When Cameron Diaz turned 39, the questions she fielded from journalists started to change. “As an actress,” they asked, “are you scared to turn 40?” The Longevity Book is her answer: a comprehensive, intensively researched, highly empathetic achievement that celebrates aging instead of retreating from it. Instead of asking “How can I stop getting older?” or “How can I look younger?” Diaz and cowriter Sandra Bark ask “How can I age with strength, knowledge, and happiness?”
How can you take charge of your own aging? Here are six of my favorite takeaways from this illuminating, inspiring new book.
1. Aging is a privilege
The average life span for a woman in 1850 was 40 years. Over the past two centuries, we’ve pushed back diseases like smallpox (which once killed around 400,000 people a year in England alone), made astounding medical breakthroughs in combating infections, lowered childbirth mortality rates, begun to understand heart disease (the number one cause of death for both women and men), and even reduced our smoking habits. Advances like these have doubled our expected lifespans, meaning that instead of complaining we’ll never see 21 again, we should be thrilled beyond belief that we might see 80.
2. Gender matters
Women age differently from men: we process medications differently, we experience heart disease differently, we even tend to take care of ourselves differently (women are more likely to go to the doctor and less likely to smoke). Despite these facts, medical research has only just started to accept the idea that gender might matter—for decades, studies focused exclusively on male cells and research subjects, assuming incorrectly that the data was transferable. Fortunately, this has begun to change, thanks to pioneering researchers and activists, but it’s a good reminder that women’s health research also has a social and political aspect.
3. Take charge of your own health
Taking charge of your own health and aging process is one of the unifying themes of The Longevity Book. Have a question about your health? Ask your doctor. Don’t feel comfortable asking your doctor questions? Either get comfortable, or get a new doctor. Don’t understand the science of aging? Get educated. Feeling sluggish? Start getting stronger. It’s your life. Don’t be a passenger in it; take the wheel.
4. Nutrition + Movement + Sleep = The Trifecta of Strength
When coauthor Brand asked Dr. Luigi Ferrucci, the chief of Longitudinal Studies at the National Institute of Aging and the person in charge of the longest-running aging study in the country, what he did to manage his own aging, his answer was simple: he goes on a run every morning, he eats well, and he tries not to get angry. This sort of answer repeats throughout the book—aging well doesn’t require complicated formulas and stressful management; a lot of it is just doing what makes our bodies feel good anyway. The most important factors are good nutrition, lots of exercise, and getting enough sleep (at least seven hours a night). You need to be doing well on all three counts to see the best results.
Also important? Managing your stress. It can turn your hair gray, make your immune system go haywire, cause chronic inflammation, increase your belly fat (just from the Cheetos I stress eat? Unclear.), and a lot more. The good news is, the things you can do to manage your stress are a lot more pleasant than the stress itself: Diaz and Brand recommend going on a walk, meditating, doing yoga, getting a massage, enjoying aromatherapy, and laughing. Honestly, even reading that list makes me breathe a little deeper.
6. Laugh, live, love
In study after study, happiness, community, and social connection are tied to longer, better lives. In one, women who reported that they had positive connections and a purpose in life exhibited lower inflammatory markers than those who didn’t; in another, people who were more socially isolated experienced higher risks of heart problems, high blood pressure, inflammation, and more. This doesn’t mean you have to be a social butterfly, just that supportive friends and family matter. Happiness and positive outlook can also help you live longer: for example, people who have a positive attitude about aging tend to live about 7.5 years longer.
In perhaps the most hopeful graph of the entire book, Diaz and Brand note that the happiest people, worldwide, are between 82 and 85 years old. If that’s not a worthwhile goal, then I don’t know what is.