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Book Review: 'The Longevity Prescription' by Robert N. Butler

June 5, 2010 |  5:52 pm

Longevity Is 80 the new 50? It is when you compare Americans' average life expectancy today -- about 78 -- with what it was a century ago, when the average American lived to about  50.

In "The Longevity Prescription," Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Butler writes that this three-decade dividend, as he calls it, doesn't have to be lived out in declining health as many assume.

Common ailments such as heart disease, arthritis and lung problems are arriving a full decade later than they did 100 years ago. This suggests that we have it within our power to increase the chances of staying healthy longer, says Butler, founding president of the International Longevity Center and founder of the National Institute of Health's National Institute on Aging. 

Genes play only a small part in longevity, he says -- studies consistently find a link of 5% to 35% between parent and child. He says research clearly shows that a healthy lifestyle can make a big difference in helping people live longer and push back or avoid the onset of chronic illness, lack of mobility and cognitive decline.

Of course, this won't be news to many. There has been a steady flow of research and stories for years suggesting that good health habits can make a difference. What Butler has done in his beautifully written new book is integrate these findings with inspiring stories, clear explanations, compassionate advice and step-by-step strategies to offer an easy-to-follow prescription for a more healthy life.

Yes, most people know they should be getting regular sleep, reducing stress, eating better, exercising more, getting preventive care and nurturing their relationships -- all topics in the book. It's putting these things into practice that can be the hard part. This is where "The Longevity Prescription" is particularly useful.

Want to keep your brain in good working order? He prescribes "cognitive calisthenics": Find an activity that challenges your brain and invest at least 20 minutes a day, five days a week in it, monitoring progress and increasing challenges. His suggestions include turning off the TV, bookmarking a favorite news website, learning a word a day, reading a book or an e-book, learning to play an instrument, memorizing a poem, playing puzzles, pursuing a passion.

He writes that a good marriage at age 50 has been shown to be a better predictor of good health at age 80 than a low cholesterol count. But friendship is priceless as well, he says.

If you need a little primer on enriching or deepening friendships, he suggests first finding three friendships important to you: one healthy and active, one dormant and one broken. Examine all three for lessons good and bad and try to put them in good working order. Then he offers practical suggestions for doing so, among them: Be a listener, think before you speak, practice forgiveness, be positive, try out tolerance, say no when necessary, don't be smothering, be accessible, keep in touch. 

Not rocket science, right? But invaluable advice all the same. Each chapter of Butler's book offers similarly common-sense suggestions and ideas. He starts with a quiz you can take to rate your "longevity index" and ends with a contract to fill out, committing yourself to taking good care of your health.

-- Anne Colby

Photo: "The Longevity Prescription: The 8 Proven Keys to a Long, Healthy Life," Robert N. Butler MD, Avery, $26. 

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