My 92-year-old grandfather is a two-time cancer conqueror.
What’s more, over the course of nine decades, he has survived World War II, the death of his son, son-in-law, and wife, a 20+ year cigarette addiction, and a recent bout with a mysterious internal bleeding problem, which the doctors never quite figured out.
Yet today, he is physically and emotionally healthy, walking several miles every morning, cooking multi-course meals for family and visitors — his mind clear, his vision sharp, and his generous heart beating strong.
From my long-lived family (including my grandfather!), I have learned a few secrets on how to stay eternally youthful despite outward circumstances, from aging to disease to loss. And some of them might not be what you think:
1. Maintain regular habits
For most of his life, my grandfather has made it a regular habit to wake up at 5 am and walk 6,000 steps before going home to cook breakfast. He also takes a nap for one hour from 1–2 pm, and goes to bed promptly at 9pm.
Now, you may not want to conform to this exact sleep/exercise schedule, but choose one out that works for you, mold the rest of your life around it, and stick to it.
Not for a few weeks or months, or even years. Shoot to make it a part of your life for the rest of your life.
That way, when the storms of life hit (and they will), you will have something familiar to hold on to without needing to think too hard about it — something to help you get back on the right track.
2. Eat whatever you want
But 1) eat small amounts, 2) and only after you have eaten “real food” first (aka, food that comes out of the ground, not a plastic container).
The Japanese have a concept called “hara hachi bun me,” meaning: eat until you are about 80% full, then stop. And Japan contains one of the world’s five Blue Zones, places where people not only have the longest lifespans, but healthspans, in the world.
Studies have shown that caloric restriction (not malnourishment or starvation) actually helps Rhesus monkeys prevent disease and delay aging, and appears to reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes in humans.
My grandparents grew up on farms, where food was not overabundant and fast food nearly nonexistent — and the dietary habits they developed then have served them well.
For my grandfather and other older relatives, every meal includes unprocessed vegetables, fruit, and whole grains, and tea or water. There is an occasional pastry or coffee, but they never actively restrict themselves from “bad” foods at all.
In fact, as my mother constantly reminds me: too many restrictions can cause stress, and too much negative stress can be bad for your health.
So be conscientious about your eating and focus on the two tips above, and don’t worry about the rest — whether it’s counting calories or measuring the fat content in every morsel of food you put in your mouth.
Your appetite for unhealthy foods will naturally go down as you fill yourself with healthy alternatives.
3. Stay curious
My grandmother, who passed away a few days before her 90th birthday, loved learning. With only an elementary-level education, she spoke three languages fluently, and also taught herself to read anatomy books for fun.
Her daughter, my mother, changed careers several times in her life, including her most recent foray into real estate in her mid-sixties. (Part of it was a matter of necessity: she had family to support, and my dad’s income was not enough. But instead of feeling resentful, my mother embraced the challenge, learning a new career from scratch and becoming quite successful).
The lessons my mother learned from her mother about the importance of maintaining a childlike curiosity and love of learning, she passed on to me. Curiosity and learning is part of what helps my mom to stay physically and mentally healthy, in spite of the many challenges she faces as a member of the middle generation with children below her and parents above her to support.
What’s next on her list? Cello, piano, and comic drawing.
Hey, Grandma Moses didn’t start painting in earnest until she was in her late seventies, and look how well she turned out!
4. Take care of someone else
This is the most important tip of all.
Before my grandmother passed away, she suffered from severe dementia and needed assistance with all of her basic needs: toileting, showering, and eating. My grandfather cooked for her, fed her, and kept watch at night in case she woke up in the middle of the night.
My grandfather lost a lot of sleep, but to this day is still very healthy.
In fact, he did fall sick at one point with serious internal bleeding. But his sense of purpose and desire to get better so he could care for my grandmother kept him going and helped him to recover quickly.
Aside from that, my grandfather cooks every day for the family, not allowing anyone else to do it. He is a master chef, making the most delicious and beautiful dishes I’ve ever seen. He’s not extremely demonstrative (in terms of hugs and kisses), but he demonstrates his love every day through his cooking.
After all, achieving health is good, but if you are only living for yourself, what real good IS it?
My grandmother passed away recently, which was a huge blow to my grandfather, who had been her partner and best friend for seven decades. It was a devastating loss, for him most of all.
But my grandfather was able to survive even that great bereavement, the latest in a series of challenges he has overcome in his life, through the habits and mindset he had cultivated over the years.
He continued to maintain his sleep and exercise schedule, his diet, and most importantly, his care for others — going to visit sickly relatives, and cooking meals for my aunt.
Life can be achingly hard, and time pushes forward relentlessly.
But my grandfather and other relatives’ example taught me that we do not need to be helpless victims to the ravages of time.
Sustaining a few positive habits and loving others well can do wonders for our health, inwardly and outwardly — physically and mentally/emotionally.
Here’s to your spry and healthy 92-and-beyond self!
Thank you for reading
What lessons have you learned from your own life or the lives of friends and relatives, about staying eternally young?
This post was originally published on Medium.