Perspectives on a Long, Happy and Joyful Life by Edward Park, PhD
Do you ever contemplate what it means to live a long, healthy and joy-filled life? It's safe to say that it probably means something different for each of us, and it certainly doesn't mean we're living the "perfect" life. In his biography, Theodore Roosevelt made famous the wisdom, "Do what you can, with what you have, where you are" (first penned by Squire Bill Widener). It's a call for us to live life to the fullest, but it beautifully implies that we're at peace with our constraints and whatever season of life in which we find ourselves. Our SOUL Food Salon leader, Jeanne Rosner, MD, paid me the compliment of requesting my thoughts on this topic, certainly not because I'm an expert on it, but perhaps because I've been grappling my way through building a company alongside a family with three young children, and the wheels haven't come off yet. I hope you find this perspective thought-provoking and helpful in your own journey.
How is your heart? It may help set the stage.
Do you have a grateful heart? I find it a challenging question, and when I ask that to myself, it changes my whole attitude and outlook. People can be looking at the same thing, but what they see may be very, very different. A grateful heart protects us from poisonous attitudes like regret, arrogance, comparing ourselves to others and glass-is-half-empty thinking. I'll admit it doesn't come naturally to me, so I have to keep reminding myself. I'm always amazed at how it helps me hold on to joy and also make better decisions.
How about having a heart for helping people? This question isn't asking whether we're contributing to a charitable cause, though that's great also. The focus here is on the people we see every day, whether they be our family, co-workers or acquaintances. It's really easy for me to think about my daily checklist and how it helps ME, but I've realized that looking at that checklist and seeing who it will help, or rewriting it so that it helps others, always leads to better priorities. Ultimately, our true value to the world is how much we help people, individual by individual. It's so easy to forget, but it's so simple: If I help someone, then I've done something valuable. It's another reminder I keep chanting to myself!
Five keys for health span – and adding the brain's perspective.
When discussing health span, I naturally gravitate toward brain and cognitive aging since that is my specialty. It's a unique perspective since most people don't realize that the brain ages just like our skin, our joints, our vision and everything else about us. The difference is that our brain defines who we are—it carries our unique personality and emotions. It's how we take in information, process it, react and make decisions. It's how we learn, create, enjoy and love. So, it's immensely important to living a long and healthy life. We absolutely must have a healthy brain.
1. Relationships. When we boil everything down, relationships are what give us meaning and purpose in life. This means getting to know others, learning about their hopes and dreams, helping them out and accepting help from them. Talking, sharing, joking and social interactions are essential to keep our brains cognitively active. In "Blue Zones" where people live the longest, like Ikaria (Greece), Sardinia (Italy) and the Nicoya Peninsula (Costa Rica), the "oldest" people still play an important role in the community, educating and helping raise children, maintaining traditions and volunteering. With that come strong relationships and the healthiest brains on earth! So, make it a priority to reach out to your family and friends and spend time with them. Unsurprisingly, you need relationships and the purpose they bring to have a long and healthy life.
2. Diet. Everyone knows that a well-balanced diet is healthy for the body, and groundbreaking research over the past decade shows that diet and nutrition are also crucial for long-term brain health. Some of the best evidence for brain benefits comes from the Mediterranean and MIND diets (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay), originally developed at Rush University Medical Center. SOULFUL Insights has covered them here and here, and the big message is this: the MIND diet is significantly linked to a greater than 50% reduction in risk of Alzheimer's disease and performing eight years younger cognitively (don't you love the idea of maintaining a youthful brain with the wisdom of the ancients?). These diets focus on consuming leafy green vegetables, berries, olive oil, fish, nuts, legumes, seeds, whole grains, poultry and wine (in moderation). Just as significantly, they limit the consumption of red meat, sweets, saturated fats and processed foods. Also, it's worth noting that the Blue Zones, which have the lowest rates of dementia, follow very similar diets.
3. Exercise. Believe it or not, physical exercise is not just beneficial for our heart and muscles, but it's also very healthy for the brain. When a person exercises, muscle contractions release chemical signals for the brain to grow new nerve cells. It's a strange but beautiful linkage. Also, the increased blood flow that exercise brings helps to nourish the brain. So, now we have yet another and perhaps most important reason to stay physically fit: keep our brains healthy and cognitively intact.
4. Sleep. Sleep is often the first casualty of our busy lives since it's so easy to cut out an hour here or there and make up for it with coffee or an energy drink, but brain health gives us a reason to make it a priority again. Most obviously, if you're sleep-deprived, you'll notice it's harder to concentrate and learn. Also, sleep plays a critical maintenance role: it's when waste products are flushed out of the brain. Chronic lack of sleep deprives the brain of this opportunity to "take out the trash," and waste and toxicants accumulate. And importantly, sleep is when memories are "locked in" or consolidated for long-term storage. So, prioritizing sleep will help you learn, keep your brain clean and help retain precious memories. It's a win-win-win.
5. Learning. Part of joy is seeing the world around us with fresh eyes and curiosity. That leads to new pursuits and understanding. It also creates new connections in the brain and builds our "cognitive reserve," which helps us resist the process of brain aging. So, keep learning, whether it be a new hobby or language, a new musical instrument, playing games, doing crossword puzzles or reading avidly. Don't take for granted the ability to learn. It takes practice; the more practice, the stronger the brain and your ability to enjoy life. A parting thought on relationships. Deep relationships are the fountain from which happiness, joy and meaning flow. Some relationships bring joy, some bring intellectual stimulation, and even tough relationships bring meaning. The bigger picture is that as much as we'd like to avoid the thought, we will all physically die at some point. So, what is true longevity? It's our legacy: the people we affect while we live and how they remember us, speak about us and teach others what we've taught them long after we're gone. We become "immortal" through those whom we help. As I mentioned earlier about the Blue Zones, relationships are a fundamental reason why people in those regions live longer than everyone else in the world. Their communities and customs motivate social interaction and relationship building, both within generations and across generations, connecting the young with the old. Somewhere in that framework, you may discover your own personal plan for a long, healthy and joyful life.
Buettner D. The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who've Lived the Longest. National Geographic, Washington, D.C. (2012).
Liu PZ and Nusslock R. Exercise-Mediated Neurogenesis in the Hippocampus via BDNF. Front. Neurosci., 12:52 (2018).
Morris MC, et al. MIND diet associated with reduced incidence of Alzheimer's disease. Alzheimer's and Dementia, 11(9), 1007–1014 (2015).
Stern Y. Cognitive reserve in ageing and Alzheimer's disease. Lancet Neurology, 11:11 (2012).
Walker MP. Cognitive consequences of sleep and sleep loss. Sleep Medicine, 9:1 (2008).
Edward Park, PhD
Edward Park is the founder of NeuroReserve, a preventive health and nutrition company focused on healthy brain aging. Ed's background spans over 15 years in the fields of nutritional therapeutics, biopharmaceuticals and medical devices, where he directed R&D, testing and regulatory approval of products to treat people malnourished by cystic fibrosis, pancreatic cancer and preterm birth.
Ed's family history of neurodegenerative disease (his father) led him toward brain health, where he realized the powerful role nutrition and dietary patterns can play in reducing the risk of Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and other neurodegenerative conditions. This inspired him to develop a new generation of nutritional products to strengthen long-term brain health and cognition: expert-designed, data analytics-driven and built on the best dietary evidence—leading to the founding of NeuroReserve.
Ed holds a PhD in chemical and biomolecular engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he was a National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellow. He also holds an MS and MBA from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Learn more about NeuroReserve here: neuroreserve.com
The code SOULFOODSALON can be used on the Neuroreserve website for a 15% discount on RELEVATE (applied to the first order and all future orders).