Happy nuns, pack wolves and the rat race

Abigail EagyeAspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN Eat right. Exercise. Spend time with your friends.It’s a simple prescription for treating everything from depression to osteoporosis.That’s the message from Dr. Henry Lodge, author of “Younger Next Year: A Guide to Living Like 50 Until You’re 80 and Beyond.” Lodge was in Aspen this week as a guest of The Aspen Given Foundation and the Aspen Center for Integral Health speaking on the topics of healthy aging, modern genetics and emotional biology.Here’s the scoop: A lot of really smart people have done a lot of really important studies to tell us a lot of things our mothers already told us, namely, eat your vegetables and exercise.The newer news, however, is that social interaction is also really important. Studies of the animal kingdom show there’s an evolutionary advantage to certain social behaviors.Altruism, for instance, should have no genetic payoff since it doesn’t serve the individual, Lodge said. But upon closer inspection, when scientists observe altruistic behavior in birds, for instance, “the degree of altruism is related to the degree of relatedness,” Lodge said.The same is true for mammals, Lodge reported. In pack animals such as wolves, he said, we see not only that it’s incredibly important to be part of the pack, but also that it’s important to be of some use to the pack.But how does that relate to humans?Human beings are more complicated, Lodge said, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from animal models, since we’ve evolved facing the same pressures to survive. The pressure for an animal to be part of the group in the wild can be a simple model for understanding life-or-death survival. Humans have evolved with the same pressures, but the effects on our health are more complicated than simply “live or die.””When [social interaction] is lacking, loneliness sets in and then depression,” he said. “The day your kid comes home most devastated is not the day he gets beat up, it’s the day no one would sit with him at lunch.”Interacting alone is only one part. Human beings also have a need to feel we contribute somehow.”Retirement in this environment becomes a deadly thing to do,” he said.Genetics do play an important role as well. How do we know this? Testing on lab rats, naturally.Skipping the experimental details, science has shown that if you breed anxious rats with anxious rats, you get … anxious rats. Go figure. But those same studies also show that the rats become more and more anxious with each successive generation. The same holds true in humans, Lodge said. Some people are simply predisposed to certain emotions – and that can help predict how long we live.A study of nuns conducted throughout the past century showed a correlation between positive feelings, such as optimism, and how long the nuns lived. Those nuns who were more optimistic at age 20 tended to live longer and to continue to be more optimistic throughout their lives.But the story of Pavlov’s dogs shows us that we can learn certain behaviors as well. More recent studies on cognitive therapy have shown that we can unlearn some of the negative behaviors that we have learned, and that can have positive results on our health.And once again, social interaction is key. Repeated studies have shown that positive social interactions – or the degree of “connectedness” with society – help decrease heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease and help increase longevity, Lodge said.

As for mom’s words of wisdom, Lodge says all the complicated studies on diet and exercise tell us what we’ve heard before. Eat more fruits and vegetables, and get plenty of exercise.But when it comes to exercise, what you do may matter. It’s a myth, he said, that walking helps stave off osteoporosis. It may be beneficial for other things, but as far as withering bones go, “weight-bearing” exercise means jumping, such as the impacts of sustained running (not shuffling – running). But if you’re using knees that are more than 30 years old, he said, that might be out of the question. In that case, Lodge recommends strength training, which helps induce the body’s bone-building mechanisms via a different method.There’s a lot to Lodge’s message – for the full fare, pick up a copy of his book. And if you’re not 50 yet, the book is still relevant.”Aging begins in your thirties, [but] very few 30-year-olds will buy a book on how to stay healthy,” a realistic Lodge observes. “Maybe on how to stay beautiful.”But the bottom line remains the same: It’s never too early or too late to make the lifestyle changes we need to make to live longer, healthier lives.Abigail Eagye’s e-mail address is


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