Ever since I was a child, I’ve always loved watching Willard Scott share milestone birthdays on the Today show. It’s amazing to hear how these 100+ year old people live on their own and are still able to take care of themselves. As someone with a family history of Alzheimer’s (my grandfather had it, and my grandmother currently has the disease) living a long and healthy life is something I aspire to. I recently had the pleasure of being joined by Dr. Thomas A. Cavalieri, DO, (Dean of the Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine in Glassboro, New Jersey and director of the New Jersey Institute for Successful Aging) on the secret to living a long and healthy life, how your physician can enhance your quality of life, whether or not we can help prevent Alzheimer’s disease and much more.
Candace Rose: What’s the secret to living a long healthy life?
Dr. Thomas A. Cavalieri, DO: Put most succinctly: genetics, lifestyle, behavioral/social factors, and luck. Research suggests that both genetic and environmental factors influence lifespan and health. By far, modifiable environmental factors exert the most influence with genetics contributing only about 35%. Lifestyle strategies include healthy diet, regular exercise, avoidance of smoking, adequate sleep, and the practice of preventive medicine. There is even some evidence that a small amount of red wine daily may be beneficial. Behavioral/social factors include minimizing stress, acquiring better coping skills, having resilience/adaptiveness, engaging social resources and support, participating in social productive activities/volunteerism, cognitive stimulation, and maintaining involvement with religion/spirituality.
Candace Rose: Is it true that women live longer than men? Why is that?
Dr. Thomas A. Cavalieri, DO: Women do live longer than men. It had been thought for quite some time that estrogen provided them with an advantage. Estrogen may have a protective effect on the heart delaying the onset of cardiovascular disease. Because women have two X chromosomes while men only have one, there may be a genetic factor why women live longer.
Candace Rose: How can physicians help enhance a patient’s quality of life?
Dr. Thomas A. Cavalieri, DO: “Physicians, by providing health promotion and disease prevention oriented primary care, can provide their patients with the necessary resources and education about strategies that can optimize their health and lead to a better quality of life. Examples are providing appropriate referrals for smoking cessation, dietary counseling, or exercise programming. Physicians can also counsel on the importance of wellness visits and Medicare now pays for a comprehensive visit on wellness.”
Candace Rose: Does where we live have an impact on how long we live?
Dr. Thomas A. Cavalieri, DO:: There are “longevity hot spots” around the world which are referred to as “blue zones”. They include Sardinia (Barbagia) which has the highest concentration of male centenarians; Greece (Ikaria) which has one of lowest rates of middle age mortality and dementia; Costa Rica (Nicoya Peninsula) which has a low rate of middle age mortality and a high concentration of male centenarians; Loma Linda (California) where Seventh Day Adventists live 10 years longer than average Americans; and Japan (Okinawa) where the world’s longest lived woman lives.
Those living in these “blue zones” share the following characteristics: good genes; they exercise regularly and eat wisely; live in a less stressful environment; place families first; are part of social networks and share a sense of community; live with a sense of purpose; and have a strong belief in God.”
Candace Rose: How can we live longer with less disability?
Dr. Thomas A. Cavalieri, DO: “In many ways, decreasing disability it is the same prescription for living longer, i.e., aiming to decrease the onset of chronic disease as we get older. These include exercise, healthy eating, maintaining a healthy body weight, not smoking, etc. Clearly, there is now evidence that people in our country are not only living longer but they are living a better quality of life. Disability rates are declining as people age compared to past years. President Kennedy once said “we have added years to life, now we must add life to those years”. His vision for the future has become a reality.”
Candace Rose: Alzheimer’s is something we all fear with getting older. Is there anything people with a family history of dementia and Alzheimer’s can do to help prevent the disease?
Dr. Thomas A. Cavalieri, DO: “There is evidence suggesting we could prevent or at least forestall the manifestations of Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of Dementia. It is well described that interventions good for the heart will also have a protective effect for the brain. Both exercise and a heart-healthy diet can delay the onset of Dementia. I recommend an exercise program to all of my patients along with a low fat, nutrient rich diet with a multiple vitamin. There is also some suggestive evidence that keeping the mind active as one ages and remaining engaged in community activities may also prevent the manifestations of Dementia.”
Candace Rose: Is there anything else that we can do to live a long healthy life?
Dr. Thomas A. Cavalieri, DO: “It clearly is possible to live a long and healthy life. The practice of prevention medicine through age appropriate cancer screening and immunizations is clearly helpful. As described earlier, a healthy diet, a vitamin supplement and regular exercise while maintaining an appropriate body weight are all beneficial interventions. A little red wine may help, but the evidence for this is not definitively documented. Keeping the mind active and staying engaged with family, community and one’s faith while maintaining a positive attitude can all contribute to a longer and healthier life. George Burns who died at 100 said it well: “you can’t help getting older but you don’t have to be old”.
Candace Rose: Where can we go for more information?
Dr. Thomas A. Cavalieri, DO: “Web sites of single disease organizations such as the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, American Diabetes Association, and Alzheimer’s Association, to name a few, are informative and consumer friendly. However, federal sites such as those at the National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Aging, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offer extensive information that is also consumer friendly.” Specific web addresses are: