By Dr. Victor S. Sierpina

The noted heart surgeon Christiaan Barnard once said that our goal in life should be “to die young, as late as possible.”

These words of wisdom suggest that we need to tend to those things that keep us young functionally, mind, body and spirit. As we ascend in age, our goal should be to postpone as long as we can the depredations of unhealthy aging, premature disease and loss of function.

At a recent national conference for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes, a nationwide organization including an OLLI here in Galveston that is dedicated to promoting healthy aging, I heard a terrific and highly practical presentation.

The keynote speaker was a friend of mine, Dr. Margaret Chesney, head of the University of California in San Francisco’s Osher Integrative Medicine Center and also former head of the National Institutes of Health National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

Dr. Chesney shared data that showed the answer to four simple questions can largely determine how healthy your lifestyle is.

The four questions were:
1. Are you a nonsmoker?
2. Is your Body Mass Index (BMI) less than 30?
3. Do you engage in mild or moderate physical activity at least 21⁄2 hours per week?
4. Do you eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily?

These turn out to be highly predictive of how likely you are to suffer early morbidity and mortality from diabetes, cancer, heart disease, dementia and other health problems.

It turns out that answering yes to even one of these substantially lowers overall health risk and promotes healthy aging. Surprisingly only 3 percent of Americans and 10 percent of Europeans answered yes to all four, which conferred the lowest risk of disease and greatest health benefits.

This differential between Europe and the U.S. is mainly because of the higher incidence of obesity in our country.

Do you know your BMI? Figure it by plugging in your height and weight into the calculator at www.mayoclinic.org/bmi-calculator/itt-20084938. Or just Google BMI calculator and you will find a variety of tools. Remember, less than 30 is healthier than more than 30, which is considered obese.

The seven steps for good health, if followed regularly, practically guarantee a healthier lifestyle and more productive, positive aging. These are:

1. Maintain a healthy weight.
This involves portion size, realizing that since food is nearly always available in our society, we need to restrict our primeval cave-man urges to eat as much of it as possible in case there won’t be more food tomorrow. This worked for the cave man because periods of feast and famine plus constant movement kept our primitive ancestors lean and mean, though they often died of natural causes and diseases that we survive today.

2. Exercise at least 150 minutes a week.
Though this doesn’t sound like much, less than half of those surveyed reported making even this amount of exercise. It is surprising to look at disease morbidity curves to see how much benefit this amount of exercise weekly can confer. While less is a problem, more isn’t really that comparatively beneficial. Some simple strategies are to get a pedometer and gradually increase the number of steps you take on a daily and weekly basis; park further away from your work or destination; take the stairs, get off the bus or train a stop early and walk the rest of the way.

3. Stay active mentally.
Try to learn something new every day. Find stimulating and ongoing activities to study and learn. Take a class. Go to the OLLI. Maybe going to college or doing a study tour would be fun. It has been shown our brains are highly plastic and even as we age, we can make new neural connections and improve our memory and cognitive skills.

I will explore the other four keys to health next week. But for those of you who can’t wait, you can look up the health benefits of adequate sleep, reducing inflammation — including flossing your teeth — staying socially connected and outsmarting stress.

In the meantime, answer those four questions honestly and get moving on whatever you are ready to change. The simplest things are often the best for us.

Dr. Victor S. Sierpina is the WD and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine and Professor of Family Medicine at UTMB.