“Raise your hand if you’re aging.” That’s how Dr. James Firman, president and CEO of the National Council on Aging (NCOA), opened his speech at the Society for Public Health Education’s Midyear Scientific Conference this April, and his point was well taken. An enormous amount of attention is being paid—as well it should—to the fact that the Baby Boomers began turning 65 last year. But healthy aging begins long before your senior years.
Recently, the NCOA partnered with Humana to pilot the Stanford University Chronic Disease Self-Management Program, a series of online workshops that teach seniors and others suffering from multiple chronic conditions how to better manage diseases through diet, exercise, medication and communication with doctors. “The program is a harbinger of what everyone needs to do,” Firman says. “We need informed, educated patients who eat properly, exercise and manage stress. That’s always the answer.”
Spry sat down with Firman, 60, to discuss what he’s learned about healthy aging, both on the job and in his own golden years.
Spry: What is the single most important factor in aging well?
Dr. James Firman: I think it’s being proactive, recognizing that the things you do can have a profound effect on the quality of your life. For most people, it’s uncharted territory. When the kids move out of the house, they’re facing 30 years or more of unstructured time. A lot of people squander that time. Whenever I see an older person, I ask, “What’s your secret?” They always say: Stay away from the poisons (however they define them), exercise regularly and have a passion.
Spry: How are the baby boomers aging differently than previous generations?
JF: In some ways they’re better off. They’re more educated, and they’re going to live longer. They’re worse off economically—fewer own homes or have pensions, and more have debt. Many are not going to retire at 65. But they’re also less passive about their health. Past generations did whatever their doctors told them to do.
Spry: You touched on that in your speech, saying we’ve gone from “Dr. Marcus Welby to Web MD to Walgreens.” In other words, we’re more likely now to take our healthcare into our own hands. Is that a good or bad thing?
JF: I think it’s a good thing. What doesn’t exist anymore is a doctor who’s known you your whole life. A few years ago I went to the doctor and said, “I can’t keep up with my kids playing basketball.” She gave me a stress test and said I was fine. But I knew I wasn’t OK, and I wasn’t—I needed quintuple bypass surgery. Really, your doctor knows much less about you than you do. And 90 percent of what you need to do to stay healthy has nothing to do with the doctor.
Spry: What do you think are the biggest barriers to people taking care of themselves, especially as they get older?
JF: People know in general what they should do, but the question is how to get them to do it. In the Stanford program, they set goals: “I want to be able to stand up in church” or “I want to go on vacation.” You have to start by defining what is personally meaningful to you. Then set a goal that’s achievable. Then take small steps that get you on the road to healthy behaviors. Oftentimes physical activity is a great place to start, because it physically makes you feel better. After I had my heart surgery, I did Jeff Galloway’s Run-Walk-Run program. Those little successes were magic.
Spry: Do you approach exercise differently now that you’re 60?
JF: I’ve had to totally change my philosophy. It used to be “No pain, no gain.” Now I don’t want to hurt! I had to learn how to properly stretch—I don’t think most people understand how to do that. Tai chi is great exercise as you get older, because it helps with balance and strength. I’m in better shape now than ever.
Spry: What are the keys to maintaining a healthy brain?
JF: You don’t necessarily have to do brain puzzles. It’s really any kind of exercise or activity that uses two parts of the brain. You know who ages really well? Musicians. To play music, you’re using your fingers and your brain. I personally think the notion of work, work, work, then stop working is not healthy. I think “phase retirement” is better. Work less, but always continue to work. You see that a lot with the baby boomers—they want to continue to use their professional skills. I know very few people who are 90 years old who retired at 65 in Florida, play shuffleboard all day and feel fulfilled.
Spry: What do you think of the term “anti-aging”?
JF: I hate that term! I think we should be embracing aging, not fighting it. These are the bonus years. Quality of life improves every year until about age 83. That doesn’t mean you can do everything you used to do, but you have a sense of appreciation. I can honestly say, for me, every year has been better than the last.