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Guest column | Dr. M.P. Ravindra Nathan

Column: New surgeon general has advice for living long and well

Surgeon General-designate Dr. Sanjay Gupta, left, talks to Dr. M.P. Ravindra Nathan in May 2008 about longevity.

Special to the Times

Surgeon General-designate Dr. Sanjay Gupta, left, talks to Dr. M.P. Ravindra Nathan in May 2008 about longevity.

I wanted to hear Dr. Sanjay Gupta's ideas on healthy aging firsthand. His book Chasing Life is about "new discoveries in the search for immortality to help you age less today and live longer.''

I walked into his office in May 2008, to interview him and to learn about healthy living and graceful aging. Little did I know that Gupta, the CNN medical correspondent, neurosurgeon at Emory University and Time magazine columnist, soon would have a new line on his resume — U.S. surgeon general.

You may want to read Dr. Gupta's Chasing Life and cash in on the longevity boom scientists are talking about. The book is about man's modern day quest for immortality, that elusive fountain of youth. Dr. Gupta was happy to discuss his thoughts with me.

"The task may appear daunting at first with all the disciplines you have to observe throughout your life, but once you get started on the right path, you can do it," he said with a hearty smile. He quoted from the ancient Hindu, Hebrew, Chinese and Greek histories about people living without much natural ills boasting very long life spans.

Dr. Gupta stressed the importance of the essentials for longevity such as maintaining a healthy diet, exercising daily, keeping your brain active, ''taming the cancer beast'' by controlling the risk factors and by early detection. We talked of many other issues relevant to healthy aging such as abdominal obesity (nicknamed killer bellies), the role of stress and anger (keep your sunny side up, optimists are less likely to die of heart disease), the role of genetics and environmental influences. If you are born with a longevity gene, you are already in the driver's seat.

He agreed with the author/ inventor Ray Kurzweil who thinks "the new research in biotechnology, genetics and molecular sciences should be able to extend our lives."

As a group, Okinawans in Japan seem to enjoy the longest average life span in the world. Their secret?

"The Okinawan diet, rich in fruits, vegetables and unrefined carbohydrates, coupled with hard, purposeful work appear to be the theme among the centenarians there," said Dr Gupta. "And they observe a special tradition, ' hara hachi bu' — push away from the table before you are full."

So, what is a practical approach for a long, healthy life for Americans? His answer: "Most people fundamentally understand about eating right and exercising daily as important for a healthy life. But do they practice what they know? In addition to doing aerobics, you need to do some simple weight training, like bench pressing or weight lifting as well to increase your upper body mass and expand your chest. All you need is a couple of dumbbells to get started."

He was quite passionate when we talked about the current obesity epidemic in America.

"Obesity is probably our biggest problem now. About three decades ago, the U.S. was one of the robust and vibrant nations in the world and now it is one of the most obese nations. But the good news is it is fixable. For many, this problem may have started in school, consuming chock-full-of calories. For the first time, our children are going to have life spans shorter than us! All the gains we have made medically and technologically will be erased by this one problem, which will overtake smoking as the No. 1 killer."

One of the problems I have in my practice is motivating patients to exercise regularly. I asked Dr. Gupta for suggestions.

"They need to have a plan to begin with," said Dr. Gupta.

Just make a conscious decision of going to the gym at least three to four times a week and exercise with a partner. Within a month, they will lose some weight and that is an inspiration in itself. When they have a specific plan, they will follow through with it like saying, "'I am going to do some weight lifting, then 15 minutes of treadmill or other exercises today.''

Regarding the role of stress, he said: "Stress is a major factor these days, but the term is overused in our society as an excuse for everything. It is a real problem, enough to make you feel unwell and hence we must take some steps to counteract it — like relaxation techniques.''

Gupta said he practices what is called the body awareness. He meditates focusing on himself and said "it is very relaxing."

I told him that I practice yoga which has become quite popular these days. He readily agreed it is a very good way to keep your mind and body fit.

So, is practical immortality on the horizon for Americans?

"Yes, it is within our reach. While the path to a long healthy life may not be easy it is all worth it," said Gupta.

What is a pragmatic strategy for Americans? Eat a heap of colorful vegetables, fruits and nuts, exercise regularly, relax and enjoy life, get a good night's sleep and even an afternoon nap if you can, stay away from tobacco in any form, and schedule that long overdue check up with your family doctor now.

Dr. M.P. Ravindra Nathan is a cardiologist in Brooksville.

Column: New surgeon general has advice for living long and well 01/28/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 28, 2009 6:57pm]

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