A long and healthful life

At a certain age, almost all conversations turn to diets, disorders, and health matters.  The starting point could be politics, or sports, the economy, or family – it doesn’t matter.  Talk inevitably drifts to the one thing we usually spend a lifetime abusing, and a fortune desperately recovering: health.

For some it starts as early as forty.  But normally, it happens at around fifty, typically in the course of a routine medical check-up.  In my case, it came after a visit to my urologist.  He told me of my unusually high PSA level. He ordered another one done after a few days, and a third one after two weeks, preferably in another hospital. PSA stands for Prostate Specific Antigen, a blood test that indicates if a patient may be at risk for prostate cancer.  I had then just turned 50, and had taken a sabbatical leave from the university and a break from TV hosting in order to accept a visiting professorship at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

My doctor gave me some medicine to ease urination, and told me to drink a lot of water especially while I was traveling.  You should be all right, he assured me.  Yet I distinctly remember a sinking feeling throughout my stay in Mexico.  My father died when he was 60, and I thought that if I inherited his genetic clock I should have at least ten years more of productive life.  Now, suddenly, I felt as if I was staring at the end.

I suppose everyone goes through this midlife rite of denial, acceptance, and resolve.   I became more conscious of what I ate.  I resumed my daily brisk walks.  And I read all the books about prostate cancer that I could lay my hands on.  Friends suggested that I take zinc and an herb called saw palmetto. My sisters in the US sent me bottles of assorted antioxidants and cranberry soft gels.  I don’t know if these supplements were of any use, but my PSA wonderfully stayed at safe levels.  I’ve stopped taking anything else except Vitamin C and virgin coconut oil.  I still drink a lot of water throughout the day, starting with a whole liter first thing in the morning to flush my kidneys.

I’m turning 61 soon, and over the last six years, I have felt well enough to indulge my passion in motorcycles.  On most weekends, I ride with a group of buddies whose average age is in the mid-fifties.  I tell myself that maybe if I lead a reasonably healthful life, I could look forward to riding till I am 75.  I draw inspiration from the oldest in our group, the 76-year-old Pete Cariquitan, who rides a big-bore BMW 1150R.  He says he hopes to ride till he is past 80.

Are some people genetically gifted to live longer?  Or is a long and healthful life within everyone’s reach?  These questions have been answered in a variety of ways through the ages.

“Discourses on the Sober Life” by the Italian writer Luigi Cornaro (1468-1566) is a famous book that deals precisely with these questions.  It was well-circulated in Europe until the 19th century as an authoritative reference on healthful living.  The durable life of its author became the most convincing proof of the validity of its claims. Cornaro lived till he was 98.  I was curious about the prescriptions he made because Nietzsche had used his writing as an example of erroneous thinking.  I recently found Cornaro’s Discourses in the following link: http://www.soilandhealth.org/02/0201hyglibcat/020105cornaro.html

It is a fascinating document, and I think Nietzsche was unduly harsh in his judgment.  Cornaro said the secret to a long and healthful life is quite simple and can be summarized as follows:  To eat and drink only that which agrees with your body, to eat and drink only as much as your stomach can digest with ease, and to avoid extremes of heat and cold and too much fatigue.  Cornaro was a great believer in the control of one’s appetite, and argued that the quantity of food one leaves on the table after eating prolongs one’s life more than what one actually consumes. He said: “Men should live up to the simplicity dictated by nature, which teaches us to be content with little, and accustom ourselves to eat no more than is absolutely necessary to support life, remembering that all excess causes disease and leads to death.”

Nietzsche thought Cornaro had confused consequence with cause. “The worthy Italian gentleman saw in his diet the cause of his long life; whereas the precondition for a long life – extraordinarily slow metabolism, low consumption – was the cause of his meager diet.”  In short, he would have fallen ill if he ate more.  But, Cornaro knew this.

He precisely preached that everyone should listen to one’s body. What agrees with one body may not agree with another.  And indeed, individuals require different quantities of food depending on their bodily constitutions.  As a matter of principle, Cornaro believed that in order to live long and healthy, one must eat and drink below one’s appetite.  What is good to the palate, he said, may not always agree with the stomach.

He himself kept to a strict diet of no more than 12 ounces of solid food (consisting mainly of bread, soup, and egg yolk) and 14 ounces of wine per day.  He immediately fell ill when, on the prodding of his family, he raised his quota by two ounces each of food and wine.  As one gets older, he wrote, one must reduce food intake because the stomach burns less and loses its heat with the passing years.

This 16th century regimen may seem quaint and needlessly austere today, but it is useful to keep it in mind especially during the holidays.


Happy New Year!


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