Open Mike: What Should We Want as We Age?

This post is by Ron Dawson from The Online Photographer

Another good bargain to pass along. But another one I can’t vouch for personally.

What do we want as we age? I suspect we’re all interested in our fate, but different people deal with it in different ways. Some avoid the subject, as if ignoring it will make it go away—but, unfortunately, The Thing About Life is that One Day You’ll Be Dead. Others obsess about it to the point of becoming ghoulish. Probably best not to go to extremes.

What I think I’d like would be a three-year decline.

Evidently that’s what’s normal for human beings. My Great-Aunt Dicky (Frances Hamilton Schirmer), born in 1907, lived to be 101—she died two months shy of her 102nd birthday. Despite her great age, she had what could be called a normal decline: as I remember the sequence, she drove till she was 95, exercised till she was 97, and lived independently in her own home till she was 99. She was an unusually intelligent, self-disciplined, forward-looking individual, with very little self-pity, who had orderly habits, high standards, and an incisive mind. I recall that in her 90s she took a subscription to People magazine and read it cover to cover every week so she would be up on what younger people were talking about; she wanted to be part of conversations. She cultivated many younger friends in her old age, and took her first ride on the back of a Harley-Davidson when she was well into her 90s.

Having been moved to a care facility during her last two years, I’m told she had bad days sometimes. But she was also still having good days. The last time I saw her was a good day. It was the summer before her death, and on that day at least, she was her old self, albeit quieter, less confident, and a little slower on the uptake.

So, then—I remember having a perfectly normal, nice conversation with her while she was doing gardening around her own house (barefoot!), at age 98 or so, and then she died in the graduated care residence three years later, give or take, at age 101 and 10 months.

That’s a good reason to try to stay healthy in older age: to have a normal decline. The unhealthier someone is, the longer their decline. The more health problems they tend to have and the less they’re able to enjoy their waning years. Which is too bad, because general well-being and happiness describes an inverted bell shape, being moderately high in youth, lower through the “trough” of middle age, and climbing again in older age…at least, until we enter our final decline physically and mentally. The average “decline to death” for an American, which should be three years, is now 11 years. And for many people it’s longer than that. It’s not just that we die younger*; it’s that we’re greatly extending the period of the ramp-down toward death, and we suffer along the way. Some unfortunate souls are beginning their decline in their 50s or even their 40s now. 

We’re making ourselves miserable. Present company, I hope, excepted. Either way, it’s a tragic trend.

So what’s the solution? Pretty simple, actually…at least to say, although maybe not to do: walk for an hour a day** or partake of some sensible equivalent, and get 80% of your calories from plants, keeping meat, oil, and sugar to a minimum*** (and cutting out alcohol and all dairy, including eggs, altogether. There isn’t even a single good reason humans need to eat dairy foods).

Anyway, if you are still reading this after that (smiley emoji), you might want to know that a large number of health and wellness influencers have collaborated on a 50-book e-book bundle that’s available for the next eight days for one low price. It’s called “The Plant-Based Bundle” and it includes 130 e-books (I’m just guessing that some of them might be better described as “pamphlets”) for $50. They include books on both diet and exercise.

I can’t drop the bucks at the moment—money’s tight—so I haven’t seen it, but I know a smattering of these authors, and (believe me) have plenty of similar books already.

Wanted you to know about it. Be good to yourself in your old age.


*Although we do. However, COVID-19, the single largest mortality event in U.S. history, exceeding even the Civil War, muddles recent statistics.

**90 minutes a day is optimal, 20 minutes three times a week is a functional minimum that still improves your outcomes.

***The food industry in America has settled on sugar as the ideal industrial food, and it’s everywhere. Very difficult to avoid even if you’re trying hard. Recent studies have made it clear that the myth about small amounts of alcohol being good for you is just that—a myth. And apparently if you eat high-quality meat (which is still poor-quality food), you can eat up to a maximum of three four-ounce servings a week before it begins to adversely affect your health outcomes—although if you say that to average vegans, they will look at you like you had just grown a tail.  🙂

Original contents copyright 2023 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. (To see all the comments, click on the “Comments” link below or on the title of this post.)

Featured Comments from:

Dave Levingston: “There’s another way to go that is my preference. Having already died once (fatal heart attack in the ER. They got me back with paddles and CPR.) I would prefer to go the way I’ve already experienced. No warning. Sudden illness with no lead-up. Out and gone. Just make it quick. Skip all the decline. Seems like the best way to me.”

robert e: “Thanks, again, Mike. I just happened recently on an entertaining, informative tutorial on how to quickly prepare a week’s worth of plant-based meals and still have a wide variety of dishes, courtesy the Bosh Boys. Since its Robert Llewllyn’s YouTube channel, the focus is as much on the WFPB diet’s benefits for climate and environment as on its health benefits (though I hope it’s obvious to everyone by now how closely those things are related). It’s free, of course.

“Speaking of free, I note, for anyone who wants to preview what’s in the book bundle, or just dip a toe, or just doesn’t have the scratch at the moment, that the authors’ Instagrams, YouTube channels or websites are given on the bundle page. There are also lots of such books on Hoopla (I suspect some of the same books).”

Catherine Hill: “As you well know Mike, the amazing Dicky was my grandmother and I always love to hold her up as the ideal for aging well. I’m certain she had a few aches and pains in her last couple of decades, but we never heard a complaint or comment about aging from her. I remember once she told me—’the secret to being perceived as youthful and energetic as you age is to not grunt or ooomph or groan when you stand up and sit down’!!”

Mike replies: Catherine! Nice of you to come leave a comment here.

One of my favorite Dicky stories is this one. Through my whole childhood, as Catherine well knows, at Burt Lake, where our families had cottages, Dicky rowed her beautiful artisanal rowboat (Catherine’s uncle still has it, I believe) up and down the shore almost every day, taking her exercise.

One cold, blustery summer day at the lake, a big storm system from Canada had been blanketing us all day. It had been blowing and raining at a slant all day and there were big waves with whitecaps out on the lake. The Ripple, Catherine’s father’s wooden speedboat, and Tirzah, my grandfather’s sloop, were bucking at their anchors. Over in the big cottage we had built a fire and were keeping it going, playing board games and occupying ourselves indoors where it was safe and warm and cozy.

We always used to partially open the front door so the fire could get air, and as I was going to the firewood closet to get more wood I looked out through the partially opened door at the the dark day and the whitecaps on the waves and thought, “well, this is one day, at least, when Dicky won’t be out rowing. I wouldn’t even want to run to the dock and back in this!”

As if on cue, what should appear on the Schirmer side of the view through the door but the prow of Dicky’s rowboat, cutting up and down into the big waves. I watched as she appeared and moved through the view. She had on her yellow Mackintosh and rain hat and was making slow progress against the wind and waves, being tossed up and down and side to side but rowing steadily, with great determination. I stood there and watched, admiringly, till her boat had traversed the opening in the doorway and disappeared on its way down the shore.

That was Dicky!

Jim Kofron: “That story of Dicky rowing is perfect. Thanks for making my Monday, Mike and Catherine!”

George: “I want to die like Queen Elizabeth II…reasonably normal and functional, then a couple of days in bed, and then just go to sleep! Perfect.”

Arch Noble: “So, don’t keep us wondering: was Dickie a vegan? Or did she follow your diet advice?”

Mike replies: A fair question, and one I could warm to…but only at the risk of becoming more of bore than I usually am. The simple answer is that I don’t know what Dicky ate. I do know two things: that she was an upper-class American from birth to death, and had cooks for long stretches in her life, and I have limited evidence (that I’m nevertheless pretty sure of) that she had considerable self-discipline. To relate just one small but telling observation: at my grandmother’s funeral reception, after dinner, Dicky sat down in the living room near me with a brownie on a small plate. From the dining room, rising above the sound of conversation, we heard my mother’s voice exclaim, “these brownies are out of this world! Nobody could eat just one!” With a slight but detectable expression of disapproval, Dicky looked down at her brownie and said to herself, very quietly, “I should have taken half.”

In any event, anecdotes are not what you need when evaluating diet. For example, if, say, one out of three heavy smokers suffer some sort of related health problem, that would mean that the other two out of every three people will smoke and get away with it. But still, you can’t look at one smoker who lived a long life and died of old age and say, “there’s proof positive that smoking doesn’t hurt you.” To evaluate diet, you look at statistical outcomes, as near as they can be determined. It’s not trivial to try to coax out the data on what food does to us, but in some cases the links to effects are clearer and better known than others. Researchers often study populations, which led to the discovery of so-called “blue zones” where people live, on average, significantly longer. This is from

It turns out that it’s whole plant foods, not fish, that make up 90 percent of the traditional Okinawan diet: Less than 1 percent of the diet was fish; less than 1 percent was meat; and less than 1 percent was dairy and eggs. Most of the diet was based on vegetables and beans, with the most calories coming from purple and orange sweet potatoes. It’s not only a highly anti-inflammatory diet but also a highly antioxidant one.

Okinawans who eat this way don’t only live the longest, they are also extremely healthy into old age, with:

        • 6-12 times fewer heart disease deaths than the United States
        • 2-3 times fewer colon cancer deaths than the United States
        • 7 times fewer prostate cancer deaths than the United States
        • 5.5 times lower risk of dying from breast cancer than the United States

Unfortunately, fast food and Western styles of eating have made it to the island, and younger generations are no longer reaping the health benefits of eating the traditional Okinawan way.

I apparently have more in common with the younger Okinawans. In any event, individual cases aren’t much help. Individuals might eat well and die young, or smoke and drink to the age of 100. But what we want is to give ourselves as much of a fighting chance as we can, based on the best available evidence.

Ned Bunnell: “Re ‘**90 minutes a day is optimal, 20 minutes three times a week is a functional minimum that still improves your outcomes.’ I’m guessing you don’t practice what you preach.  :-)”

Mike replies: To quote Ed McMahon, “You are correct Sir!”   :-)  In fact I would be a very poor model for anyone to follow in any of these matters. Which is precisely why I struggle to understand them and keep on struggling to improve my habits. Were I skinny and active, I doubt I’d give any of this a second thought. (However, argumentum ad hominum is not relevant either way. Here’s the, er, skinny—the source.)


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