How to Live to 100
The scene was a black-tie dinner at the Swedish Embassy in Washington, D.C. The host was Rolf Ekeus, who had led the U.N. commission searching for Saddam Hussein's biological warfare sites and was the new Swedish ambassador. The guests of honor were five American scientists who won Nobel prizes in 1997.
I posed this question to the Nobel laureates: If Albert Einstein were a young man just starting his career today, what field would he choose to work in?
"Einstein was not only a genius, he was a smart guy," replied one of the scientists. "I think he would choose a field of science with the greatest potential for dramatic advances in his lifetime, as he did at the start of the twentieth century by choosing physics." "Which field would that be today?"
"Ah," said a voice from one of the tables, "neuroscience. The brain." Even the physicists and chemists and doctors in the room-pioneers in their chosen disciplines of some of the most exciting advances of our time--had to agree.
Let's assume these guys are right. It may well be that discoveries in brain science--propelled by techniques of imaging that let us see thinking in action, and by feats of genetic engineering and chemical therapy--will lead to breakthroughs that will unleash the power of the brain to better control the workings of the body.
What does this assumption mean to thee and me? First, it means that new hope and purpose are given to the growing likelihood of longevity. We already know that the lives of human beings are stretching out, and the speed of the stretching and of the typical life span is likely to accelerate. Thanks to antibiotics and other advances in medical science, you are expected to live about ten years longer than your great-grandfather. And thanks to organ transplants and gene therapy, as well as the strong likelihood of cures for cancer and protections against heart disease and stroke, your grandchildren are expected to live more than a decade longer than you. Since life expectancy has risen from forty-seven to seventy-five in the twentieth century, isn't it likely to rise to 100 in the twenty-first?
Too many people in politics and medicine think of this as a terrible problem. They wonder--what are we going to do with all those old people? How will we manage the burden of an aging population?
Others are thinking more positively. These more upbeat futurists wonder--what can brain science do to keep the mind active, alert, and productive into the years that used to be reserved for rocking chairs and nursing homes? What can people do for themselves, right now, to prepare themselves for indeed to take advantage of--the longer life that the scientists of brain and body are making possible?
That's what this book by David Mahoney and Richard Restak is about. I wasn't born yesterday (actually, I was born sixty-eight years ago) and I'm not kidding myself; even with all the cures in the pipeline, and even if I buckle my seat belt all the time, the odds are against my living to 100. But I'm planning to live to 100. How can this be? Are not those two statements inconsistent?
Not a bit. According to Mahoney and Restak, the way to take advantage of the growing opportunity most of us have to live longer, and then to pack enjoyment and fulfillment into that extended life, is to adopt a strategy of longevity.
"Strategy" can be one of those con-job words. In this case, however--as I get it from reading this book and from a lifetime of working with David---the longevity strategy is to act along the range of our personal fronts, over a period of the rest of our lives, in a way that will make our fourth quarter the lively culmination of the first three. This takes specific planning for physical health, for mental acuity, for financial security, for family and friendships, and for the systematic shifts in emphasis of career and avocation that keep the mind alert and spirit alive.
The bonus to their longevity strategy, say the authors, is this: in our first three generations of life, we benefit from the security and perspective that comes with knowing roughly what we're preparing for our fourth--"the last of life, for which the first was made." Precisely because we are determined not to vegetate as grumpy codgers, and because we take full advantage of what's being learned about brain-body interaction, we are more likely to be happily productive pre-geezers.
The authors have the credentials to be longevity strategists. They know they're not likely to get a "Happy Hundredth Birthday!" waved at them from a wrinkled Willard Scott on some far-off day, but they combine the experience needed to put together their wide-ranging plan. One is a marketing genius turned activist-philanthropist, the other a medical doctor who also practices understandable writing in best-seller form.
Let me tell you about David; how he involved me in the publicizing of brain science; what makes him so important to so many neuroscientists; and why I egged him on when he came up with the idea for writing this book.
The Nobel laureate James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA a generation ago and today the father of the international Human Genome Project, will be remembered as one of the half dozen scientists who--like Einstein--most moved human knowledge forward in the twentieth century. With all his prestige, and with his reputation for being an outspoken coot who doesn't stand on ceremony, he was able to assemble some of the leading lights in his field at his laboratory in Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island, to listen to a challenge from a non-scientist.
David had started his career working in the mail room of an ad agency while taking night classes at the University of Pennsylvania. He rode his marketing genius to the top of one of America's largest consumer companies and then started a second career as a philanthropist, ultimately becoming CEO of the Charles A. Dana Foundation. But he didn't see his primary mission as the giving-away of money; rather, he became an active advocate of a big idea.
Mahoney's idea was to awaken Americans to the potential of brain science and to focus public attention on its support. As recounted in this book, his message to the scientists assembled in the lab at Cold Spring Harbor was troubling and challenging: they were losing valuable years, and falling behind in funding, because they were failing to reach outside their scientific world. To enlist public support in a time of declining budgets and competing interests, he told them they would have to communicate in understandable terms the excitement in their field. "Nobody buys research," he told them, "but everybody buys hope." In marketing terms, they had to offer people not just intermittent reports of research, but hope--specific hope about how and when their work on the brain would cure diseases and improve people's lives. "These hopeful people want to know, in concrete terms, how you are going to help them; only then will they help you." This was met at first with narrowed eyes. Scientists resist hyperbole; they rightly look askance at promoters who prematurely announce "breakthroughs."
Then some of the scientists began to examine their own realistic expectations-advances they were confident could be accomplished in the foreseeable, short-term future. They identified the diseases of the brain, afflicting millions, that most people did not realize could be treated or conquered soon. At the marketing man's urging, they listed ten specific goals--realistic projections of breakthroughs to come, with concentrated effort--and set their signatures on a declaration that laid their own hopes and judgments on the line.
That started the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, now an association of nearly 250 of the field's leaders, including an active sister organization just begun in Europe. Scientists once leery of public appearances are now more comfortable with seminars and interviews, and are also more familiar with one another's work. Journalists are finding these researchers and doctors far more accessible and ready to explain their work understandably.
Philanthropies and political bodies are being exposed to the potential for saving lives and saving billions in years ahead. And the general public is beginning to get the idea that the array of brain diseases---from Alzheimer's to stroke to brain cancer to depression to hundreds of others--need not be part of every person's future as we grow older.
"Hope moves people to invest in wider and more intensified research," says David now, still selling hard, "which in turn can justify their hope. We're seeing the results already." Several of the goals set at Cold Spring Harbor have been achieved; none of the scientists needed further urging from a marketing man to set fresh goals. That's why Jim Watson said recently that "David Mahoney is the Mary Lasker of this generation." What made Mrs. Lasker the preeminent philanthropist: of her day in the field of medical science and public health? It was not the amount of money she gave or raised.
What made her count was the influence she brought to bear, by virtue of good judgment; a feel for the future of medicine; and the ability to transmit her enthusiasm to more cautious givers. Her husband, Albert Lasker, made his fortune as head of the Lord and Thomas advertising agency before turning to public service and philanthropy; a half century later, David Mahoney is using that same strategic marketing background to energize private and public support of brain science. (I can attest to that from personal experience: he roped me into serving as a Dana Foundation director years ago, and now I'm touting neuroscience research every chance I get, including this one.)
With every solution comes a problem. Suppose our hopes are realized. Suppose the physicians of the body, as we expect, lengthen our lives by curing the diseases that kill so many in our middle years. Suppose, too, that the neuroscientists come up with ways to extend memory and regenerate brain cells, not only keeping us alert but showing us how to use our minds to exert a positive influence on the health of our bodies. What then? What do we do in that extra generation of active life? Go fishing? Go to pot? Go broke? Go batty with boredom? Or go into a losing battle with a younger generation ready and eager to take power?
We need to have a strategy. All the amazing imaging techniques that let us begin to see the way we think must be fitted into a bigger picture. As David Mahoney and Dr. Richard Restak worked in many of these fields, they began to see the need for a comprehensive approach that each individual can take to gain the benefits that come from grasping the potential of becoming a centenarian. They took the separate strands that lead to the newly achievable longevity--good mental health habits, stress management, physical exercise and nutrition, dual-career development, and long-range financial planning--and wove them into "the Longevity Strategy."
That does not mean this book is more-holistic-than-thou . The authors take their subject seriously, but I'm glad they make a point about the mental and physical benefits of good humor (Mahoney was once the top Good Humor Man) and they know the need to lighten up now and then. "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work," said the philosopher Woody Alien. "I want to achieve immortality by not dying."
That's not part of the strategy, but this is: organize your life and your work around the possibility that you could live to 100. Granted, it's now a long shot, but the odds are coming down every day. The authors say: Your sensible preparations for a fourth quarter, and your positive attitude toward the real possibility of longer life, will enliven and enrich your every day. You don't have to be a brain scientist to figure out why that makes sense. Use your head. --William Safire