USC Experts Offer Advice for Healthy Aging at Festival of Books

USC President C. L. Max Nikias welcomes attendees to the 2017 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. Photo by David Sprague.

Four of USC’s leading experts on aging convened on April 23 for the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books panel “Living Long or Living Well: Can We Do Both?”

Moderated by Pinchas Cohen, dean of the USC Davis School of Gerontology, the panel featured USC professors from multiple schools for an interdisciplinary conversation about healthy aging.

“USC as a university has more resources, centers and institutes focused on lifespan health and aging than any other university in the world,” Cohen said. “We really are at the epicenter of this incredible revolution in healthy aging and longevity.”

With these powerful resources, USC researchers like Lucio Comai, professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, are constantly working to understand the aging process.

“Ideally, aging would be a simple process controlled by a single molecular pathway,” Comai said. “Then we could design drugs that perfectly affect that path. But in reality, aging is a complex trait, and there is no single path that we can identify.”

Social and environmental factors combine with genetic factors to further complicate the aging process.

“My colleagues talk about the biology of it, and that is a factor, but there is something more,” said Murali Nair, clinical professor at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. “We are looking at holistic healthy aging.”

When taking a comprehensive look at aging, research reveals several key lifestyle behaviors that dramatically affect health.

Lifestyles for longevity

“Really, it still boils down to what our moms taught us: Eat well, exercise, do everything in moderation and play well with others,” said Laura Mosqueda, professor and chair of the Department of Family Medicine at the Keck School of Medicine.

Nair’s cross-cultural field studies on healthy centenarians in countries such as India and China reveal several key behaviors for healthy aging.

“I’ve identified about half a dozen lifestyle factors, which are common,” he said.

His book, Healing Across Cultures and the Good Life, explores the traditional healing practices and cultural behaviors associated with longevity around the world.

Factors such as diet, exercise and spirituality have a huge impact on health over the years.

As Cohen pointed out: “The evidence for diet determining our life expectancy and health expectancy is enormous. It’s overwhelming. I can’t emphasize enough how much lost lives are associated with bad dietary habits. The same is true with exercise.”

Nair’s research has also found high activity levels among healthy centenarians.

“They are always on the move,” he said. “Even if they are rich people, they never sit and watch TV like we are doing here.”

“It’s very hard to understand why there isn’t more public awareness of the issue,” Cohen said.

To improve awareness and develop intervention programs for healthy aging, personalized attention is crucial.

“The reality is that most of us have some chronic illnesses as we get older. The most important thing we can do is to understand what is going on in this person’s environment,” Mosqueda explained.

“For example, I can talk until I’m blue in the face about somebody getting out there and exercising,” she said. “But if I don’t understand that they’re living in a neighborhood that’s dangerous to get out, or I don’t understand that there are stairs and other things to navigate that may be difficult, then they can’t apply it to themselves.”

As doctors and social workers develop individualized intervention programs for aging adults and their caregivers, Cohen advocates for equity in health care options.

“Let’s remember how important access to health care is,” Cohen advised. “Countries that have universal access to health care have much better life expectancy.”

Holistic health

On the other hand, in countries without robust health care systems, traditional healing takes the lead. Nair’s research demonstrates that healthy centenarians can thrive without Western medicine, relying instead on centuries of experience.

“If there are people that are utilizing body, mind and environment in the proper way and living long, then we need to inquire about it,” Nair said. “We can learn from the beneficial aspects like mindfulness and meditation, and community cohesiveness among centenarians in Eastern cultures.”

“I do it even in my own class,” Nair said. “I ask my students to close their eyes and do 30 seconds of mindfulness before I start the class, and over the last 25 years, I’ve noticed there’s a big difference in the way the students think, just because they’ve closed their eyes and taken three deep breaths. I think there’s a lot of possibilities there.”

With the combination of medical breakthroughs and new understanding of mindfulness and holistic approaches, researchers are poised for progress.

“We live in an incredible time as it relates to longevity and healthy aging,” Cohen concluded.

“We have witnessed over the last century almost a doubling of expected lifespan of people in this country. There is an incredible revolution of genetic, medical, biological and social advances.”