The word “vitality” is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the power or ability of something to continue to live.” Vital signs, such as heart rate and blood pressure are used by physicians to determine the vitality of a patient. These tell us whether a person is stable and will continue to live or unstable and life may be slipping away. Vital signs are a good tool but don’t tell the whole story about what it means to have vitality.
Unfortunately, many men just don’t place remaining vital or achieving vitality high on their list of priorities. To be vital is greater than just being alive or if you believe the Viagra™ commercials, just a great sex life! Vitality is actually a complex subject that goes beyond “just living” to “living successfully”. What does it mean for a man to live a successful life? What measures should we use to determine a successful life? Are their examples of successful living that we can turn to?
In the 1930s British playwright, novelist and physician W. Somerset Maugham wrote the book The Summing Up. Maugham’s life adventures were the subjects of many of his novels. He was an ambulance driver in WWI and was later recruited into the British intelligence service. In The Summing Up, Maugham reflected on his own life adventures and personal philosophy and wrote what I believe is a successful philosophy for life, “The meaning of life lies in what one wills to create.”
The word “will,” may also be interpreted as “CHOICE!” or “what one chooses to create.”
I have personally embraced this philosophy as my own. With very few exceptions, we almost always have a choice. The decisions we make can and often will result in a spectrum of both positive and negative consequences. Pretty heavy stuff, but it goes back to the concept of what it means to live a vital life.
Every day we are faced with thousands of choices that will impact our lives, our health, our longevity and ultimately society. These decisions can have both short- and long-term consequences. Should I eat that donut? Should I drive without my seat belt? Do I start smoking or join a gym?
Why Our Choices Are Important
The latest science reveals that our life choices are actually much more important that we ever thought. Did you ever wonder why identical twins, born on the same date, with the exact same genes and DNA don’t end up dying on the same day or from the same disease? Other than accidental death, what else could be occurring to override their genetic similarity?
For the last decade I have been intrigued and fascinated by the new science of epigenetics which helps to answer this question. Epigenetics refers to those mechanisms not part of our own genes that can change or alter the production of proteins not based on the encoded DNA sequence itself. In other words, through various factors outside the cell (epigenetic factors), changes occur to the genome that can influence our health, our lifespan and the VITALITY of our lives!
What are some of these epigenetic factors that tell the genes what to do? Nutrition, physical activity, environmental factors (air, water, pesticides, radiation and smoking) and how we handle stress and relationships all can directly activate epigenetic factors to impact our lives. Epigenetic factors are the links that determine how our choices will ultimately affect the quality and longevity of our lives! In other words, we can literally choose to activate our genes—for better or for worse—through the choices we make.
This scientific reality has profoundly influenced my life and has directly influenced my choices and activities. I personally became very interested in how nutrition and dietary supplements can influence every cell in my body. Learning about the epigenetic pathways has reconfirmed that being physically active may be the single most important thing that we can do to improve and maintain our vitality. It is well known that regular exercise decreases the risk of dying from heart disease, stroke, diabetes and also prevents certain cancers, improves mood, relieves depression and builds stronger bones. The mechanism through which this happens is due to epigenetic (transcription) factors that are produced when exercising that stimulate the production of “healthy” proteins.
Exercise is the best stimulant for our brain cells to produce a protein called brain derived neurotropic factor (BDNF). BDNF can increase new brain cell production called neurogenesis, increase transmission of signals called neuroplasticity and make new brain cell connections called synaptogenesis.
By continuing to do regular exercise, eat and use dietary supplements properly and avoid toxins both environmental and self-induced, I have been able to pursue my favorite stress reducing activity—triathlons! Although not everyone will choose this method, relieving stress is a key component for all men to remain healthy and vital as we age. I have trained and competed in over 75 triathlons and this past October, I completed my 8th Ironman® distance triathlon in Kona, Hawaii. In February, I summited Mt. Kilimanjaro at over 19,400 feet—the highest free standing mountain in the world—with my 18 year old daughter, Isabella, and six athletes with major disabilities (due to amputations), including one with no arms. Because I started making better choices, I have been able to embrace training and taking on challenges both physical and mental as a practicing neurosurgeon. This has allowed me to remain vital as I enter my 7th decade.
Also, in the words of W. Somerset Maugham, I have never been more creative in my nutrition and neuroscience research interests resulting in close to 300 published articles. Outside interests and a commitment to make healthier choices has made me a better surgeon, researcher, parent, friend and advocate for my patients. It also has reinforced my ultimate goal: to die young … but as late as possible!