We have no choice but to get older, but according to Dr. Henry Lodge, we have a great deal of control over the quality of our lives as elders.
The key to understanding healthy longevity could lie deep in our mammalian past.
In a community event organized by the St. Luke's Wood River Foundation, Lodge spoke about the latest science on aging to a packed house Wednesday at the Presbyterian Church of the Big Wood in Ketchum. He stressed the importance of exercise on the quality of life in later years, citing binary cellular processes of growth and decay as major factors in understanding the importance of keeping a daily fitness routine.
"Exercise is the key to growth," he said. "Lack of exercise is the key to decay. Fitness is a side effect."
Lodge, the author of "Younger Next Year: Live Strong, Fit and Sexy—Until You're 80 and Beyond" and other books, told the predominantly gray-haired audience that healthy longevity also depends on maintaining a contributing role in one's community.
"Take charge of your social structure," he said. "It is an infrastructure. You can build on it. Think of it as an emotional gym."
Lodge is a board-certified internist on the faculty of Columbia Medical School and former head of the New York Clinical Society, a multi-specialty group practice. He shared synopses of recent studies on aging that indicate the powerful impacts that cardiovascular and strength training can have on increasing physical and mental efficiency among older people.
The great news is that's never too late to start getting physiologically younger, or happier, Lodge said.
"After you exercise, you grow," he said. "Your cells get younger for eight to 12 hours. Every day that you sit is a day that you rot."
Lodge said 1 percent of the cells in our bodies are replaced or renewed each day, and that our bones are replaced every two years.
"The legs you walked in here on are not the same legs you had this spring," he said.
Lodge said our cells can come back stronger and physiologically younger, thanks to exercise, or older and more decayed if we just sit around.
"We are not meant to be sedentary," said Lodge, citing the findings of evolutionary biology, which describe optimal health practices based on the physical and emotional circumstances of our distant ancestors. "Our bodies are designed to be back out in nature."
But Lodge warned that nature was once cruel, especially in winter when due to scarce food resources, our cellular processes went into "starvation" mode to survive, a mode marked by bodily decay and low-grade depression.
Though resources are now more plentiful to modern humans, many of us live sedentary lives, which trigger genetic processes of decay. Lodge said the trick to turning this automatic evolutionary process around is to jumpstart the "genetic supercomputer" within our bodies and brains through exercise.
Lodge cited cases in which old people began transforming their physiological ages dramatically. In one case, John Mendez, 90, achieved the cardiovascular and strength levels of a fit 60-year-old, even after smoking two packs of cigarettes a day until age 46.
Lodge said emotions play a significant role in determining long-range health patterns, because the emotional center of human brains translates information between the higher, thinking brain centers and the lower, reptilian brain centers leading to the body.
"Connection and caring are as powerful as exercise, and these two are deeply synergistic," he said."
Lodge said major emotional stresses that plague modern humans are isolation and not having a role in "the pack," or community.
He said solutions to social alienation can be found in numerous ways, including psychotherapy and cognitive training, but Lodge prefers the option of simply getting out and making friends.
He said fishing can be a good, healthy activity, but that it does not replace the separate need to be relevant in our community.
"This means having face-to-face interactions with a task," he said.
Lodge had little to say about diet, because nutrition science was too complex and subtle to provide reliable information on aging. He said he preferred using common sense with regard to diet.
"Stop eating crap, and eat less," he said.
Tony Evans: email@example.com