What’s The Real Value Of A Centenarian’s Advice?
That depends on whether your priority is longevity or quality of life
Today (May 11, 2018) is Richard Overton’s birthday. At 112 years, the Austin, Texas resident is the oldest man in America, as well as the United States’ oldest veteran. Richard served in World War II. His secret? He told the comedian Steve Harvey once it was to “Just keep living, don’t die.”
Mr. Overton is one of those centenarians that defies many of the rules doctors, to say nothing of well meaning friends and loved ones, like to remind us of. He smokes 12 cigars a day, drinks several cups of coffee with three spoons of sugar each every morning, and has apparently never had developing a regular exercise routine as a New Year’s resolution.
Those making or breaking the century mark often do have habits, as well as advice, that isn’t exactly sanctioned by the latest medical research. To commemorate Overton’s milestone, Arwa Mahdawi compiled a number of examples for The Guardian. In addition to Overton’s cigar smoking, the unorthodox routines Mahdawi found among her small sample of people recently making it to 100 or more years included chocolate, six gin and tonics a day, a daily Guinness, and at least two women who mentioned avoiding men. Though Overton didn’t attribute his long health to chasing women, he’s apparently quite the ladies man. Perhaps chasing and fleeing both count as exercise.
Inevitably some people will point to this lack of regard for standard health advice as evidence that it’s all just a question of luck, including a few good genes. Obviously, they will claim, if Mabel Jackson of Suffolk can have her six G&Ts a day, then doctors don’t really know what does or doesn’t improve our chances of a long life. Of course genetics does play a role in everyone’s life outcome, but a few unusually old people with good genes does not prove that heavy drinking doesn’t increase the risk of sclerosis or that smoking a pack or two a day really has no impact on the respiratory system.
Arguments that rely upon really old people with questionable habits are obvious examples of the availability heuristic, which is something we can always count on to provide us with stories about exceptions to any rule we really didn’t have much interest in following to begin with. But we needn’t bother with cognitive biases to justify living life on our terms. Longevity is not an inherent good. People that don’t give a damn about it are not necessarily bad people, any more than people who exercise religiously and count every calorie are necessarily good.
When I read through the brief accounts Mahdawi has compiled, what comes through to me isn’t all the exceptions to the advice every doctor has given or years spent pleading every concerned spouse has wasted. It’s the meaning and contentment these individuals have achieved that really stands out. Though I understand why a reporter’s natural inclination is to ask about their secret to a long life, it should be obvious that none of these people has a clue why they made it past 100 years when none of their friends or siblings did. It’s their attitude toward life I’m really interested in. All the cigar smoking and chocolate bars serve only as tantalizing clues as to what that attitude might be.
Longevity clearly was never the goal for any of these centenarians. No one in the small sample provided in The Guardian article seems to have ever cared how long they lived. They all appear to have accepted their mortality long before they made the papers for beating the odds by such a wide margin.
In fact, when I think back over the many articles I’ve read over the years about people that lived such long lives, and when I consider the few people I’ve known that have made it into their 90s, or even broken the century mark, I can’t think of a single one for whom living as long as possible was an end unto itself. As I approach 50, it occurs to me that there in lies the real lesson these individuals have to offer.
We all know someone for whom the primary purpose of diet and exercise is longevity. Likewise, we all have friends or family members that smoke like chimneys and drink like fish who seem to be using these as crutches to escape some unspoken misery in their life, but for whom the habits themselves bring no pleasure. Perhaps we fit into one of these two camps ourselves, or some odd combination of them.
Richard Overton with his 12 daily cigars and Mabel Jackson with her six daily gin and tonics, on the other hand, seem to simply derive happiness from the act of living. There are, no doubt, examples out there of old folks who likewise enjoy a little daily exercise and eating salads every day with dinner. The point isn’t what they’re doing, but that they’ve found genuine joy in doing it.
I’ve written elsewhere recently that I can respect a decision if it’s one that’s sincerely made. If you really want to do something, whether I or anyone else agrees or not really doesn’t matter. But if you’re exercising because you’re afraid of death, or if you’re smoking to self-medicate and the habit is making you miserable, then you’re not really living.
Smoke ’em if you got ’em if that’s what genuinely makes you happy. Jog five miles a day if that’s what fills you with joy. But if it’s all about avoiding emotional pain or a fear of death, longevity, even if you achieve it, will only bring that many more years of misery. True happiness doesn’t count the years. I have a feeling Overton and Jackson would have died with smiles on their faces even if they had died at 65 or 70. Fortunately for them and for those they love, they were able to stick around a few extra decades to share the simple joy they found in living.