When Jaring Timmerman of Winnipeg started swimming competitively, he was 80. That was two decades ago. Last month, Timmerman, who celebrated his centennial on Feb. 11, participated in the Manitoba Masters swim championship. “I was in the 100 to 104 age group,” he says. “There was no one else competing with me. But I was satisfied because I was competing against the world times.” The result? Timmerman broke the record in each of the three events he swam: the 50- and 100-m freestyle, and the 50-m backstroke. Timmerman, who doesn’t drink or smoke, and trains every day of the week except Sunday, says the secret to a long, healthy life is simple. “I call it ‘GEDS.’ Genes, exercise, diet and maintaining a good spirit,” he quips. “It works beautifully.”
Suffice to say, Timmerman isn’t typical. Most of us don’t exercise enough, eat too much and our spirits are all too often spoiled by unsatisfying work or frustrating personal relationships. And it’s showing. Since last May, more than 10,400 people visited macleans.ca/howhealthy and took the Q-GAP test (anonymously, if they preferred), which was created by Toronto’s Scienta Health, a leader in tailored preventative health care services for individuals and organizations. The Q-GAP test, which helps people gauge their mental and physical well-being, is posted on our website again for people who haven’t yet tried it, or for those who want to see how they’re doing one year later. Even if you haven’t taken the test, learning about symptoms is important because they affect our quality of life and longevity. Likely all of us have experienced many of the top 10 symptoms reported: bloating and gas, fatigue, difficulty losing weight, low stamina, insufficient sleep, cravings, congestion, headaches, muscle aches and joint pain, and dry, itchy skin.
As minor as these symptoms may sound, Dr. Elaine Chin, co-founder and chief medical officer of Scienta, believes that taking them seriously is critical to stopping more severe conditions from developing. Chin, who is a pioneer in using advanced diagnostic techniques for health screening and disease prevention, says that in our everyday busyness, seemingly insignificant problems usually go unattended. “If you’ve got symptoms, you ignore them. You procrastinate” getting help or making changes, explains Chin. “You say, ‘I can’t deal with that now. I’ve got bigger issues. It will have to wait.’ ”
Time’s up. With this, our fifth “How heathy are you?” series, comes an opportunity to evaluate how your body and mind are managing with daily stress. The Q-GAP test, which provides reliable, relevant insights into each individual’s current and potential health problems, probes for the presence, frequency and intensity of approximately 100 symptoms of disease or discomfort. By identifying what symptoms you’re experiencing, you can begin figuring out how to remedy them. Within this package there are additional stories on obesity, headaches and itching, plus quizzes to help you determine and assess the severity of any symptoms.
The goal, of course, is to thrive like Timmerman for decade upon decade, rather than just surviving. For Timmerman, who will compete at the national Masters Swimming Championship in mid-May, his age, however impressive, is secondary to how old he feels. And “frankly,” he says, “I don’t feel old at all.”
Usually, discussions about our own health refer to physical ailments—a sore back or nagging cough. So it was stunning after the latest Q-GAP results were compiled to discover that psychosocial symptoms were the most common problems reported. (Previously, they weren’t even in the top five.) These participants said they lacked a sense of purpose in their professional life, and felt unhappy or frustrated with family members, a spouse or partner. For both men and women, and across almost every age group—from under 25 to 64—psychosocial symptoms ranked among the three biggest issues. What’s more, emotional symptoms (which were the number one problem the last time we gathered Q-GAP data), including feelings of sadness, frustration, and difficulty sleeping, were in the top three issues for women younger than 46, and men under age 56.
For Karen Seward, this sounds familiar. She works as senior vice-president of business development at Shepell-fgi, which provides health services, including counselling, and legal and financial advice to employees of Canadian corporations. Seward says that the majority of calls to Shepell are about marital troubles and emotional distress. During bleak economic times the number of calls spike. In fact, over the past three months, Shepell has seen a 15 per cent increase in calls about “relationship issues,” says Seward. “That summer vacation where you rented a cottage on the lake might not be doable this year, which puts stress and strain on a marriage,” she says. “Or one of the partners has already lost their job and is not feeling valued or contributing as much.”
Dr. Elaine Chin says she always asks her patients two questions to determine what might be contributing to their symptoms: Are you happy at work? Are you happy at home? “And if it’s not one, it’s the other, and in many cases it’s both,” she says. Chin believes there is a direct link between our ability to cope with pressures in these areas of our lives and our commitment to caring for ourselves. It’s noteworthy that 61 per cent of people who took the Q-GAP since last May were under age 45, which suggests these are young professionals, probably with a growing family, and a slew of practical challenges and worries. “Just when people are under stress, they start to cut back on the way they eat, sleep, exercise,” says Chin, “but actually, that’s when you need to step it up.”
Rounding out the top five issues among participants were hair and skin symptoms (dry, itchy or oily skin, acne, rashes, hives or redness); musculoskeletal (joint pain or stiffness, muscle aches, back spasms); and gastrointestinal symptoms (bloating, gas, difficulty losing weight, cravings, indigestion, heartburn or acid reflux). Add fatigue, irritability and low libido to the already long list of common symptoms identified by participants, and there’s no doubt, says Chin, “the intense pressures on individuals in their personal and work life impacts their health.”
Centenarians like Timmerman and their commitment to good diet and exercise provide us with valuable lessons, but when it comes to longevity, studying the genes of long-lived people will be just as important—if not more so. Researchers are trying to figure out what sorts of changes occur at the cellular level as people age, says Dr. Gabrielle Boulianne, a neurobiologist at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, who studies longevity. “We know that these individuals carry genes that protect them from the things that kill the rest of us,” adds Dr. Jay Olshansky, a professor at the University of Chicago, who also studies lifespan. These genes may produce different proteins or turn processes on or off. By identifying those genes and then mimicking them, “we might be able to confer that advantage onto the rest of us,” he says.
The key to making that happen will be drugs. Already there is promising work being done, especially in the United States, on the development of a pill that would slow down the aging process by causing our bodies to mimic those genetic changes. Once puberty is over, scientists suggest, people could start taking this drug daily, like a multivitamin. In a 2006 essay in The Scientist, Olshansky and colleagues posit that this drug could delay aging and related diseases by seven years. In the future, a 50-year-old person would have the health profile and risks of someone aged 43 today, he suggests. It may sound far-fetched, but Olshansky believes that within our lifespan, “You and I will be taking it.”
Then again, he’s a betting man. Back in 2000, Olshansky and Dr. Steven Austad, a longevity expert and a professor at the University of Texas, sunk $150 each into an investment account after Austad said that he believed the first human to live to 150 was alive at the time. Olshansky disagreed. Come the year 2150, if a centenarian-and-a-half is alive and lucid, Austad’s descendants will reap the monetary rewards—which the scientists have calculated will be worth half a billion dollars. If not, Olshansky’s relatives will take the pot.
History is on Austad’s side in the sense that, since the 1900s, we have improved at keeping humans alive. That’s partly because infant mortality rates have plummeted. “We’ve also gotten a lot better at keeping older people alive,” says Austad, by learning how to combat infectious diseases more effectively. Boulianne isn’t sure that we will actually be able to extend human lifespan much further, especially given the rise of obesity-related disorders such as diabetes—often the result of our poor diets and lacklustre fitness regimens. “If we’re overindulging, we may reach a limit as our lifestyles have circumvented everything else” that science can offer, she says.
How much food we eat, incidentally, forms the basis of other longevity research that’s considering whether reducing our caloric intake will decelerate the aging process. It’s been shown to work in mice, worms and flies. But it’s unclear how effective it would be in humans, let alone safe. “We’re talking about serious food reduction. This is not like going on a normal diet,” cautions Austad, who notes that monkeys currently being studied are receiving 30 per cent less food than they would typically ingest. Caloric restriction is controversial—some scientists worry it may weaken bones, cause muscles to deteriorate, or make elderly people more prone to flu or pneumonia.
No matter how exciting this scientific research may be, none of it is immediately relevant to the average person trying to live a long, healthy life today. Researchers say that in some ways, our ability to improve our lifespan is limited: 25 per cent of our longevity is genetic—that is, when did our parents and grandparents die? The rest of it is lifestyle. “All the things that your mother probably told you to do,” muses Austad. Eat well, exercise, don’t smoke, drink in moderation.
In fact, Timmerman’s acronym sounds just right. He says that he never really worried about getting old or turning 100: “I just kept on plugging away.” He managed to outlive his mother and father, who died at 84 and 85 respectively of heart conditions. Still, Timmerman admits that as his centennial neared, he started to get excited. “People say, how can you enjoy old age? But I still do.”