Say you stop eating bacon and start taking the stairs. You give up Marlboros, ride your bike to work and do everything right. How long could you possibly live?
“You could reach 120,” said Dr. Walter M. Bortz, an author and Stanford University medical professor who spoke Monday at a workshop on aging in Spokane.
“We are the first generation in the history of the human race that knows what a whole life can look like,” Bortz said.
In past generations, people rarely died of old age. If they made it through the maze of genetic disorders, they still had to worry about what Bortz called “lightning” - infections, tumors, wars and accidents that killed people before their time.
Early in this century, eight of 10 people died of violence or some disease they had no control over, such as smallpox, meningitis and tuberculosis, Bortz said. “American medicine has been responding to ‘lightning’ ever since. That’s the way our system is geared.”
Now, many of the “lightning” diseases can be prevented or cured, Bortz said, and the medical community should turn its attention to the other big cause of death.
People are more in control of their own longevity than at any time in the past. Knock out stress, inactivity and poor diet, Bortz said, and the average life span could shoot up 30 years to 100 for men and 103 for women.
“Our entire health-care policy debate is a charade,” said Bortz. “Instead of arguing about who is going to pay, we should be arguing about what we’re going to provide. … Instead, we’re still responding to lightning.”
Bortz spoke on the first day of Quality of Life for Our Elders, a two-day conference sponsored by Washington State University’s Spokane branch campus.
Other speakers are talking about nutrition, wellness, mental health and spiritual awareness.
Bortz gave a sort of longevity pep talk. He is the author of “We Live Too Short and Die Too Long” and is past president of the American Geriatric Society.
He said the oldest known person in history was a Japanese man who died last year at 121. A 121-year-old French woman will take over the record on Nov. 11, Bortz said.
Old age always has fascinated, from the biblical story of 969-yearold Methuselah to a hoax a few years ago about a 183-year-old Russian.
For themselves, people always have believed longevity was passed on by their grandparents, that it was out of their control, that it was their destiny.
“It just ain’t true. The old saying - that if you want to live a long time you should choose old grandparents - doesn’t hold up,” Bortz said.
While genetics do play a part, he said, it is only one part. More important is how well people take care of themselves.
People who turn 30 will deteriorate about one-half of 1 percent each year, Bortz said. A lazy, sloppy lifestyle can make that 2, 3 or even 5 percent each year.
When people get down to about 20 percent of their strength, immunity and fitness, Bortz said, they die.
He acknowledged that he is trying to convince people to look at living and dying differently.
“Everyone is taken now with the right to die,” he said. “What I’m more interested in is our responsibility to live.”