David Suzuki: Caring for our bodies & minds is the key to aging well

No drugs can replace exercise, says David Suzuki. Photo: Courtesy, The Nature of Things

When Canadians think of the environment and nature, one name is most associated with efforts to appreciate, protect, and enhance our most precious resources, that of academic, writer/broadcaster, author, and climate-change activist David Suzuki.

Best-known as the host for the past 40 years of CBC Television’s The Nature of Things, Suzuki himself, now 83, was the focus of a recent show, Aging Well Suzuki Style, which aired Feb. 28 and may be viewed on CBC Gem Streaming Service.

It is about his own aging process and we follow the host as he undergoes tests and interviews experts on ways to stay vigorous and healthy. He is, of course, active intellectually and physically and we see him in action – even building a tree house for his grandchildren.

We caught up with Dr. Suzuki – his Ph.D. is in zoology and he’s taught genetics at University of British Columbia for almost 40 years – last month in Vancouver. He had just come from a press conference where he spoke out in support of those opposed to the Coastal GasLink pipeline project that crosses the traditional territory of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation near Houston, B.C.

On this issue, and in discussions on healthy aging, Suzuki speaks with the wisdom of a scientist and scholar for whom life in the ivory tower was never sufficient. His commitment to popular education has made him a pioneer in developing a better understanding of our changing physical environment.

Suzuki has never been complacent, and, he warns, urgent action is more necessary than ever to safeguard our environment.

“We can’t go on the way we’re going – It’s not just about Indigenous issues, it’s about the way that we’re living on the planet. The government is making promises but doing nothing. It’s not just about blocking pipelines, it’s about trying to live traditionally on the land.”

The segment on aging was proposed by his producers as a way to look at the emerging science of healthful aging.

For example, scientists have determined you can extend the life of fruit flies by fifty-percent, but, as Suzuki says, “Do we just want to extend 50 more years of crappy life? That’s just a misdirection of our time.”

The aim is to age well, Suzuki emphasizes, and the show’s narrative validates what many of us know: For example, to reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s, stroke, heart disease, or diabetes, regular exercise is essential.

“We’ve evolved into a society in which everything is made convenient, so you don’t have to move anymore,” Suzuki says. “No drugs or combination of drugs can reduce your risk of these various diseases like exercise, which reduces your risk by 30 to 40 percent.”

Walking is an effective form of exercise, and the film explores seniors who are taking up more sophisticated forms of activity. Seniors stay in shape by practicing karate, dancing, long-distance cycling, or learning new skills, such as one man who takes up the saxophone in his 70s.

Brushing and flossing your teeth can help sustain vibrancy and overall health, the show asserts. Apart from maintaining dental hygiene, brushing and flossing means less harmful bacteria end up in your gut, Suzuki notes.

As for his own health, Suzuki says he’s in good shape but there are emerging issues. In one segment he learns he may soon need a hearing aid – a reminder that seniors should get examined for hearing loss.

“I ruined my hearing when I worked in construction for eight years – We never wore ear protectors back then.”

“I have skeletal problems with arthritis, but it hasn’t slowed me down.”

In our interview, Suzuki says he works out at the gym three to five times a week. He uses a cross trainer, to exercise arms and legs.  “I try to work out 30 to 40 minutes and burn over 400 calories, and get my heart rate up to 120 to 135. I also ride a bike and lift mild weights.”

Still, he learns in the film that he has some belly fat to get rid of, but is proud that he’s at his high-school weight of about 166 pounds. A segment on diet with a nutritionist did not make the final cut, but is included on the program’s website.

“It’s clear we have to stay away from sugar and bread. We are eating too much salt, and we have to stay much closer to a high-vegetable diet, and fruit,” he noted.

“Life really becomes meaningful when you have a role or purpose in society such as taking part in a social club or dance club,” Suzuki says.

Participating in the life of grandchildren is especially meaningful, as Suzuki has learned in his relationship with his own grandchildren.

Suzuki says, “The biggest challenge for seniors is to be involved in something that matters to them. We’ve moved so far away from the extended family. My wife’s Mum and Dad lived with us for 35 years, and my own parents lived less than a mile away, and so my children had grandma and granddad from both sides of the family all their lives.”

“We’ve become so mobile that we no longer live near our grandparents. That’s a big challenge.”

In the film, a revealing segment examines his tears. “There are living cells covering the eyeball, but they have to be fed, which we do by our tears. I have the tears of a young person, in terms of their makeup, and when they looked at a 25-year old woman, hers were the tears of a 40-something person.”

The scientist who did the analysis says it’s likely due to excessive screen time.

“We’re looking at computer and television screens more and more, and to feed your eye you have to blink, and blink fully, and that coats the eye with a tear. When you look at a screen, you don’t blink as often, and when we do, we’re not completely covering the eye with our blinks.”

Finally, being involved in an Internet community, such as Facebook, is no substitute for direct human contact.

“A community is where you engage with human beings, and you can watch their faces, and their movements and see how they’re feeling.

“The computer alienates us further and further. Yes, it makes more entertainment accessible. My father, who was bed-ridden with cancer, would have loved You Tube.

“But the technology is so pervasive, it’s replacing all of the ways in which we came into contact with people. The computer itself is eliminating the human interactions that are the most meaningful things in our lives.”

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