Gladys McGarey, MD, has a very busy professional life. A pioneer in the holistic medicine movement, she offers life consultations…is working to launch a “village for living medicine”…and recently authored a book. What might surprise you is that she is…102 years old! Bottom Line Personal asked Dr. McGarey to share her strategies for living a long, healthy and productive life…
Walk even when walking isn’t easy…move even when you sit. The mobility challenges that come with age are not a valid excuse for becoming sedentary. These days, I get my daily 3,800 steps with the help of a walker…and I ride an adult tricycle rather than a bicycle. I’m often in motion even when I’m not going anywhere—wiggling around in a chair is better for the body than total stillness. Analysis of data from the large-scale UK Women’s Cohort Study found that habitually sitting for more than seven hours a day significantly increases overall mortality risk…except among people who frequently fidget.
Eat a diet that leaves you feeling healthy—but don’t deprive yourself of foods you love. Most days I eat a high-fiber breakfast of raisin bran and prune juice, salad for lunch and soup for dinner. I don’t do this because studies say eating light is a path to longevity—I do it because I feel my best when I eat this way. There is no secret ingredient or vitamin supplement that unlocks a long healthy life—the key is to pay close attention to how you feel when you’re eating in a particular way, then settle on foods, portion sizes and other eating habits that make your body feel its best.
Of course, eating isn’t only about giving the body what it needs—I eat cake and chocolate sometimes, too, and I drink a cup of coffee every morning. These are things I enjoy, and in moderation they don’t make my body feel noticeably worse.
Get in touch with other people…literally. I hug loved ones as often as I can. Physical touch is comforting and good for our health. A study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that hugging reduces the odds of contracting respiratory infections, perhaps because physical contact reduces stress and stress can reduce the effectiveness of the immune system. If daily hugs with loved ones aren’t an option, get a pet…or if you can’t care for a pet, get a houseplant. Researchers at Korea’s Chungnam National University found that simply repotting a houseplant reduces stress and lowers blood pressure.
I get a full-body massage every week, too. Massage doesn’t just feel good. It stimulates the lymphatic system, which plays an important role in keeping the body healthy. A study by researchers at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center found that even a single massage session measurably improves lymphatic system function.
Pay attention to your body’s aches and pains. When something hurts, it’s tempting to take a painkiller to make the discomfort go away. When muscles feel weak, it’s tempting to take it easy on them. But pain and muscle fatigue are messages from the body. When we take painkillers or ease up on weak muscles without first considering what that message is trying to tell us, we fail to solve our body’s underlying problem…and often end up feeling even worse. Example: My bedroom is at the top of a staircase. When I’m tired, walking up those stairs can be difficult. But I’ve learned that when I skip the stairs and rest downstairs, it’s even more difficult to climb those stairs the next day. My body is sending me a message—I have to climb stairs regularly, or I may lose my ability to do so at all.
Have a 10-year plan at any age. Having a long-term plan means having a purpose—and having a purpose is among the keys to remaining mentally and physically healthy as we age. A recent study by researchers at University of Michigan confirmed that having a strong life purpose is associated with lower mortality rates among people over age 50. My current 10-year plan is to create a “village for living medicine,” featuring a birthing center and a research facility.
It can be tempting to choose shorter, more easily achieved plans, but those soon will be completed, leaving us feeling purposeless once again. Also, it’s usually the ambitious plans that seem most meaningful to other people, drawing compatriots to the cause. Fostering a network of relationships is an important part of having a long, healthy life as well.
Related: If your occupation is a core component of your identity, don’t ever fully retire. I’ve thought of myself as a physician for a century—when I was a young child, my dolls were my patients—so I continued offering life consultations even after I retired from my full-time practice.
Learn how to get yourself unstuck. There inevitably are times in life when even productive, positive-minded people feel stuck—things aren’t going well, and they can’t see a solution. I felt stuck at age 70 when my 46-year marriage ended. Eventually I realized I wasn’t stuck because I lacked opportunities. I was stuck because I wasn’t looking for opportunities—and that was something I could change. Two ways to see past a difficult situation and find a new purpose when you feel stuck…
Interact with other people—as many as possible. On our own, we’re walking in the dark with a flashlight that illuminates only the step or two directly in front of us. When we interact with others, their flashlights can illuminate other paths or farther along our current path.
Look for the lesson in your situation—and in everything else around you. An “everything is my teacher” mindset shifts our attention away from whatever difficulty we’re facing and toward life and purpose. My divorce taught me to find my own voice and led to the creation of a new medical practice.
Dwell in gratitude. Researchers at University of California, San Diego, have found that gratitude is good for the heart—literally. Patients who are thankful for the good things in their lives have lower levels of inflammatory biomarkers related to cardiac health problems. They sleep better, too, which also is healthful. I focus on what I still have and what I’ve gained. I am surrounded by wonders—we didn’t have a phone when I was young, but now I can connect with people around the world. I don’t take that for granted—the modern world is an incredible place, and every day I’m grateful to be in it.
Whatever it is that I’ve lost along the way hasn’t been anything I couldn’t live without. Declining eyesight has cost me my ability to read, but the world has given me audio books—and unlike printed books, I can enjoy those and still have my hands free for knitting.