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Living Well, Aging Well

What you need to know to burnish your golden years

Confronting yet another birthday, seniors often quip, “It’s better than the alternative.” But some golden years do shine brighter than others, with a number of 85-year-olds continuing to vigorously exercise their bodies and minds, while others find themselves largely debilitated. The geriatrician Cathryn Devons ’82 observed that “as people age, they become less alike rather than more alike” in their capabilities, and that while much of our health lies beyond our control, we can in fact, “influence our genetic heritage.”

Illustration by Juliette BordaDevons spoke about aging and health as part of the reunion panel “Living Well, Aging Well,” sponsored by Project Continuum, which focuses on the issues of older alumnae.

The panel delivered a message of optimism, and featured two main speakers, Devons, a professor of geriatrics at Mount Sinai and director of geriatrics at Phelps Memorial Hospital, and Dr. Ruth Steinberg ’72, a gynecologist and a former professor at Yale School of Medicine.

Devons noted that she sees many patients over the age of 100, and that if predictions hold true, there will be 600,000 centenarians by 2040 in the United States so “we are doing a pretty good job of keeping people alive longer.” A marathon runner and a triathalete-in-training at 50, she spoke of the benefits of exercise, and the importance of vaccinations in preventative health. She suggested, for example, that most patients over the age of 60 should receive a shot of Zostavax, a vaccination that prevents shingles.

Patients in this age group should also be sure to schedule regular mammograms and colonoscopies in order to detect disease while it is still treatable, said Devons, recommending that patients keep a folder with all medical records, including blood tests and mammogram reports. She also suggested finding a trusted physician who can become familiar with all of one’s health issues to avoid what she calls “polypharmacy,” or taking multiple pills to relieve the side effects of other medications. Devons urged patients of any age to name a legal health-care proxy to make medical decisions in accord with one’s wishes in the event that one is incapacitated.

Steinberg adopted a no-nonsense tone and simple message. “None of us is going to get out of here alive, not meaning this room, but life,” she said, her words sending nervous titters through the crowd. How can we live well for the longest amount of time? She advised: “Avoid the fads. Stay active, and eat well. It’s important to be able to run for the bus, carry packages, and stay strong enough so you can climb the stairs.”

Steinberg, who passed out a series of calcium-rich recipes to the audience, follows a back-to-the-basics approach to nutrition. She said, “My grandmother says if it looks pretty on the plate, it’s good for you.” She paused. “I think food should be a pleasure.” The audience erupted in applause. Steinberg’s first nutrition rule: Eat in season. “If you’re eating asparagus in December, it contains all of the pesticides used in Chile, and tastes wooden,” she said.

Also recommended: “Cook with yogurt. Eat yogurt. Don’t get your calcium from pills. Pills cause constipation. Then, you’ll get magnesium. Again, one pill being given for another pill. There’s something wrong with a country like ours in which health-food stores sell pills and no food.”

Steinberg continued, “Eggs should come from the farmer’s market. Fish should come from the sea. Your farm-raised fish are being fed corn. It’s not healthy.” And vitamin D supplements? Steinberg considers them another fad. She said, “Twenty minutes of sunshine two times a week should be adequate, even during the winter.”

The gynecologist then turned to the audience. “How many of your doctors have asked about your sexual history?” she asked. Two women raised their hands. “We’re write-offs at our age,” said Steinberg, who noted that some women over the age of 50 should still be receiving Pap smears.

She returned to her mantra: “Don’t get bamboozled by this year’s fad.” Shaking her finger at the audience, she smiled broadly, “It will be next year’s, ‘Oh, that is not so good for you.’”

As the program closed, Carolyn Silbermann Koffler ’32, age 99, rose from her seat without the aid of a walker or cane. She announced that she attends Tai Chi classes every day to help her balance. Steinberg affirmed that one’s fitness routine should include balance exercises, because “if you don’t fall, you have much less chance of breaking a bone.”

Perhaps it’s not only genes, exercise, diet, and attention to medical issues, but also a positive attitude that enhances our health. Koffler mentioned that she goes to a senior center several times a week for companionship. “My friends, of course, died,” she said, but not missing a beat, added, “I have new friends.”

—by Elicia Brown ’90

—Illustration by Juliette Borda