During a two-day “Century Summit” on issues facing an aging population, speakers at the Stanford Center on Longevity conference spoke of the need to avoid social isolation and to eat good food.
Using the “fireside chat” method to kick off the conference Tuesday, SCL founding director Laura Carstensen and Harvard Medical School professor and director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development Dr. Robert Waldinger talked about the predictors and patterns that lead to healthy aging over lives that may last 100 or more years.
Reflecting that “isolation takes a terrible toll” and that people who are lonely and socially isolated “stay in a constant flight or fight mode” that undermines physical and mental health, Waldinger summed up his findings: “Each of us needs one securely attached relationship: someone who has our back.”
U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minnesota, interviewed by conference chair Ken Stern, reported on the health costs of isolation and the need to create policies that “break down the stigma.”
Programs to create multiple housing options that allow older adults to live on their own but have contact with family and friends are just one of the means to address the problem.
‘Health comes from the earth’
Alice Waters, owner of the restaurant Chez Panisse and one of the leading chefs in the farm-to-table movement, focused on the “complete disconnect from nature” that has resulted from the ubiquity of fast food.
“Health,” Waters said, “comes from the earth.”
Waters pointed out the value of preparing and eating seasonally and locally sourced foods, and the satisfaction that people of any age get from working in a garden.
“Each of us needs one securely attached relationship: someone who has our back.”Dr. Robert Waldinger, Harvard Study of Adult Development
“Everyone can shell peas,” Waters said, a belief that she practices by sometimes scattering beans or peas on the bar in her restaurant and putting her customers to work.
Continuing the focus on policies to facilitate a healthy lifespan, newly appointed California Surgeon General Dr. Diane Ramos suggested that older adults’ ability to adapt and cope as they age is directly related to early childhood experiences.
Ramos plans to use her unique position as one of the five state surgeon generals — a position that she urges should become as widespread as that of a state attorney general — to focus on mental health and inequities, trying to turn around some of the consequences such as diabetes and heart disease that people suffer as they grow older.
It’s all in your mind
Scientists Tony Wyss-Coray of Stanford and Adam Gazzaley of University of California, San Francisco talked about the new frontiers of brain health that are critical to a meaningful longer life.
Technologies that promote brain “plasticity” are finding their way from the lab to the public. Moving away from invasive procedures and medications to “experiential medicine” — a concept that Dr. Wyss-Coray pointed out is thousands of years old — and to practices using meditation, music and rhythm are all ways to help older adults retain short-term memory function and attention span.