Give it up, Ponce de León — there are no magical fountains of youth out there, no miraculous ways to achieve a longer life. But while medical experts caution against hormone supplements, vitamin overdoses, anti-aging pills, extreme diets, and other dubious life extension tricks, there are some sound ways for men to increase their chances for a long and healthy life. Much of the advice is obvious: Don’t smoke, eat wisely, drink moderately, exercise regularly, and get annual medical check-ups. But some of the tips from geriatric specialists and male health experts are not only surprising, they sound fun.
The good news about male longevity is that much of it is under our control. Robert Butler, MD, is professor of geriatrics at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York and head of the non-profit International Longevity Center. Butler says “Only about 25% of what determines the length of life we have is based on genes. The rest is up to us.” Butler says this is based on the famous Danish Twins Registry study, which began in 1954 and has yielded a huge volume of information about genetic and lifestyle factors involved in health and aging.
Long life outlook: Can a little wine (or beer) help you improve with age?
You don’t have to lead an ascetic’s existence to extend your life. In fact, recent studies show that light to moderate drinking can reduce your risk of cardiovascular death. “The key word here is moderate,” cautions Butler. “We’re probably talking about two drinks a day for men. And my own advice to folks is about one drink a day. The older you get, the heavier the impact of the alcohol. But in moderation, alcohol not only has a relaxing effect, it can elevate levels of good cholesterol.”
According to a Netherlands study released in March, wine is more beneficial than other kinds of alcohol. The life expectancy of men who drank wine was more than two years longer than those who imbibed other alcoholic beverages. Earlier studies have shown that red wine may have an additional heath benefit because the polyphenolic compounds found in the darker beverage counter the build-up of fatty tissue in the arteries that can lead to strokes or heart attacks.
The health advantages of wine over other spirits might be exaggerated, Lawrence Greenblatt, MD, believes. But Greenblatt toasts the general idea of moderate drinking. “I think the business about red wine vs. beer or some other alcohol is probably not true after you adjust for other risk factors,” says Greenblatt, an associate clinical professor of medicine at Duke University Medical Center who sees mostly male patients in his Duke Outpatient Center practice. “People who drink beer, for instance, tend to be of a lower socioeconomic status than someone drinking Cabernet at dinner. So they have other risk factors working against their life expectancy. Once you adjust for those factors, probably any kind of alcohol would be protective, in moderation.”
Vitamins and life-extension supplements: Time in a bottle?
It’s also a good idea not to forget your fruits and vegetables. “You should try to eat five to seven fruits or vegetables a day because they contain not only vitamins but probably beneficial chemicals we don’t know enough about yet scientifically,” advises Butler. Some holistic medical gurus, such as Andrew Weil, MD, encourage aging men to follow a daily supplement program that includes extra doses of vitamins C and E, selenium, mixed carotenoids, and calcium, as well as omega-3 fish oil, turmeric, and ginger capsules. But Butler is skeptical about dietary supplements to increase life expectancy.
“If you’re eating all your fruits and vegetables and a well-balanced diet,” Butler says, “you probably don’t need a lot of vitamins. But Americans usually eat so haphazardly that I would tell my patients to get the least expensive multivitamin and take it, because I didn’t trust how well they ate. If the person is eating a terrific diet, however, you’re probably just creating expensive urine with vitamins and other supplements. And as you get older, it’s not a good idea to get too much iron because it can insinuate itself in your heart.”
What about hormone supplements? According to Butler, “there’s no scientific basis” that they contribute to life extension, and in fact, they might be harmful. “There are animal studies that show growth hormone actually shortens life. So I think it’s a scam.”
Keep walking, talking, and thinking
Americans are too fixed on pills as a health solution, says Butler. Instead, he promotes a balanced lifestyle that includes lots of relaxation and exercise to reduce the stress and strain of our lives. “The Europeans say they work to live, while Americans live to work. I think there’s some truth to that.”
Butler, who is 80 years old, says he still puts in 60-hour workweeks, but he also knows how to enjoy himself. “I’m a workaholic, but I’m also a playaholic. I like to enjoy myself, go places on weekends, take lots of vacations.” He is also a strong believer in the benefits of brisk walking. “It has the same aerobic and physiological effects as jogging — which, as you get older, can damage your knees, no question.”
The geriatrics expert, who circumnavigates Central Park with a walking club on weekends and works the treadmill in his library while watching TV on weekday mornings, subscribes to the “10,000 steps a day” program of Dr. Yoshiro Hatano, who popularized the use of pedometers in Japan. Butler says he wants to spark a national walking movement. “If everyone started walking four or five miles a day — even less,” he says, “we would lose weight and have a healthier, longer-living population.”
Walking also encourages socializing, Butler points out, which contributes to male longevity. “My group has breakfast together after our walks and we even have little symposia on topics that interest us.”
Greenblatt affirms that the potential for male life extension has to do with the brain and not just the body. “Men who remain intellectually active, not just physically, tend to thrive,” he says. “That means, are they reading, following the news, participating in social clubs? I see a lot of men who’ve had successful careers. The ones who don’t have social relationships or interests they cultivate generally have a real tough time in retirement.”
Love handles and love lives: Do they affect male longevity?
What about sex? “The more the merrier,” chuckles Butler. “Actually, we don’t study sexuality enough, so I can’t answer scientifically that sex per se leads to a longer life. But we do know that married men live longer than non-married. That may not be related to sex, but to the fact that, in couples, there is someone looking out for you, particularly if you get sick.”
“Men who are widowed have a considerably shorter life expectancy than men who are married — however, the opposite is true for women,” observes Greenblatt. “When women lose their husbands, that improves their life expectancy. That says a lot about who is helping who.”
There is more good news for aging men, according to Greenblatt. If you put on a few pounds as you get older — and we’re talking about in your 70s or 80s here, not 50s or 60s — it might not be the end of the world. “Weight, as men age, appears to be less and less important,” Greenblatt says. “In fact, a normal body weight in an older man is more predictive of dying than being overweight.” This might be due to the fact that the male population with a normal body mass includes some people who used to be overweight but are now sick and losing weight — so the average life expectancy of the normal weight group might be dragged down by these ailing men. “But who knows — that’s just conjecture,” says Greenblatt. Carrying a few extra pounds “might simply be an advantage,” as men age, he says.
So let’s review — a couple drinks a day, strolling around the park, hanging out with friends, plenty of sex (OK, that last one is not scientific, but it doesn’t seem to hurt), not sweating the love handles, enjoying life. A guy could get used to this life-extension program.