Karen Wyatt: Hello, and welcome to End of Life University. This is your host, Dr. Karen Wyatt, and I wanted to let you know right away that there is a handout to accompany this interview, and if you go online to eoluniversity.com/replays, on that page, scroll down until you see the photo of Dr. Larry George. There’s a link there you can click on to download and print the handout for this talk. It could be helpful to you during the talk if you have the handout available. If not, you can always print it later and refer back to it then, but I wanted to let you know about that right away as we get started.
So the subject for today is “Aging Well: 100 is the New 80,” and my guest is Dr. Larry George. Dr. George is a graduate of Mayo Medical School at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. He completed family practice residency at the University of Utah McKay-Dee Hospital Program. He is a scholar of Integral Medicine, and served as one of the early members of Ken Wilber’s Integral Institute and Integral Medicine. Dr. George wrote a chapter for the book, Consciousness and Healing titled, “Transformation of the Healer: The Application of Ken Wilber’s Integral Model to Family Practice Medicine.”
He currently practices in Silverthorne, Colorado at the High Country Health Care Clinic, where he focuses on full spectrum family medicine with special interest in Sports Medicine and Integral Medicine, and—full disclosure—he also happens to be my husband.
So, thank you for being with us today, Larry, and I am excited to hear what you have to share.
Larry George: Well, thank you. It’s fun to be a part of your End of Life University, and I'm really excited that you put enormous amounts of work and time into making this a really successful program. I think it’s a subject that is overdue for discussion and education to the public about these kinds of issues.
Karen Wyatt: Well, definitely. Thank you for that. I invited you to talk with us today because, for one thing, I know that you have given presentations in the past about aging and aging well to some of your patients, but also, you happen to have a very interesting patient population living high up in the mountains at high altitude. I was wondering if you would just describe a little bit to our listeners about the elderly patients you take care of.
Larry George: Yes, we live at 9,200 feet, high in the Rocky Mountains, and that can pose problems, just because of the altitude and the lack of oxygen at our altitude can cause a lot of health problems. But we have some very healthy seniors, and I have some in my practice. One gentleman, who is 75 now, skins up the mountain, which means you put ‘skins’, they used to be seal skins, but now they're synthetic, on the bottom of your skis and you hike up to the top of the mountain and then ski down the mountain. It’s a tremendous workout.
Then, in the summer, he and his wife climb the mountains of Colorado. He and his wife have climbed every 14,000 foot peak. I think there are something like 75 of them, and they're working on the next 200 13,000 foot peaks.
Karen Wyatt: Wow.
Larry George: Yeah, it’s really impressive. I've got another patient who hikes up the mountain every morning, about 3,000 vertical feet, and gets her exercise that way. She is a former Olympic cross-country skier for the Czech Republic, and very fit and also in her mid-70s. She sent me a card when she went back to visit her mom who’s in her 90s, back in the Czech Republic. She sent me a postcard, and she said her mom asked her, “Do you see your doctor regularly to stay healthy?” and she said, “Yes, mom, I see him every morning after we've hiked to the top of the mountain.”
Karen Wyatt: [Laughter]
Larry George: She said, “That’s our office. That’s where we meet, at the top of the mountain.” It’s really fun. One day, when I was skiing, I got off the chair lift, and there were four of my patients about ready to ski down the slope, and we struck up a conversation. It turned out that their average age was 86 years.
Karen Wyatt: Wow.
Larry George: There was a guy, 92, skiing, and the average age was 86. We have a very active senior population here. You have to be healthy to live at this altitude, but it’s pretty inspiring to see folks doing what they're doing here.
Karen Wyatt: Mm-hmm. Well, you do have a unique opportunity to observe this group of seniors as they age, and you've been able to watch them over the years and watch their aging process, which I think gives you a really interesting perspective on aging—observing these healthy and fit people in their later years who are continuing to be active and managing to continue to do the things they love to do in life, and so that’s one reason I wanted you to be here to talk about it, because you have this unique perspective with the patients that you're following.
I want to get into, because this talk is really to set the stage and be an overview for the rest of the series, I wanted to talk a little bit about some statistics, and the fact that it is really true that we are living longer now than ever before in time.
Larry George: Yes, that’s correct. There are now over 100,000 centenarians in the United States, and by some estimates—
Karen Wyatt: Which means people over the age of 100, right?
Larry George: Yes. By some estimates, they think there might be as many as 600,000 to 1,000,000 folks over 100 years of age by the year 2050. Interestingly, longevity has increased by about 2 years per decade over the last 150 years or so, and a man around the year 1900 would expect to live to about 46 years, and now that’s up to 76 years. Some of the problems that Medicare is in now financially is because, when it was initiated, longevity was around 67 years of age, and they didn't anticipate that people would live so long and need to have access to Medicare coverage for so many years. We've got to figure that one out.
But prior to 150 years ago, longevity only increased maybe 15 or 20 years over 100,000 years of man’s existence.
Karen Wyatt: So there really has been a big upswing in longevity in the last century.
Larry George: Right. Yeah, we don’t really know exactly why that’s happening.
Karen Wyatt: Yeah. Tell me a little bit more. I know that there are a lot of theories out there and people have done some studies and research, so tell me a little bit more about some of the thoughts behind what might be contributing to our increased longevity.
Larry George: Well, there was an interesting book written a few years ago called The Blue Zones. The author’s name is Dan Buettner, and he got interested in this longevity issue and started studying areas around the planet that have an average longevity that was about 10 years longer than most other areas, and these included Okinawa, Japan; Icaria, Greece; Loma Linda, California in the United States; the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica; and Sardinia, Italy.
What he did was go into these communities—the reason they were called the blue zones is because they had a big map up on the wall and his partner circled these five areas with a blue marker and that’s why they came to be known as the blue zones. Anyway, he analyzed the characteristics of these communities to try to find, are there some factors that contribute to this added longevity in these areas. He did come up with five factors, including: a diet low in red meats, physical activity was a component, the third one was connection to family, a fourth factor was a close social structure with a lot of social support, and the final one was having purpose and meaning in life.
hat gave us some ideas about some factors here that could be contributing to increased longevity. The problem that I had with some of this data, or his conclusions from this data, is that, to me, it lacked perspective and relevance. In other words, how powerful were each of these factors, and does one have a bigger impact than the other?
Another issue is that these characteristics are common to agrarian culture, which has existed for 100,000 years, and if it were just these factors, we would expect that people would live to a ripe old age of 2000 years, because if longevity is increasing an average of two years per decade, you do the math, we should be living a lot longer than we are, and it’s only been the last 150 years or so that we've seen that acceleration to two years per decade, so clearly—
Karen Wyatt: Yeah, so it’s difficult to look backwards, I guess. What he’s doing is looking at the communities that we already know have increased longevity and then basically he’s identified the characteristics that all those communities seem to have in common, but we still can’t quite explain how those characteristics connect with living a longer time.
Larry George: Yes, clearly there are other reasons, because these characteristics have been around for a long time.
Karen Wyatt: So there may be some unexplained factors. I know that there have been lots of other theories. We were talking about the Mediterranean diet as one of the theories—whenever we try to look at a population that’s doing well and try to figure out why that population is healthier or doing well, I think it’s really common to overanalyze every habit they have or everything that they do, to try to find the components and see what it is that’s responsible, but we could be missing a lot of intangible factors, when we do that.
Larry George: Right. Yes, there have been many studies, and everybody has their pet theory about, “What is it?” In addition to Dan Buettner’s observations, studies have shown that low calorie diets correlate somewhat with longevity, and I'm really not interested in that one.
Karen Wyatt: [Laughter]
Larry George: Dark chocolate was another one. That’s one I could subscribe to.
Karen Wyatt: I believe in that. [Laughter]
Larry George: Yeah. [Laughter] You mentioned the Mediterranean diet, and that’s been bandied about, but is it red wine, or is it olive oil or just—what is it? Everybody’s got their theories there. Modern medicine chimes in with statins and maybe statins could help increase longevity. There are studies showing, or trying to show, things like hormones affecting longevity—that data is not very substantial.
Flossing, taking aspirin—there’s just a myriad of different studies and attempts to try to delineate these factors. The problem with them all is that, again, they lack perspective and relevance, a relational relevance, and they're all reductionistic. What we mean by reductionistic is that they're all looking at the component parts, but missing the big picture, missing the forest for the trees, so to speak.
Karen Wyatt: I wanted to chime in here. As an example of that, in terms of the Mediterranean diet, when I had a chance to travel in Italy, it was really clear to me that the style of eating that takes place in that country is so different than the way we eat here. It made me realize it isn’t necessarily the food itself, though the food probably is a component, but when you go to a restaurant and you sit with a group of people for three or four hours at the table and socialize and talk and the food’s brought out slowly and you're allowed to just spend your time socializing and connecting and being with other people, there’s something way beyond olive oil and red wine to explain what happens there with the way people eat.
I see what you're saying. It’s wrong to look at only the smallest component if you don’t look at the whole scenario, if you don’t look at all of the aspects of what’s happening.
Larry George: Right. Yes, exactly. What we want to do is look at the data a little more closely and try to bring more perspective to it. I think the emphasis needs to be on aging well as opposed to anti-aging. That’s a thing that both you and I have talked about, that anti-aging is a bit of an irritating term to us, the fact that there are all these anti-aging clinics and interventions and so forth and it’s sort of anti-life, really, because aging is a part of life. That whole concept to me just seems counterproductive.
Karen Wyatt: Yes. I have a problem with the term itself, the idea that we're opposed to aging when aging is the natural process that all of us are going through and will go through, it sort of sets us at odds with ourselves, at odds with what is naturally unfolding in our lives. If we're expected to hate the fact that aging occurs, then we're really working against ourselves, when I much prefer that idea, as you said, of aging well. Let’s figure out how can we embrace our aging and then do it well, and what focus on the qualities that we need to have to make the most of our older years, rather than trying to prevent ourselves from getting older.
Larry George: Exactly. Well, I have found integral theory, which is a developmental approach based on the work of Ken Wilber, to be very helpful in terms of shedding some light on all of these variables and trying to put them in perspective and determining what we should be paying attention to and what is less important.
And so this developmental model is very complex, but just to try to simplify, there’s a stage development or a level development of our evolution, and basically that goes from physical to emotional to mental and finally to spiritual. Under the physical category we can talk about genetics or physical exercise or diet. Under the emotional category, emotional woundedness, perhaps shadow elements or subconscious issues. Under mental, we can talk about, on the positive side, mental stimulation; on the negative side, mental stress. Factors in the spiritual level are, I like to use, there are many different definitions of spirituality, but I like to use Paul Tillich’s definition of spirituality, which is whatever your area of ultimate concern is, and having to do with meaning and purpose around your ultimate concern.
Those are some of the factors that we can look at, and when we look at this developmental model, there are several important observations—
Karen Wyatt: I wanted to just chime in right here at this point to mention that the word integral itself comes from a Latin word which means, “whole,” and so that’s one of the most important points of this entire theory, I think, to remember, is that it’s about wholeness, and it’s about looking at the whole picture and all of the parts. And so it’s the opposite of what you were talking about before as reductionism, where we split it down into the smallest parts and only look at one small aspect.
The integral model is all about looking at the whole and including everything and looking at all of it as much as possible. Am I correct about that?
Larry George: Yes, thanks for adding that. That’s a really important difference than, as you pointed out, the reductionistic approach to this whole aging well and longevity issue. But back to this developmental sequence, what we notice right off about the developmental sequence, very simply put, is that all of these levels are connected. In other words, they all influence each other, so something that happens physically affects you emotionally and mentally and spiritually and so forth and so on with the other levels.
Just as an example, Western medicine tends to be disconnected, all about the physical and much less cognizant or aware of the emotional, mental, and spiritual aspects that can affect our health and well-being.
The second observation about this developmental model is a little more complex, but it’s what is referred to as transcending and including at each successive level. What that means is, basically, the emotional level, which comes after physical, embraces all of the physical and adds something new and unique and so forth and so on of the developmental levels. What that means is that issues at the bottom, the physical level, are what we refer to as fundamental, the basic, fundamental issues.
As we move up that scale to the spiritual level, things become increasingly significant. That’s important because issues, as you move up this developmental sequence, become more impactful. An issue at the spiritual level is going to have a greater impact or effect on our total being than something at a physical level. That doesn’t mean that physical impacts are unimportant, it’s just a different quality to fundamental issues versus issues of significance.
Karen Wyatt: And so what you're really doing here is kind of describing a way of prioritizing, I guess we could say, because when we look at all of these recommendations for people about how to live a healthy life, and especially how to age well, there are hundreds of them, and it can be confusing and a little bit overwhelming to figure out, “Well, what should I focus my time and attention on? Especially if I can’t do everything, I can’t follow all of these recommendations every day.”
The idea here is to figure out which of these interventions might be more significant, might make a greater impact on our lives, so might be worth more of our time and attention. It sounds like that’s exactly where this model is really helpful at teasing that out and helping us figure out where we can have the greatest impact if we make changes in our life.
Larry George: Yeah, that’s exactly right. I thought we could talk about some examples to kind of show how this integral theory can make sense of all of these different impacts and factors.
On the physical level, genetics is one of the components of the physical level, and people tend—at least it seems to me—tend to give more weight to genetics than I think it really deserves. Some estimates are that genetics is only 10 to 20 percent of the impact and the causation of the kinds of things we get sick with and die with. Chimpanzees, for example, have about 95 percent similarity to our DNA and yet the longevity difference between chimpanzees and humans is far greater than the 5 percent difference in our DNA. Chimpanzees in ideal situations can possibly live to 60 years, probably only 40 years in the wild compared to humans now living over 100 years, with all other things being equal and no other negative factors.
There’s some really interesting data and studies on heartbeat, which I find kind of interesting. It turns out that all land mammals have roughly 1,000,000,000 heartbeats in a lifetime. That’s, of course, assuming that other factors are all equal. What you can do is take the resting heart rate of a land mammal and divide that into that number, the 1,000,000,000 heartbeats and come up with longevity data, which holds up pretty well for all land mammals.
Humans, as it turns out, even though we only have about a 5 percent difference from chimpanzees in our DNA, we have 3,000,000,000 or 3 times as many heartbeats per lifetime. Just to give you an example, if your resting heart rate was 50, if you do the calculation, it comes out to a longevity of 114 years. People have joked that, “Well, why would I want to exercise, because I'm gonna be using up extra heartbeats and affect my longevity?”
Karen Wyatt: [Laughter]
Larry George: The fact is that, if you exercise, say, an hour a day, your heart rate obviously increases with that one hour, but the result of that is that the remaining 23 hours, your resting heart rate drops, and the overall effect is to increase longevity by lowering your average resting heart rate.
So the way that we are different from land mammals—obviously, there are a lot of differences, but one of the main ones is that we've evolved to higher mental and spiritual levels of existence, and of course this can be a double-edged sword, because if you have problems at the mental or spiritual levels, they can have that higher significant impact on our well-being. But clearly, the evolutionary step to mental and spiritual have impacted our longevity far greater than our genetics.
Karen Wyatt: And so what you're saying is, this heartbeat data is really applies at the physical level, but because human beings have evolved beyond to have the mental capacity and spiritual capacities that we do, we've been able to outlive the heartbeat data. [Laughter] We've been able to increase our own life expectancy as a species compared to others.
Larry George: Except the heartbeat data—I mean, the number of heartbeats per lifetime tripled with the evolutionary step of the mental and spiritual levels.
We tripled the number of heartbeats per lifetime, and I think it’s profound, that’s adding something new, in other words, that’s transcending and including: that not only did we evolve our consciousness, but we increased our longevity within which to unfold all of that extra unfolding of our consciousness.
Karen Wyatt: Consciousness—yeah. That’s very interesting.
Larry George: So, on the physical level, physical trauma, for example, is what we would call a fundamental issue. The details of the trauma aren’t particularly significant, so in other words, it isn’t significant whether you get hit by a Mack truck or a fast-moving Chevy, the results are going to be the same. Similarly, if you get a lethal dose of ricin or cyanide, it’s not significant which poison it is, but it’s the damage that is done. Those are basic, fundamental physical issues. It’s just a concept in integral theory which explains what kind of impact all of these various factors have.
I think that becomes important if we talk about diet and exercise, for example. These are, again, on the physical level, they're fundamental, they're basic issues, and so being at that physical level, we would predict from integral theory that there isn’t much significance to diet and exercise. It doesn’t mean that they're not important, or that they don’t have an impact, but the significance of them, of these factors is not as great. So in other words—
Karen Wyatt: So the significance of the details of it, as you said before?
Larry George: Yeah, so as long as you get the basic, fundamental food nutrients and enough calories and you keep the human body physically active, it’s not going to have that much significance to your overall health and longevity.
That may sound a little blasphemous to people out there, but that’s in fact what we see with the data. For example, studies show that vegetarians who also eat fish only have a slight advantage over meat eaters and strict vegetarians or vegans. The common thought out there is that diet makes a huge difference in terms of longevity, but being a fundamental issue, it doesn’t have as much impact as you would think. Regular exercisers only get a couple of years of extra longevity compared to non-exercisers. What they do get is 15 to 20 years of increased functionality at the end of life, so the quality of life improves, but longevity isn’t impacted as much as you might think.
Karen Wyatt: On that exercise point, I wanted to go back to the Blue Zones data, because when you mentioned that one of the characteristics the people in those five communities had is being active. Was it activity or exercise for those communities? I just wanted you to talk about that more.
Larry George: Yes, the physical activity by and large was working with the land, so not only was it physical activity, but it was purposeful and meaningful physical activity. According to integral theory, that may be more impactful than just mindlessly running on a treadmill. Not that it isn’t helpful, because it’s a fundamental issue, it’s going to be helpful, but if you add higher level purpose and meaning to the exercise, integral theory would predict that it’s going to have a greater impact.
Karen Wyatt: Well, that would make sense to me with diet as well. If you add purpose and meaning to the food that you eat, to the diet that you eat and it has a higher purpose and meaning for you, that could make it more significant than if you're simply taking supplements or something to try to get nutrients.
Larry George: Right, and that goes back to the point that you were making earlier about, in Italy, it may not be so much the food itself, though food is basic and fundamental—but rather the way the food is prepared and the way that it’s eaten and the fact that it’s eaten in a social context that may actually have the greater impact from the Mediterranean diet than the food itself.
In my opinion, this is why taking large doses of vitamins and supplements isn’t particularly helpful and, in some cases, harmful. In fact, studies have borne that out. Nutrients are a fundamental issue. You just need enough and more isn’t necessarily better. There was a study in Sweden that they looked at a group of smokers, understanding that they have a higher cancer risk, and they supplemented one group with vitamins A, E, D, and selenium, and the other group not. They did measure the levels of all those nutrients prior to the study, and then followed these people for about five years.
What they found was that the supplemented group actually had a higher cancer rate, but when they did the sub-analysis of the data, they found that those people that had higher, naturally occurring levels of those nutrients actually did have a lower cancer rate. I think this integral theory really does shed some light on the importance of these various factors in our health and longevity.
Karen Wyatt: Yes, and it occurs to me, when we talk about the idea of taking a vitamin supplement, that goes back to the reductionism, it’s back to looking at a component within the food we eat and assigning a lot of importance to that and then taking only that component. But, for example, taking a vitamin C tablet is not the same as eating an orange. [Laughter] It’s not the same in many, many ways, including the taste and the experience and all of the meaning that eating an orange might have had in our memory from all the times in the past when we've eaten an orange.
It’s why—I think that points out really well why that reductionistic view, trying to reduce an orange to the vitamins that it contains and then only taking the vitamins, leaves out so many other factors and so many other components that are important. Yeah, that’s really a great point here to explain to people why what you're saying, taking supplements is not that important unless you have a deficiency or something.
Larry George: Yeah, yeah, precisely. I talked briefly earlier about genetics being 10 to 20 percent causation of illness. At the next level, the emotional level, it turns out that emotional woundedness is a huge impact on our physical well-being and health. On the ACE study done by the Kaiser Foundation—ACE stands for Adverse Childhood Events—they looked at emotional wounds in childhood and found that there’s a very strong correlation with the development of the chronic diseases that we end up suffering and dying with such as cancer and heart disease, the number one and two killers.
That is very powerful data that is not well-known, I don't think, in most Western medical circles. Again, the emotional level being at a higher level of significance, it does have a huge impact on health and well-being.
Karen Wyatt: Mm-hmm, and I'm familiar with the ACE study, and I know that the ACE study itself doesn’t really conclude why this happens, like why there’s a correlation between childhood wounds and chronic illnesses in adulthood, except that they have a theory that it’s related to the brain and to the neurochemistry of the brain and the way memories are stored and trauma is stored in the brain and the impact that it has.
What I find interesting about that data is that we also have recent information about the plasticity of the brain and the fact that the brain can heal, and actually heal some of that woundedness. There’s a lot of hope there that people who’ve had a traumatic childhood or have wounds, can actually heal and can recover and improve from them.
Larry George: Yeah, exactly. Their interpretation of it is, again, very reductionistic. Not that it’s not true or important, but again, missing the bigger picture that, as you said, the plasticity of the brain can recover if you do the work to heal the emotional woundedness. Those things are intermittently connected and, like we said earlier in integral theory, that they're all connected and influence each other.
Similarly, as you go up the next level, the mental level of development, we're going to predict even more significant impact. Your beliefs are a very important part of your overall physical well-being and your longevity. On the physical level, doing surgery to correct a cleft lip and cleft palate on a child who lives in a Third World country obviously makes a huge difference physically, but probably even more importantly that correction of the physical defect leads to cultural acceptance and a belief on the child’s part that can make a profound difference on the child’s health and well-being.
Social connectedness is also a very powerful effect, being of a higher level. There was a study in Pennsylvania—this is kind of an old study, but it was really interesting, because they looked at these three different towns in Pennsylvania and noticed that one of the towns had a markedly lower incidence of coronary artery disease and heart attacks. They dove in there and did research and tried to find out, again, reductionistically, what are all these factors?
After studying the populations for about 20 or 30 years, they observed that the incidents of myocardial infarction or heart attacks in the one town that had been low previously began to increase and approach the same level as the other two towns over time. Then it became apparent that the one difference in that town that had the lower heart disease rate initially, but later lost it, was that the social connectedness in the community had broken down. That town happened to have a very large immigrant population that previously had been very socially connected. Over time, in the next generation, some of those extended families broke down, and interestingly, the heart disease incidents increased. Obviously, it’s difficult to definitely put a finger on causation there, but it was a powerful connection.
There have been data showing, similarly, the difference between heart attacks or coronary artery disease in the Japanese versus the United States. There was a study that looked at the fact that Japanese have a lower incidence of heart attacks. If you looked to Japanese who have migrated to Hawaii, their rate of heart attacks increased somewhat and then the Japanese who migrated to the continental United States increased even further, approaching rates for citizens of the United States. So researchers said, “Ah ha! Well, this has got to be diet. It’s got to be the American diet,” and so they looked very carefully at this, but it turned out that that wasn’t really the factor, it had more to do with, again, breakdown of the extended family and the social connections from the Japanese as they moved and migrated to Hawaii and then subsequently the United States.
Karen Wyatt: Well, this is interesting to me because, at least my impression from looking around, is that we really suffer from a breakdown in social connectedness right now in this country. I see less and less connectedness in many ways. It seems like there are factors there that would work against our longevity increasing, at least in that particular area, when I look at it.
Larry George: Yeah.
Karen Wyatt: I'm curious about that.
Larry George: It is fascinating that our social connection now is becoming the Internet. The social connectedness is much faster, and the speed with which communication takes place is staggering compared to some of these communities back in Pennsylvania in that study. It could be that, as we're evolving and we're living longer, the social connectedness is now world-wide. We've gone from a more ethnocentric or small group of people who grew up in the same traditions and the same culture to a worldwide culture, and commensurate with that, we have communication that’s almost instantaneous.
It’s a different level of connectedness now that is evolving and fits more with the longevity that we're seeing.
Karen Wyatt: Huh. Yeah, that’s a very—that would be an interesting study to compare connectedness over the Internet and what positive benefits that conveys to us versus connectedness at a more tribal, familial level.
Larry George: Right. Obviously we need, because we transcend and include every level, we need connection on every level, but the extent of our connection is broadening to a more world-centric focus.
Karen Wyatt: Mm-hmm. I wanted to mention another thing that just popped into my mind when you were talking about mental beliefs and the impact that they might have. As I've been studying some of the characteristics of the Baby Boom generation, of which I'm a part, one of the characteristics is that Baby Boomers tend to believe that they're younger than they actually are. Baby Boomers are somewhat in denial about aging, but it actually seems like that’s a characteristic that would serve us well in a way because we have this optimism and this belief that we can do anything, we will be able to keep doing things. That actually seems like we're in a bit of denial, but that might be an area where denial could have a positive benefit, in a way.
Larry George: Right, yeah. Positive mental thinking and so forth, it’s very powerful. It leads to action and it leads to activity. Unfortunately, some people have taken that to the extreme to say that what you think and believe is reality or that we create our own reality, and that is, unfortunately, an overexpansion of that concept.
Karen Wyatt: Mm-hmm.
Larry George: At the spiritual level, of course, now we're at the highest level of significance, so that area of ultimate concern and what gives you meaning and purpose is going to have, predicted by integral theory, the greatest impact, the most significance to your overall health and well-being.
It’s hard to get data on this, but there was kind of an interesting study that looked at churchgoers, and it turns out that people who go to church live 8 to 10 years longer than folks that don’t, and they selected out for smokers and excess drinkers and other variables. It wasn’t a perfect study, of course, but it was pretty powerful when you compare the fact that diet doesn’t make much impact on longevity, exercise maybe makes a couple of years, but having an active spiritual life confers 8 to 10 years of added longevity, and coupled with better health.
It was interesting, too, that women churchgoers experienced an even greater effect than men. Who knows, maybe that’s because women have, in general, more in-depth relationships. We know that connectedness in relationships is a powerful factor—but I found that really interesting.
Karen Wyatt: Yeah, very interesting, and so I guess what you're saying is that it’s having some sort of a regular spiritual practice more so than the church itself, but it’s having a spiritual practice that seems to correlate with greater longevity.
Larry George: Right, so we talked about fundamental versus significance. Your beliefs at that highest level, or your faith, are not so much a fundamental issue as an issue of significance. In other words, if you believe in Christianity or Buddhism or you're an atheist isn’t the issue, those are fundamental practices or fundamental teachings, but rather the meaning and purpose that you derive from your beliefs and your practice and your faith are most important. Again, with integral theory, that would predict that having passion, having meaning, having purpose is the issue, because that’s what lends the significance to our overall health and well-being—not so much the what of it, but the significance of it.
Karen Wyatt: And so yes, that point about having meaning and purpose comes up again, because when we talked about exercise, it was moat beneficial when the exercise involved working with the land, which gave that exercise specific purpose and a great deal of meaning. That made the exercise even more valuable in terms of longevity. Then even with diet and eating as we talked about Italy, when people have meals that are full of meaning and connectedness and connection, it’s not so much the food itself, but it is the meaning involved in it that makes the difference.
Larry George: Yeah, right. The food is fundamental, basic, you've gotta have it, but the significance goes way up if you're getting your fundamental basic calories in a way that is engaged with your emotional, mental, and spiritual levels as well.
Karen Wyatt: Mm-hmm. That’s just such a beautiful point to make, and I love that idea that, rather than focusing so much on the details of what we're eating or how we are getting exercise, if we could focus always on, “Is there meaning to what we're doing, and is there a purpose for it?” That right there is a starting place for figuring out how we live a healthy lifestyle.
Larry George: Exactly, and it’s what we do with this information, as all of this integral theory is fine, but it’s putting it to work in a way that honors the significance of our higher levels of being, our emotional, mental, and spiritual levels of being. We really need to get it, to figure it out that we need to know what really matters. What really matters are those factors that increase as we go up that developmental sequence.
Karen Wyatt: Mm-hmm. Well, that’s a subject near and dear to my heart: living life according to what matters, according to what has the deepest meaning for us and brings us the most purpose in life is what makes life richer and brings quality to life. Then, from this information you're showing us, also may lead to greater longevity in life as well.
Larry George: Exactly. Living that longevity with greater health and gracefully accepting aging and not this anti-aging kind of thing that’s out there.
Karen Wyatt: Yes, so it’s partly the idea, too, of accepting where you are, accepting what is in your life rather than trying to fight against it or trying to change it or wishing it was different. Accept the reality of what is occurring in life. That is one of the most important points I've tried to make through my writing, and it’s even one of the fundamental points of this entire interview series is that, first of all, we need to accept the reality of where we are in life, and then we need to embrace that and figure out, “How do I make the most of what’s real for me right now and where I am, instead of wishing it were different, or trying to change things?”
Larry George: Yeah. I love your, “Embrace your difficulties,” one of the lessons in your book, What Really Matters. It’s so important and so overlooked, I think, when people are talking about, “Well, how do I find meaning in my life, and how do I age gracefully?” Embracing your difficulties is such an overlooked but critical aspect of that.
Karen Wyatt: That’s the starting point.
Larry George: Yeah, that’s right.
Karen Wyatt: Aging and dying are among the difficulties that we end up having to embrace over a lifetime.
Larry George: Yeah, exactly.
Karen Wyatt: Well, maybe we could summarize and go back through each one of these levels that you've talked about, and some of your suggestions and your pointers for our listeners on how to live a healthy lifestyle.
Larry George: Yeah. This goes with the handout, so those of you who are listening and have the handout, we just listed some health recommendations under physical: a diet less in red meat, plenty of fruits and vegetables, avoid processed foods. We're recognizing more and more problems with trans fats and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils and so forth.
Then, on the physical level, exercising—and here again, as we've talked several times, if you can make your exercise more meaningful, according to integral theory, we believe that that would make a bigger impact than just mindlessly exercising, although that being a fundamental issue is still going to be helpful.
We go to the emotional level, healing old wounds. This is so important, and Karen, you did your workshop on “Get Over It,” which I love. It’s a workshop to specifically look at healing the wounds of childhood, and as we said, this emotional woundedness, according to the ACE study, translates to huge, huge health problems. Work on relationships with individuals, with society. Get therapy if you need it, do shadow work, work on the subconscious.
At the mental level, stress management—huge. We live in a very fast paced world and stress is a huge part of it, but what we know is that stress hardiness is a learned phenomenon, that we can rise above stress by gaining a sense of control and having a sense of challenge and commitment to confront and deal with the stress that we have in our life today. Brain training exercises—there are all kinds of them out there now. EFT, which stands for Emotional Freedom Techniques, EMDR, cognitive therapy, counseling, developing a positive attitude, journaling, for example.
At the spiritual level, finding meaning and purpose in anything you do, in every area of your life. There was a nice little story to illustrate this called, “The Three Masons.” This interviewer comes out to interview these three bricklayers and says to the first guy, “Well, what are you doing?” and he says, “Layin’ bricks—what’s it look like?” He goes to the next guy and says, “Well, what are you doing?” He says, “Well, I'm working hard. My dad was a bricklayer, and his dad was a bricklayer, my grandfather, and we take pride in our profession and work hard and it gives me enough money to provide for my family and shelter and buy food, and life is good.” Well, then the interviewer goes onto the third guy and he says, “Well, what are you doing?” and he says, “I'm building a temple to God.”
These three masons are working on the same building, and yet their meaning and purpose is vastly different, and we would predict that that first guy probably isn’t as physically healthy, either, with the attitudes and perceptions that he has, and the third guy has enormous meaning and purpose and consequently probably is healthier and is going to live longer.
In the spiritual level, developing a practice of some kind, whatever that is—prayer, exercise gratitude every day, mindfulness. Practices like meditation, yoga, tai chi—all of these can really help teach some of the principles that we know are very powerful in terms of being fully present. We know that advanced meditators have lower blood pressure, they're generally healthier, and these are very significant issues to your overall health and well-being.
Karen Wyatt: I wanted to just comment in here that I love that story of the three masons, and the idea that it conveys to me is that you can take the most mundane task that you have to do in your life and instill it with meaning and purpose if you bring that to it.
If you view your life in that way, then you can wash the dishes or sweep the floor or clean the toilet, even, and you can do it with meaning and bring higher meaning and purpose to absolutely anything that you do during your day. I think that story illustrates that really well.
Larry George: Right. Yeah, exactly. That significance that comes from that is very powerful.
Karen Wyatt: I know our time is probably running short here, and I know that you have five daily tips for aging well that really bring it all together. And bringing together all of those levels is kind of the integral way, and so I was wondering if—
Larry George: Right. Yeah, why don’t we conclude with that? These, again, are on the handout, but basically, the first is eating healthy food prepared mindfully and shared with loved ones. The second is, do exercise that you enjoy, preferably in a social context. The third is, share laughter with others in your life. The fourth is, journal about your wounds, your joys, your gratefulness, and the fifth and final tip is finding meaning and purpose in everything you do.
Karen Wyatt: Just as we were talking about, once you set that as your goal that you're going to try to find meaning, it’s really possible to find it in everything, but you have to have that attitude in mind, and you have to set out to do it in order to create meaning in your life.
Larry George: Yeah, exactly.
Karen Wyatt: Well, this has been a really fascinating overview of aging well, and I want to thank you so much, Larry, for being willing to take time out of your busy schedule to share this information with us and give us these wonderful tips for aging well and for getting us started here on this interview series with the right attitude in mind—so thank you.
Larry George: Okay, thank you.
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