatively resistant to most forms of cancer, compared with taller people. Indeed, shorter people may be relatively long-lived or at least resistant to certain major classes of disease.
- Resveratrol, the ingredient found in blueberries, peanuts and in the skin of grapes, may help extend life and is 10 times more abundant in red wines than whites. It is “evident especially” in pinot noir reds.
- Aerobic exercise three times a week can reduce eye pressure—a major risk for glaucoma.
- A 30-minute nap a day may reduce heart disease risk by as much as 30 percent. Longer naps, though, can interfere with good sleep.
- Old age is now perceived as “a time of continuing vitality.” About 44 percent of Americans over age 65 describe the present as “the best years of my life.” As Eleanor Roosevelt said: “Beautiful young people are accidents of nature, beautiful old people are works of art.”
Elizabeth Agnvall is a contributing editor with the AARP Bulletin.