5 Books that Taught me How to Age Better

Updated to Life on May 4, 2023.

I was in a car the other day with a radiologist and a neurosurgeon talking about hypertension. 

This conversation is actually not as unusual as it might sound. I volunteer for a local society that does trail clearing in a popular hiking and mountain bike park and many of the volunteers happen to be recently retired doctors. 

Back in the car, one of the doctors happened to mention that recently his medical partner, who is in his early 60’s, had a mild stroke. As we wound our way further up the dirt road to our work site my education continued. 

I learned that strokes are the second biggest cause of mortality worldwide and the third most common cause of disability. The scary statistics get worse. As you age your chance of a stroke doubles every 10 years after 55

There’s a checklist of health conditions that make you more susceptible to a stroke, like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. But the biggest culprit – six times out of ten – is hypertension or high blood pressure. In my books, that’s worth paying attention to.

What’s interesting is that stress, in itself, is not the direct cause of high blood pressure. It’s what we do when under stress that leads to nasty results. We eat too much, drink too much, and move too little. Basically, we deal with stress by making unhealthy choices.

For me, stress starts with worry.

Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve had a lot of worries

There is a world of problems you can worry about – take your pick. You can worry that Ukraine will be pummeled into a tiny province of rubble, or that we’ve passed the tipping point with global warming, or the tiny spot on your chin is cancer. 

Or not.

“I’ve had a lot of worries,” quipped Mark Twain “most of which never happened.” Our mind loves a good worry. Like a dog chewing a bone, we want to turn our worry around, looking from all angles, poking and prodding until it swells up into something bigger than it really is.

I used to worry incessantly before every keynote speech. I’d worry I’d miss my flight or wasn’t prepared enough, or I would be greeted by the “audience from hell.” Trust me, when you have 60 minutes to educate, entertain, inspire, motivate, and get laughs from an audience you’ve never met before, any sane person would invent a long list of worries.

It was at one of those events when a fellow speaker opened an exit door for my worries. He suggested that audiences don’t want you to fail – in fact, they want you to succeed. “They want to see you having fun—enjoying yourself. That way,” he explained, “they can enjoy the ride with you.”

When I accepted the long list of what I could never control – my flights, the audience, the speaker before me going overtime – I was free to focus on what I could control.

Enjoying the moment. 

What your life will have been

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells the story of delighting in the preciousness of every single moment.

A woman is running from lions. She runs and she runs, and the lions are getting closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds onto it. Then she looks down and sees that there are lions below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks a the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Learning what to focus on, and what to ignore, seems to be the ultimate secret to living a healthy, stress-free life. “Whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment,” writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks (a must-read for anyone over 50), “is simply what your life will have been.”

So, what are you focussing on?

What to focus on

You can learn a lot when you’re the dumbest one in a car full of doctors. I learned that strokes are a silent pandemic. And that hypertension is the leading cause of that pandemic. And I learned the leading cause of hypertension is stress. 

I was also reminded that stress is a choice.

We all have lions and tigers in our life. Maybe even a mouse or two gnawing away at something we value. Meanwhile, we have the moment.

Choosing what to focus on (and what not to) might just be the healthiest choice you can make.

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Photo of eggs by Nik on Unsplash
Photo of Ngoc Son Temple by author
Photo of tigers by author

What is a normal goal for a young person becomes a neurotic hindrance in old age.” Carl Jung

It was July, we were hiking up to the third floor of my favorite bookstore, Powell’s City of Books in the old Pearl district of Portland. Picture a labyrinth of wall-to-wall books the size of three grocery stores. People are selling books, buying books, and getting lost searching for just the right book. If you love books, you come to Powell’s to get lost.

My partner was brisking skipping up the old wooden staircase, humming to herself. Me, not so much. The day previous I ran my first marathon in over 15 years and was dragging what used to be my legs up one painful step at a time.

“Hi Amanda,” I said, sneaking a peak at her oh-so-Portland hand-colored name badge. “What have you got in aging?” Strange, I thought, I’ve never asked that question before – it felt weird, like saying bespoke or diaspora for the first time.

“Hmmm…” Amanda replied, peering at me like she was counting liver spots. “Do you mean, like, getting old?” Pause. “Yeah, uh, that’s it – getting old,” I replied.

Following Amanda’s directions we negotiated to a narrow rack of books squeezed between a wall of books with Yoga in their titles and a double-wide rack of books on meditation. Aging was obviously not a big seller. And that’s weird.

There are close to eight billion people in the world and we all get older. It doesn’t matter if you start your day with a meal of rice, corn, bread, or Cheerios, or practice intermittent fasting – we all age. Given the 100% participation, I would have guessed that authors were throwing themselves at the genre. I think that’s about to change.

Here are my favorite books on aging I read last year (Amanda found some of them.)

Ikigai – the Japanese secret to a long and happy life by Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles

If you read Dan Buettner’s Blue Zones, documenting the world’s longest-living populations, Ikigai (Ikigai means the reason we get up in the morning) is required reading. Garcia and Miralles introduce you to the traditional lifestyle of Okinawa (one of the five Blue Zones) while blending in the wisdom of Frankl, Einstein, Csikszentmihalyi, Hemingway, Buddha, and the Stoics. I reread Ikigai every year, just because it makes me feel better knowing that some things never change. As the Okinawan centenarians are fond of saying, ichi-go, ichi-e (this moment exists only now and won’t come again.)

Younger Next Year – live strong, fit, and sexy-until you’re 80 and beyond by Chris Crowley and Henry Lodge, MD

This is a great primer for anyone aspiring to keep their golf game longer or hit the slopes with their grandkids. If YNY was a novel, the plot would be to adopt a use-it-or-lose-it attitude with daily activity and avoid the lazy-boy life that leads to physical and mental deterioration. Crowley’s father-like advice “have a diet of good stimuli: exercise, decent sleep, rational diet, love, and play” is matched chapter-by-chapter with Lodge’s more research-based tone “It turns out, that 70% of American aging is not real aging. It’s just decay. It’s rot from the stuff that we do.”

Four Thousand Weeks – time management for mortals by Oliver Burkeman

“Your experience of life,” writes Burkeman in his brilliantly meditative book Four thousand weeks (the title refers to our average life span) “is nothing more than the sum of everything to which you pay attention.” For a productivity junkie like me, this was a refreshingly original approach to time management that promotes leisure “Idleness isn’t merely forgivable, it’s practically an obligation.”, avoidance strategies, and what Burkeman coined as “sober joy.” Five stars.

From Strength to Strength – finding success, happiness, and deep purpose in the second half of life by Arthur C. Brooks

Strength to Strength is about aging, death, reinvention, purpose, and how to avoid, what Brooks calls the ‘striver’s curse’ – a denial response to the inevitable decline life delivers.  “Death is the most normal, natural thing in life,” writes Brooks, “and yet we are amazingly adroit at acting as if it were abnormal and a BIG SURPRISE.” Brooks blends research (his day job is as a professor at Harvard) with Eastern beliefs (he refers to the Dali Lama as a friend), musical history, theology, and contemporary news and trends. Recently I gave this a second read and was glad I did. This is a good companion read to hotelier-turned-mentor Chip Conley’s Wisdom at Work.

Lifespan – why we age-and why we don’t have to by David Sinclair and Matthrew LaPlante

Lifespan – why we age-and why we don’t have to by David Sinclair and Matthrew LaPlante

Sinclair is a bona fide genius, serial entrepreneur, and more recently, darling of the anti-aging research movement. He’s also adamant that ‘aging’ is a disease and should be treated as one. “Effective longevity drugs would cost pennies on the dollar,” he writes, “compared to the cost of treating diseases they could prevent.” This is a very readable introduction to the science of aging (why it happens) and emerging research on how to slow it down. A very accessible and entertaining primer is the free eight-episode podcast series (by the same name) Sinclair and his co-author LaPlante (who does a brilliant job of deciphering Sinclair’s scientific jargon) released three years after writing the book.

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