Inner Beauty

Susan Sarandon Defies Hollywood by Aging Gracefully and in Great Health, from WebMD the Magazine

8 min read

As she attempts to transform herself from her current movie role as a bride-to-be in Mr. Woodcock, co-starring Billy Bob Thornton, after just wrapping up another in Cameron Crowe's latest venture, Elizabethtown, one thing is clear: Susan Sarandon is too busy, and in too much demand, to give into the assumptions of age.

Her body seems to agree. In fact, after the 58-year-old Academy Award-winning actress underwent her first screening colonoscopy at age 50, her doctor likened her colon to a 22-year-old's. "To which I said, 'That's probably not the thing of a 22-year-old I'd want, if I had the choice,'" she tells WebMD.

Colon aside, this mother of three has a few other natural traits that many 22-year-olds would kill for -- and many 50-somethings spend top dollar on.

That's why Sarandon was recently tapped by Revlon Cosmetics to join Halle Berry and Julianne Moore in the cosmetic company's "extraordinary women" ad campaign. It wasn't the first time she had been approached, but it was the right time.

"When they asked me this time, my friends said, 'Hey, it would be great for women over 30 to see someone their age who hasn't been altered drastically by cosmetic surgery and is still accepted as a standard of beauty.'"

In a nation where women (and growing numbers of men) hunt for the fountain of youth through cosmetic surgery and procedures, pills and creams, Sarandon's secret to staying young is surprisingly simple-and non-invasive. "[My] emphasis is on being healthy ... rather than what you inject or reconstruct. Beauty comes from inside -- it has to do with what you take in."

By eating a diet replete with antioxidants -- those nutritional powerhouses found in many fruits and vegetables that are linked to decreasing the risk of heart disease and cancer -- and by making time for regular exercise, deep breathing, visualization and volunteerism, the actress stays sound and sexy.

A former vegetarian, Sarandon admits she got bored with the meatless lifestyle. "I [still] don't eat a huge amount of red meat," she says, adding, "I can't eat as many carbs as I used to, but I've never been able to do anything as severe as the Atkins diet." After menopause hit at age 54, she cut back on carbs; like many menopausal women, her metabolism changed and she found she was accumulating more weight around the middle. When she does indulge, she chooses whole-grain products over refined grains such as white bread and pasta.

"I went through menopause late and uneventfully," she says. "A lot of people I knew were on hormone replacement therapy ... but I never went down that road." Once considered a standard treatment for menopausal symptoms, estrogen and progestin (the other hormone in HRT regimens) fell out of favor when the landmark Women's Health Initiative (WHI) study was halted because the combo was found to have more risks -- for stroke and a slightly increased chance of developing breast cancer -- than previously suspected.

On a daily basis, Sarandon makes sure she takes a calcium/vitamin D supplement for bone health, vitamin C, emu oil for arthritis in her knees, Co-Q10 (an antioxidant thought to boost brain power and heart health) and one or two tablespoons of "green stuff," as she calls it.

"Green stuff" is a powdered form of organically grown vegetables including broccoli, kale, parsley, wheat grass, flaxseed and root vegetables such as turnips and parsnips.

Sarandon gets her green fix from Gary Null, PhD, a New York City-based author of nutrition and aging books, including Power Aging. Null provides nutritional and health counsel to both Sarandon and her partner, actor Tim Robbins, whom she met 16 years ago on the set of the film Bull Durham. They have two children together, 13-year-old Miles Guthrie and 15-year-old Jack Henry. Sarandon also has a 20-year-old daughter, Eva, with director Franco Amurri.

Susan "is the real McCoy," says Null. "A model of health that an entire generation of baby boomers can pay attention to because she has done it right," he says.

The secret to her enviably smooth complexion lies more in what she doesn't do than what she does. Smoking, for instance. "I kind of tried it at one point around The Hunger," she says, referring to a 1983 vampire film she made with David Bowie, then admits, "If I had a boyfriend who smoked, I'd pick one up. But I never got hooked. I smoke in films when it's called for, but it's always a prop, [not] a chemical addiction."

Sarandon favors regular dermabrasion treatments to remove skin cells and keep her face looking young and fresh. So far, she's refused to consider plastic surgery, Botox injections or soft-tissue fillers.

"I really need my face to move, so I've never been tempted to get Botox," she insists. With many Hollywood directors lamenting that Botox has made it impossible to find an actor who can express emotion, Sarandon's resistance is a bit unusual. "I am not saying that at some point I wouldn't mind my neck looking better, but I'm just so afraid of being unrecognizable, or to lose the shape of my eyes."

Even with Sarandon's hectic, spontaneous schedule, she always finds time to walk on her treadmill.

"I realized that I had to find time for myself and started going to the gym," she says. Her personal trainer spices things up to help stave off boredom. "We use exercise balls or play catch with a heavy ball, as opposed to just getting on machines." Sarandon also does Pilates when she can, and has unsuccessfully tried yoga. "I must have type-A personality," she laughs. "I got so competitive that I hurt myself!"

Because Sarandon has a family history of high cholesterol and stroke, she took a cholesterol-lowering medication for two years. "I recently went off [of it] and am trying to use psyllium and other colon cleansers to bring [my cholesterol] down naturally." Psyllium, a soluble fiber used in laxatives, has been shown to help lower cholesterol moderately. However, colon cleansing is considered by most doctors as an alternative approach not yet supported by scientific study.

While she has not yet had a cholesterol test to see if her new regimen is working, it's her top priority after her current film project wraps.

Heart disease, however, isn't her only health concern.

Sarandon had a breast cancer scare years ago when doctors found a calcium deposit in her breast. She underwent a biopsy to have it removed. It was benign, as calcifications often are, but "now I have breast checks every three months," she says.

There's no clear consensus by medical experts on the best timing for mammogram screening. Most experts recommend that women in their 20s and 30s get breast exams by their health providers about every three years. The American Cancer Society recommends that women age 40 and older should have a screening mammogram every year, and should continue to do so for as long as they are in good health. Women with increased risk of breast cancer (family history, genetic tendency or past breast cancer) should work with their doctors to determine the best screening regimen for them. And all women should conduct regular self-exams.

Women in their 50s, particularly those who are postmenopausal, are at an increased risk of many diseases. Still, Sarandon focuses on the positive: "Anything that makes you feel passionate and makes you laugh helps you to stay young," she says.

Her passions? World peace and other global issues. "When you are engaged in the bigger picture, you can't afford the space to become so self-involved that everything is a crisis for you," she says. "Grassroots [activism] gives ... hope when it seems things are overwhelming," she says. "It's empowering to volunteer."

After September 11th, Sarandon spent months at "Ground Zero" serving food to rescuers. "I didn't do this because I am such a great gal. I was a New Yorker, and a very scary thing happened, and volunteering helped me feel ... more in control and [that] the power of the individual wasn't lost."

She also engages in guided imagery, a visualization technique that some studies have shown can affect everything from perception of pain and weight loss to smoking cessation.

"If you can't imagine yourself in a good place, how can your body go there?" she asks. "Visualize everything from living to be 120 years old to peace in the world. You have to imagine it before it can happen," she says.

As a child of the '60s, she still embodies many hippie ideals. "Trying to remember to breathe is an important thing. Enjoying and remembering how lucky [you are] to still be here, and [investing] in friends," she says.

Sarandon remains busy in an industry that has traditionally passed over women over 50. With so much going on, something's got to give, and recently it's been sleep. "I have been burning the candle at both ends...going home every weekend during filming for things including birthday parties for Jack and Miles," she says.

With so much going on at home and in Hollywood, Sarandon and her family share a big calendar where everyone can coordinate.

As for the division of labor on the home front, "I am definitely the entree and [Tim] is the dessert," she says. "I am the worrier and the one that is nagging and making dental appointments," she says.

She is also the one to nag her children about wearing sunscreen. "I have always slathered my kids with sunblock. I tell my daughter she'll thank me on my death bed for that, at least."

Sarandon became a mother at 39, bearing her last child at 45. "Having kids so late, it's not even an option to die young," she says.

Or even slow down, it seems.