What brings longevity? – UPDATED

Modern medicine is miraculous. The placement of a stent to hold open a narrowed tube…and things quickly get rosier. I thank you for your prayers, yesterday. When a man is 75 years old, everything can look scary very quickly. Pop is looking better; things look much better, all around, after a frightening few hours.

It’s funny, both of my in-law’s fathers died in their 40′s, of heart ailments – and that was back when folks walked everywhere and worked hard at physical labor, and foods were essentially natural and free of all the add-ins and preservatives. I agree that we all should probably exercise more and eat more whole, unprocessed food, but there has to be more to longevity than just that.

My in-laws are in their 70′s. They have always lived pretty “healthful” lives, by society’s standards. Marlon Brando died at 80, Orson Welles at 75. Ted Kennedy is 75. Winston Churchill lived to be almost 90, and all of these men did it all wrong. They smoked, they drank, they ate what they liked. They mixed it up with their fellows.

There’s got to be more to longevity than eating a bowl of oatmeal, taking a walk and avoiding the hamburger. That “mixing-it-up” and staying engaged has got to be part of it.

Some of it is luck, obviously, but I think a hardy spirit plays into it, too. I think to some extent you really have to want to keep going. My MIL is 70, and she’s slowing down, but she can still run rings around me and my friends when she wants to – and most days she wants to. She’d rather go shopping – and come home empty-handed – than sit before a television set or a computer screen. She goes to daily mass, she walks the dog, she babysits the grandkids whenever she’s asked, and in the meantime she’s cleaning and cooking (let anyone in the neighborhood suffer so much as a sniffle or a twisted ankle and they’re being treated to her incredible food), remembering every birthday – the woman is fully engaged in life (and her life has not been without suffering; what life is?); she grasps life everyday and gives it a great big hug. Her life force is at least as strong and purposeful as Churchill’s. She gets up everyday to meet her moment.

When Buster first left for school, there was an inconsolable week before I started liking the empty nest. In those first days I took a walk through the grounds of a convent and ran into a semi-cloistered nun I have known for years; Sr. A used to give me spiritual direction. She was ancient then. Now she is more ancient – she must be nearing 100 years old – and yet she was walking the same wooded path as I, and not much more slowly. A brief chat told me she was still completely in her wits. She was returning from a visit to the community cemetery and informed me of a sister who had died recently, of cancer, “so young, only 71,” she said.

I was surprised to hear it, and also to learn that the sister had been in her seventies. The last time I’d seen her I would have told you she was 55. I said as much to Sister Alice. “Well, we live simple lives, with simple food and lots of fresh air, and not many of the stresses you deal with in ordinary life, so age does not hang so hard on us.” she said, “We mostly ignore the popular culture. For our entertainment we talk to each other or we do puzzles, and these keep the mind sharp, and of course, we pray. Prayer keeps the mind clear. It also helps to keep the soul uncluttered, and the spirit focused and rested.”

“So, that’s what keeps you going,” I teased, “no husbands to ask you where the thing they lost is, no kids to scream at you, no news blaring at you, and Mass and prayer.”

“Community life is not without it’s stresses,”
she said, rubbing her eyes which remain a startling blue. “I’ve lived with hundreds of sisters, and not all of them were always lovable. Nor was I always lovable. But that sort of stress is transient and can only possess you as much as you possess it. Whether you feel stress because of your child or I feel stress because of a sister, we can let it go – so little of it is really in our hands, anyway. The rest of the ‘blaring news’ as you call it is just noise. And what is new with you?”

Sr. Alice has known me since I first walked the convent grounds pregnant with my Elder Son and missing my husband, who was away. She listened delightedly as I related both my sons’ recent triumphs and small defeats and was stunned to realize that Buster was now in college. Then she said, “I asked what was new with you, and you told me about your sons and your husband. Now that the nest is empty, what is new with you?”

“Well,” I shrugged, “I’m walking in the woods every day, and I’m praying a bit more than I had been. That’s about all.”

She patted my arm, “it’s a start,” she said. “Get busy with something. And keep praying.”

We parted ways – she headed back in to the house, I went to the cemetery, found a bench and studied the headstones. So many of these sisters had lived far into their 90′s – living the life Sr. Alice had described, a life of “simple food and fresh air,” the simple entertainments of puzzles and other people. And daily mass. And daily prayer – prayer to open the morning and close the evening, prayer to right the course throughout the meandering day.

My in-laws also live simple lives – chores, good food, good friends and prayer. Maybe it really is as simple as that.

Read about another nun’s long interesting life, here.

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • http://www.comeaway.blogspot.com AngloCathJoi

    When my dad visited me recently, we went to go meet his…*thinks for a second* second cousin? I think that’s right. Anway, she is 93 years old: she met us at the door, and walked us back to her living quarters (she’s in a senior living community), and proceeded to entertain us for over an hour with her humor, laughter, and wonderful family stories. She goes to church every week, and her Bible is obviously in constant use. She goes out to dinner at least once a week, and often has friends over. She cared for her husband for 6 years before he died (she was in her 80′s at the time!), and said that it was nothing; she loved him so much that it wasn’t any trouble at all.

    She must be doing something right!

  • http://jscafenette.com Jeanette

    Prayer does a lot of things, A, as you well know. Walking with God is such a beautiful blessing He has bestowed on us if we are believers. I can’t imagine life without God being the central part of it, even though I’m still so human I constantly fail Him.

    I’m so happy to hear your FIL is doing better and pray for his complete recovery. Everything according to God’s Will. It was His Will that your FIL get better. :)

  • Gayle Miller

    God bless and keep you, dear friend. And thank you for the spiritual nourishment I find so often at your site.

  • cathyf

    and foods were essentially natural and free of all the add-ins and preservatives.

    Not true, actually. Our education teaches us (quite wrongly) that everything was “natural” and “unprocessed” in some past utopia. In fact, before modern refrigeration, food came in 3 forms:

    1) Local, seasonal, fresh food. In other words, during the depth of winter, it was pretty grim. (Ask the Donner Party…)

    2) Food preserved by smoking (which is carcinogenic) and/or salt (which causes high blood pressure and eventually heart disease) and/or sugar (empty calories). Up to about 50 years ago, stomach cancer from eating preserved meats was in the top 3 cancers in the US; now it’s way down the list.

    3) Indestructible food like rice, beans, potatoes, bread. Not bad for you, but missing some important nutrients. (Google for ricketts and scurvey.)

    Your meal from frozen chicken, frozen vegetables, salad fixings flown in from the other side of the continent, fruit from a different continent — even if it’s not “organic” or “free range”, it’s still way healthier than the ham or saltback or bacon, and the canned fruits and vegetables.

    Rejoice for your refrigerator and your freezer, and for refrigerated and frozen trucks and train cars, and for those farmers in South America, and for the airplanes which fly fresh produce to us. Rejoice for pasturized, homogenized, vitamin A&D added fresh milk, kept refrigerated and free of bacteria all the way from farm to your table.

  • Nell

    Thanks for the lovely post and for sharing Sister Alice with us. I’ve been feeling a bit sorry for myself lately — just the reminder I needed about what makes for a good life.

  • mrp

    The Ressurection Mass for Jane Wyman (who was reported to be aged 90 or 93, depending on the news service), was on Wednesday. From the Desert Sun article covering the event:

    But Wyman was interred in a modest wooden casket in a Third Order Dominican habit. She was set to be entombed at Forest Lawn Mausoleum in Cathedral City.

    Wyman won an Oscar and Golden Globes and was nominated for two Emmys, but her friend Mary Farrell said her proudest achievement was being named to the Dominican Third Order, a Catholic fellowship of preachers and nuns said to “live in, but are not of the world.”

    So, there you go …

  • http://optimistmom.blogspot.com/ Ruth Anne

    …but I think a hardy spirit plays into it, too.


  • http://optimistmom.blogspot.com/ Ruth Anne

    D’oh! I meant “Irish whiskey”!

  • TheAnchoress

    Heh. Could be. Or a nice Guinness.

  • Mommynator

    I’ve often thought that our lack of thankfulness has given us more problems than our “bad” eating and/or drinking habits. The common denominator seems to be a vital relationship with God, which the good Sister pointed out. She sounds like an amazing person, someone I’d love to spend time with.

    My father-in-law is 84 years old. He is a retired Baptist minister. He still conducts two Bible studies, occasionally supplies a church whose pastor is either gone or on vacation, meets his siblings a couple times a month for lunch to talk over old times, still drives responsibly, mows his two acres of lawn (lawn tractor), still splits his own wood, and tends to a vegetable garden that is about half an acre. He also cans and freezes said veggies.

    He has lived simply and moderately. Unfortunately, my mother-in-law died in 1993 at age 70 from ovarian cancer, probably because she was exposed to asbestos during WWII while working as a Rosie the Riveter in the Bath Iron Works in Bath, Maine.

    Their parents also lived into their 80s and 90s. Same kind of life, same results except for one grandpa who loved his cigar and nightly glass of whiskey.

    I’ve met men in Greece on the island where my grandmother was born and raised who grew their own tobacco, dried and smoked it, and still ran up and down the mountains well into their advanced years without losing their breath.

    I think there is more to this than we know.

    And I think it is also partly God’s plan to know when we are ready to go.

  • Piano Girl

    Oh, I’m so relieved to hear the good news about your father-in-law. Haven’t been able to post, but all of you have been in my thoughts and prayers! Your mother-in-law sounds wonderful, and just what I want to be a few years down the road. As Gayle said, your posts so often bring just the spiritual nourishment I need that day.

  • http://sailorette.blogspot.com/ Foxfier

    My dad went in for his 50 year exam.

    The doctor called him a liar, because from the exam he *couldn’t* be more than 40.

    My dad chewed from when he was in the army to when the price of a tin went up to 50c each, he drinks beer most every day, hard mixed drinks about weekly.
    He’s worked on ranches every year since I was 16, other than two years in Germany (Army, Vietnam draft) and the two years of college he got after that. (Yes, many ranchers have AA degrees. My mom has a BS.)
    He started getting stiff at 53 or so, and mom got him a monthly visit with a local massage therapist. (TWO PHDs, and this lady sets up shop in the middle of nowhere.)
    He’s been sick once in my memory, and twice since he married mom.
    Eats meat with nearly every meal, has bacon and eggs most every morning, and BBQs a very nice, big steak. Pork chops and baked potatoes— generally just with butter and salt– are also very popular.

    So far as the salt comment further up goes, when I was about five my mom listened to the doctors and started cutting down on salt. Dad nearly died, literally, because of electrolyte imbalance– so the doctors told mom to have him take salt pills. She hasn’t listened to those folks since. ;^p (Research indicates that too much salt isn’t good for you if you already have high blood pressure– no link to actually *causing* high blood pressure.)

  • Peregrine John

    ‘Tis a gift to be simple.
    ‘Tis a gift to be free.
    ‘Tis a gift to come down where you ought to be.

  • JMC

    I am in full agreement that one’s relationship with God plays a large part in health and longevity.

    When I was in my mid-30′s (about 20 years ago now), I noticed that most men my age looked “used up.” It was the only way I could describe it. They all looked like they were about 10-15 years older than they really were. I suspected the reason (I was in the military at the time, and my peers were solidly in the “sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll” camp), but I had never voiced it, because I had no real proof.

    I have that proof now, at least as far as I’m concerned. For the past 15 years, I’ve been a member of a good Catholic parish, one that’s not afraid to be traditional in its following of Vatican II’s norms. Go to a Novus Ordo Mass here, and you’ll see how holy such a Mass can be.

    My point is, the vast majority of the married people in this parish are strictly faithful to their spouses, and, without exception, every single one of them, men and women alike, look at least 10-15 years younger than they actually are. In many cases, it’s even more than that. I was shocked to learn that one of my fellow choristers, whom I have long guessed to be in his late 40s or early 50s, is actually close to 70; another gentleman of the parish looks like he’s in his early 40s, not a single wrinkle, not a gray hair on his head, and yet he’s close to 60. His wife, the same age as he, looks no older than 30.

    Ah, the legacy of the Sexual Revolution. Poor health and early aging, and the resultant frantic attempts to tweak diet and lifestyle to reverse it – without ever addressing the one element of lifestyle that’s probably causing a good deal of the trouble. Deny it as they will, there is a deep-seated unconscious, or even subconcious, guilt based on their (also subconscious) knowledge of the Natural Law, and it’s eating away at them. That sort of subconscious stress can do more damage to one’s health than any other factor.

    Years ago, when people retained their health and vigor to advanced ages and were asked their secrets, most of them answered, “clean living,” to the point that it has become a cliche joke in our society.

    Only it’s no joke. I fully believe that it was indeed their secret. It needs to be ours, as well.