How to Age Backward

According to Marc Siegel, MD, the elixir of life is a pragmatic approach.

Time can march backwards.

Time can march backwards. Gif: Wikimedia

Alternative medical treatments may spring from the limitations of standard science but then too quickly replace them with the anecdotal or even quackery. Acknowledging this problem is what set the Telluride Integrative Wellness Summit on “Aging Backward” apart. I recently attended the conference as a featured speaker and was instructed to make sure that my talk and my seminar were grounded in the provable.

I warmed to my signature topic of how fear drives us, how it overwhelms our ability to reason and to see risk and danger in perspective, how once we feel vulnerable we overpersonalize risks, especially to our health and personal safety. We watch accounts of other victims and believe we will be next. (Zika is the latest example of a health scare where videos of babies with microcephaly make us all afraid even if the risk to our health is remote.  Reckless calls to have the Olympics expensively postponed or moved from Brazil gained public traction this summer but were not founded by science and ultimately proved absurd when not even a single case of Zika afterwards could be traced to the Games).

The science behind fear grounded and empowered my speech in Telluride. Fear centers itself in the Amygdala and limbic system of the brain, the so-called hard wiring, inherited from our animal forbears, quite capable of creating its own overriding fear memories that drive our responses. We release catecholamines, rev up our cardiac engines, prepare to fight or flee, all based on an irrational response to remote dangers and a carryover from our days as cavemen. The amygdala hijacks the rest of the brain and we are powerless to reason our way out of it. Our blood pressure and heart rate increase and our health is impacted. We get sick more easily and age more quickly.

Courage and laughter and love can cure our fears by replacing them.

What is the solution? It turns out that positive emotions also course through the same brain centers. Courage and laughter and love can cure our fears by replacing them. I experienced this cure myself as I slowly recovered from a paralyzing cycle of worry after the birth of my first child. Sticking to a schedule, surrounding myself with people who made me feel better, sleeping at least 6 hours per night, committing to 40 minutes or more of cardiovascular exercise per day while consuming a diet rich in plants, added up to a step by step positive replacement of fear and stress.

I asked my audience to recall a healthy activity from earlier in their lives that was associated with a strong positive emotion.  Use the memory to flood the amygdala and rejuvanate that activity, I urged them. For me it was cycling. I had ridden by bicycle across the U.S. twice in my late teens and early twenties, an act of perseverance and personal courage. But it wasn’t until 35 years later that President George W Bush issued me a challenge to take that bicycle out of mothballs and use it to build up the leg strength to be able to ride a 100 kilometers on mountain bike trail with him and 19 wounded war fighters in Palo Duro Canyon, Texas, the toughest trail in the country.  If I could complete the task in 105 degree heat I would earn an exclusive interview with the former Commander in Chief himself.

I fell 27 times and rode over a rattlesnake, and with ambulances circling in the road above the trail, inspired by the wounded veterans I rode with, I managed to complete the task. My amygdala was roaring with emotional memory, flashing me back to the ambitious rides of my youth. The interview with Bush has inspired me in the years since, where I ride bicycles almost daily, lowering my blood pressure, my weight, my glycemic index, improving my physical and mental health. Aging backwards, the signature expression of the Telluride Wellness Summit.

After my talk I met with a smaller group of participants in a breakout session and we puzzled through some practical questions that other speakers at the conference had raised. Were Vitamin D supplements good or bad for you? (I said they were good, that multiple studies showed that Vitamin D worked more like a hormone than a vitamin, that we weren’t getting enough of it from sunlight nor should we because of the risk of skin cancer). What other supplements should we take? I told the group I believed in checking vitamin B12 levels on all, since bacterial overgrowth and antibodies to intrinsic factor in the stomach as well as acidity frequently interfered with absorption, especially as a person got older. Replacing B12 restored needed energy. I said I believed in checking testosterone levels in all men over 50, and in using flaxseed oil and oatmeal and tumeric as cholesterol levels started to go up. Tumeric also works well to decrease inflammation in many with joint aches.

How much sleep is the right amount? asked several at the session. There’s no exact amount for each person I said, but multiple studies have shown that between six and eight hours per night is the correct amount for most adults and decreases your risk of gaining weight, developing diabetes, or becoming depressed. What about Alzheimers Disease, what can I do or take to reduce my risk? was the question on everyone’s mind. My answer was honest, there was no cure on the horizon though scientists had made progress in terms of the genetics of the disease and understanding the role that Beta Amyloid and Tau proteins play. The best thing you can do right now is stay active mentally and physically and eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and Omega 3 Fatty Acids, I said.

The Telluride Integrative Wellness Summit is a refreshing approach to bringing together the art and science of medicine. It isn’t wildly speculative but practical, and next year it will add panels where the different experts can debate our various approaches to turning back the clock.

Marc Siegel MD is a professor of medicine and medical director of Doctor Radio at NYU Langone Medical Center. He is a Fox News Medical Correspondent.

How to Age Backward