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Jeannie Campbell

, National Council for Behavioral Health

Are Long Life and Good Life Mutually Exclusive?

April 21, 2015 | Advocacy and Policy | Comments
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Dan Buettner Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel


Do we sacrifice quality of life for longevity? Or is longevity a gift for a life well-lived?

This year, the National Council for Behavioral Health is pleased to host an unlikely duo – Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, Affordable Care Act architect and provocateur, and Dan Buettner, best-selling author and National Geographic Fellow. Emanuel made waves in health care recently when he wrote, “I want to die at 75.” On the other side of the spectrum, Buettner travels the world for Blue Zones, researching habits of the world’s longest-living populations and sharing how to apply those habits to our own lives.

Emanuel says, “Americans seem to be obsessed with exercising, doing mental puzzles, consuming various juice and protein concoctions, sticking to strict diets and popping vitamins and supplements, all in a valiant effort to cheat death and prolong life as much as possible. This has become so pervasive that it now defines a cultural type: what I call the American immortal. I reject this aspiration. I think this manic desperation to endlessly extend life is misguided and potentially destructive.”

And perhaps there is truth to this statement. Why do we make finding the “American immortal” so difficult for ourselves?

When asked, “What if I don’t want to live to 100?” Buettner answers, “I think you would feel differently if you could be as active and vibrant as Marge Jetton in Loma Linda, CA.  At 100, she walks a mile before breakfast, rides 6-8 miles on her stationery bike in the afternoon and volunteers every day. She is living large. A big part of living like those in the Blue Zones is having a sense of purpose.  If you are healthy and feel valued, 100 will feel like 70.” For Marge, exercise and eating well are a part of a lifestyle – they’re not a calculated formula for longevity.

People living in Blue Zones – Okinawa, Japan; Ikaria, Greece; or a tiny community in Loma Linda, CA – have made lifestyle choices to live better. One of Buettner’s stories from his time in Greece was particularly striking. A Greek man had lived in America for 22 years when he was diagnosed with a lung disease. Deciding to make a drastic change, he moved back to Ikaria, a small Greek island, in 1976. Over 3 decades passed without a single round of chemotherapy, and at 97, the man was healthy and alive. He didn’t take packets of pills or become a CrossFitter. But he did take life a little slower, incorporated daily walks and changed the way he ate.

I see where Dr. Emanuel is coming from – I do. I don’t want to sacrifice quality of life for longevity either. But, maybe Dr. Emanuel has been caught up in the fast-paced American lifestyle. I believe we can make changes to the way we live that will improve the outcome. It seems we could all afford to take life a little slower, substitute an apple for that next bag of chips, go for a long evening walk with loved ones, and stress less for the benefit of our mental health.

But, it’s up to you to decide: who is right? Check out Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel’s general session, Reinventing Health Care: Mega Trends, today from 8:30-9:30 and Dan Buettner’s general session, The Secrets of Long Life, Health and Happiness, tomorrow from 11:15-12:15.