Humans are fascinated with fighting off old age forever. Greek gods had ambrosia and Norse gods had golden apples. Ponce de León had the fountain of youth. Peter Thiel has young people’s blood.
But what if there was actually a way to stay young? New studies suggest there is—and it doesn’t involve any hocus pocus or cutting edge technology. It might not be a magical portrait that keeps us youthful-looking forever, but there are steps we can take to keeping our mind and body sharper and more in shape than people who are decades younger than ourselves.
This wouldn’t just have an affect on how far we could run or how well we could remember things in our golden years. It would impact how we approach our health, our money, and our retirement, changing how we fundamentally view our lives.
Staying physically fit
By the time we’re in our 80s, most of us would be happy enough to get around without breaking a hip.
Robert Marchand is 105-years-old and set a world record for cycling.
The most astonishing part? He’s actually getting more fit as he ages.
Here’s the rundown: VO2 max measures how efficiently our bodies use oxygen. Even in people who exercise regularly, VO2 max declines once we hit 50. But Marchand was able to increase his VO2 max by working out intensely and frequently – 80 percent "easy" workouts and 20 percent at a "difficult intensity."
Think of his regimen as being on the extreme end of a workout scale. At one end, we have people who don’t exercise; in the middle are people who work out enough to lose a few pounds or maintain some level of fitness; and Marchand is exercising in a way that’s markedly improving his body well into old age. This gives him a "VO2 max...about 13 percent higher than it had been before...and comparable to the aerobic capacity of a healthy, average 50-year-old" according to the New York Times. Marchand is one of the first test subjects of his kind, but there’s reason to believe that if he can do it, you can too.
And working out as we age has benefits beyond your VO2 max. Exercise can help prevent obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Even for people who have already been diagnosed with diabetes, exercise plays an important role in controlling it, meaning a long life after diagnosis isn’t out of the question. In a world of rising healthcare costs (and health insurance premiums), a reprieve from ailments translates into not only less time in hospitals, but big financial savings as well.
Researchers are quick to note that while Marchand’s case is promising, it might not be indicative of everyone’s capabilities; he might be genetically predisposed to be healthier and better able to maintain a rigorous workout well into his 100s.
But even if we aren’t all taking world-record cycling sessions, the benefits of exercising when you’re older are clear. The worst case scenario is that you get slightly healthier instead of extremely healthier.
Keeping your mind sharp
You’ve probably heard people say that the mind is just another muscle that needs exercise. Turns out, that’s true – we just might not be exercising it the right way.
A popular depiction of the brain divides it into three sections: one that contains reptilians qualities for basic survival, one that controls mammalian emotions, and a uniquely-human rational section. Once thought to be distinct, it’s now believed that these sections overlap and are "hubs" for different functions.
Exercising these regions of the brain can lead to improved neuroautonomy, giving people 60 to 80 years old memory performance equal to people 20 and 30 years younger.
So why don’t we just work them out more? Turns out, it’s hard. When you go running or lift weights, you’re tired afterwards. If you work your brain in similar ways, through strenuous mental exercise, you feel the same. And just like many people would like to sit down in front of a Netflix binge marathon rather than run an actual marathon, we’d rather not feel tired and frustrated with something that truly tests our mental capabilities.
"But I play Sudoku and Lumosity all the time!" you say. Unfortunately, those don’t do much for our grey matter. Those are leisurely games that don’t truly test us. Studies have shown that gains from brain training games are mostly placebo effect-induced. In order to keep our minds young, we need to work it in ways that matter.
So what can help our brains in meaningful ways?
Continue working. It doesn’t have to be full time, and it doesn’t have to be physically strenuous. Editing books, for instance, puts our mind to work in a way that keeps it from becoming lethargic. Plus, it has economic benefits if the work is for money.
Learn a new language. Learning a new language has a proven impact on brain development; studies show that "Alzheimer’s disease and the onset of dementia are diagnosed later for bilinguals than for monolinguals."
Keep learning. Outside of language, taking online courses can help us learn new skills and knowledge, keeping our brains engaged. Many colleges have continuing adult education courses, and online sites like Coursera make it a breeze to learn anything from anywhere.
Master an instrument. Like learning a new language, learning how to play an instrument has a proven impact on brain development, showing that "learning to play a musical instrument not only increases grey matter volume in various brain regions, but can also strengthen the long-range connections between them" and that " musical training also enhances verbal memory, spatial reasoning, and literacy skills".
If this all sounds like being back in school, taking lessons we didn’t want about things we thought we’d never use...well, yeah. It kind of is. We spend a lot of our youth, during the most critical years of brain development, challenging ourselves. As we grow older and deal with "the real world" we tend to let these unpleasant challenges lapse, and our brains become lethargic and underused.
In this way, mental exercise is exactly like physical exercise. By not letting the critical thinking parts of our brains atrophy, we can fend off disease and the natural effects of old age that afflict many members of older generations.
Extending your lifestyle
Living longer and staying sharper sounds great. But most people aren’t prepared for such longevity, and there may be unintended consequences. Other aspects of our lives – namely our budget – have to increase along with our lifespans. That’s bad news for a lot of people.
Why? Because most of us are woefully underprepared for retirement as is. The median retirement savings for U.S. families is $5,000. For most people, that’s enough to keep you going for...what, a few months? Even the mean savings of around $95,000 won’t take you very far.
Living longer also throws conventional retirement wisdom out the window even if we do have enough saved. Want to follow the 4 percent rule? Good luck having that money last 30 or 40 years after you retire.
But what if we’re looking at this the wrong way? What if we shouldn’t be playing by the old rules? What if, by increasing our lifespans, we’re playing an entirely new game?
The important key in all of this is that the methods to living longer described here don’t just make us into The Walking Dead-style zombies trudging through lives. They keep us healthy and engaged, opening new doors and removing old barriers.
Take healthcare costs. Estimates put average monthly healthcare spending for 85-year-olds at around $1,100 a month, compared to around $580 a month for 65-year-olds. Why the huge increase? Because we – normally – get much more unhealthy as we age.
There might be some ailments that we can’t fight off but we can imagine a world where, overall, we’re healthier than your average 85-, 95-, or 105-year-old. What does that do to our healthcare costs? Does it drop them dramatically in a way that completely changes how we look at our retirement budget?
And speaking of retirement...who’s to say we have to retire at all? Working helps keep our mind sharp. Work can take many forms, and one of them might provide a decreased-but-steady stream of income well into our 80s or 90s. While any retirement savings and investments do work in the background, we can supplement them with a continuing income stream.
Silicon Valley is hard at work trying to find a way for all of us to live forever. In the meantime, we’ll have to make do with improving our minds and bodies on our own. It might not be easy, but the benefits – to our health, to our budgets, and to our happiness – are worth the effort.