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Be happy, be healthy. But how?

Geriatric guru "Dr. David" outlines the elements of living not just as long as possible, but as well as possible.

By ROBERT N. JENKINS
Published September 26, 2006


A demographic flood is slowly starting to envelop our country as 78-million baby boomers begin turning 60 this year. Though they can expect to live at least three decades longer than their grandparents, they are not promised a better quality of life in those extra years.

David A. Lipschitz is focused on these challenges. Dr. David, as he likes to be called, holds both an M.D. and a Ph.D. and is director of the Donald W. Reynolds Institute on Aging at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, as well as chairman of the university's department of geriatrics. The institute, which sees about 25,000 patients annually, is consistently ranked among the nation's 10 best in this specialty.

Dr. David, a native of South Africa, came to America more than 30 years ago. He studied at the universities of Washington and Kansas before moving to the University of Arkansas, continuing research into the effect of nutrition on blood chemistry and on aging.

He has headed the Research Committee of the American Geriatrics Society, created a 26-part series for PBS, Aging Successfully With Dr. David, and written Breaking the Rules of Aging.

I recently spent a morning with Dr. David, discussing the institute and what sorts of problems - and remedies - he and his staff work with. Here is his prescription for enjoying the second half of life.

Beyond remedies for specific physical ills, what does your staff tell patients? What is your philosophy on aging?

The first thing when I see my patients beyond age 60, I say to them, "I have no wish to prolong your life," and the answer is always, "Thank you." Always.

'Cause when you're 75 or 80, you don't want to live longer - the idea of immortality is not an issue.

What they want is to assure that the life they do have is of the highest possible quality - that they remain independent, living in their own homes with dignity. . . .

To live a long and independent life, two things are critical. The first is to be happy - the key to longevity - and then to be healthy.

There are four elements of happiness:

1. The most important is love.

Men who are in long-standing, loving, intimate, monogamous relationships live 10 years longer than single men.

But there are some very important elements there. Intimacy is key to a male living longer, and intimacy means being able to share your fears and open up to your spouse. . . .

Love is much more important than sex.

We see a lot of sexual dysfunction among institute patients. A man who comes to me with erectile dysfunction, it separates couples, because the single most important thing about the American male is to be tough, to be potent. And what is the worst word? Being impotent, a sign of terrible weakness. So couples separate. . . .

When I (learn of sexual dysfunction), the first thing I say is, "We're not going to worry about the sex. Sex is immaterial.

"First, we come together: Love, kiss, hug, get close. And once you've done that, we'll start working on sexuality."

2. The second element of happiness is faith.

I think physicians feel very uncomfortable discussing issues of faith with their patients. It's almost like separation of church and state. . . .

But asking someone that question is critical because faith and health are linked. . . . Faith sustains you: People of faith live longer, people of faith have fewer illnesses and people of faith cope with illness better than individuals who say they don't believe.

Studying religious things, the Bible or the Torah, can prolong your life, but it's not about going to church or synagogue or a mosque, it's practicing whatever your religion tells you:

* Be good.

* Be loving.

* Be giving - volunteer.

* Be forgiving.

3. The third factor (to happiness) is to have a purpose and a focus to life. . . .

Some of the unhappiest people I've seen have been the most successful because they've reached that age in their lives where they've only had one goal, and that is to make what they do better, to succeed.

(Their quest) is never about money - never, ever. It's about doing better, providing a better service. That involves strong leadership, it involves strong focus, it involves being a good leader and listener - and (that means) being in charge.

But all of a sudden, because of age, you are no longer in charge. You've done nothing else except focus on your passion, and now you're no longer in control.

(In his Breaking the Rules of Aging, Lipschitz advises that we actively plan for how we'll spend the equivalent of our working hours before we retire. That also means reducing the value on the reward we let ourselves feel by working.

(Instead, we should consider plunging into old hobbies or taking up new ones, enroll in classes, spend more time with relatives and reinforce friendships, in order to get out of the house.

(Use your work expertise to volunteer in a familiar business setting, or try a second - but part time - career. Become a foster grandparent. Travel.

(Actively pursue the dreams you used to daydream about while at work. Set goals for yourself to increase your motivation, and be sensitive to any signs of depression.)

4. Finally, maintaining happiness requires having high self-esteem.

We've developed a very strong message for (patients) who are looking toward growing older and not really liking what they see. That actually is part of the problem:

Baby boomers are desperately trying to look young, (thinking that) looking young is more important than staying young.

But there is no way that we can erase the aging process . . . . There are a lot of people who are very fit but upset (because) they don't have an ideal shape. That adversely affects self-esteem, one of the most important elements of living a long and independent life. . . .

My father-in-law is 88 and has to use a cane; he walks incredibly slowly, he's worried about falling. He told me he thinks about killing himself. . . . He said, "I can't walk anymore, I can't get out. What is the purpose of continuing life?"

What I've got to do is help him understand that his life is worthwhile. (But) he is losing his self-esteem because he is becoming dependent and he doesn't like what he sees.

Is that pessimism as we age normal?

In our early 60s, we're beginning to worry because we know that 80 is staring us in the face (and) we have all these negative stereotypes that everything's going to slow down, nothing's going to work, we're going to get sick, lose our memory, and sex is out the window. . . .

And we don't even like the way we think we look?

Beauty is far more than physical appearance, the shape of the body or the wrinkles of your skin. Beauty comes from within.

Robert N. Jenkins can be reached at (727) 893-8496 or jenkins@sptimes.com.

[Last modified September 26, 2006, 09:28:50]


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