Live Long and Die Fast, 80-Year-Old Doctor Advises
With a title that exhorts readers to die fast, Dr. John H. Bland’s book on growing old scared publishers off at first.
They told him they’d take “Live Long, Die Fast,” only if he gave it a more euphemistic title. But he rebelled against that idea.
“I like it. And I think it describes what it is,” he said.
Eventually Bland found a publisher. Now he hopes his how-to book, the synthesis of a life’s work as a physician, researcher and athlete, will help others rebel against expectations aimed at the elderly and arrive at old age in a condition fit to enjoy it.
Bland is a longtime cross-country ski champion and marathon runner who has published numerous books and essays. Although he retired in 1988 from his job as a medical professor at the University of Vermont, Bland still keeps up a research schedule there.
He and his wife live in a large rural home in Cambridge surrounded by horse pastures, with a soaring view of Mt. Mansfield, Vermont’s highest peak.
Bland is convinced that his energy, drive and good health are the result of a lifetime of good habits. But it’s never too late to start prolonging your life and enhancing your health, he says in “Live Long, Die Fast.”
Too often, Bland said, the elderly fall ill and become disabled physically and intellectually.
“This specter of decrepitude, to live with no awareness of family, friends or the environment, is our worst nightmare,” he wrote in the forward to his book. “Such an end is not a necessary evil--it can be prevented by using all we know about aging.”
The problem is that the elderly are expected to grow decrepit, to withdraw from society, to become inactive, Bland says. But they shouldn’t succumb to those expectations.
“As I entered my sixth and seventh decades, I vehemently rejected all suggestions to act my age,” wrote Bland, who is 80. “At the same time, I began collecting evidence to buttress my own personal revolt against stereotypical aging.”
The book is Bland’s revolt, a systematic dismantling of the beliefs that surround the aging process.
Bland takes aim, for example, at the practice of bed rest, saying it often contributes to ill health instead of curing it.
“Proper bed rest can comfort and heal, but only if it is combined with as much activity and movement as possible, either in or out of bed,” he wrote. “The elderly are especially susceptible to the consequences of immobilization. Too often, they are put to bed for no good reason, sometimes before any problem has actually been diagnosed.”
There’s also retirement, which Bland believes people would do well to avoid.
“Retirement is a curse,” he said. “I look on work as being as important as food, and water, and sex, and job satisfaction, and happiness.”
And there’s sex.
“Contrary to popular opinion, sex after 60 is not the vice of the so-called dirty old man. Nor is it wishful thinking,” Bland wrote in a chapter he calls “Sexuality: It Lasts as Long as You Do.”
Under Bland’s program, aging people would reject society’s expectation that they fade into the background.
“This is how society justifies easing out people it wants to treat as disposable,” Bland wrote. “Wasting 25% of the population doesn’t seem to be in anyone’s best interest--especially since every one of us eventually join the 25%.”
They would stop expecting their mind to deteriorate.
“This is a self-fulfilling prophecy that is almost totally unnecessary,” Bland wrote. “Normally, there is no change in intelligence and very little change in memory, and even this can be easily accommodated.”
And they would look forward to the years ahead.
“A full one-third of those over 65 report their best years ever or that they expect the best is yet to come,” Bland wrote.
Living long and dying fast isn’t all a matter of good luck, good genes or good attitude. Bland also outlines a few time-honored methods for keeping mind and body in shape--things as simple as eating well, drinking lots of water, getting enough sleep and, above all, making exercise a part of daily life.
He also emphasizes nutrition--his book includes a chapter on the importance of drinking water--as well as the importance of stretching.
Bland has been interested in the topic of aging, be it in moss, fruit flies or humans, since his first semester at Earlham College in Indiana back in the 1930s.
A heart attack 19 years ago in the middle of a major cross-country ski race focused his attention even more sharply on his own physical condition, and what he could do to keep in shape.
Meanwhile, Bland doesn’t tip-toe around the fact that death occurs no matter how much fiber one eats and no matter how many brisk walks one takes.
“There are two things I’m sure about: I shall be dead someday--no one wants to say that--and I’m not dead now,” he said.
But while he’s still got life left to him, Bland intends to make sure he does everything he can to avoid the perils of protracted illness.
He spent 10 years working on “Live Long, Die Fast.” The experience changed his outlook about his own death.
“When I embarked on this book, I expected consolation. Like everyone, fear was my predominant emotion connected with death,” he wrote. “Who wants to die? Death is not perceived as a pleasant event.”
That fear is gone.
“What a revitalizing research marathon it has been! I’m not fascinated by my own and everyone else’s process of dying.”
Bland doesn’t dwell on the reasons that people choose shorter, less healthier approaches to aging.
Mainly he just wants to tell as many people as possible that staying alive and healthy doesn’t have to be painful or expensive.
And for the lucky ones who manage it, it’s a lot better than the alternative.