Last weekend I had the pleasure of talking to a woman who was celebrating her 101st birthday. Shirley had just been out to Sunday brunch with family members to celebrate the big day when my husband and I ran into her. Shirley was sharp, had a sense of humor, her eyes had a sparkle, and she was walking pretty darn well. In my mind, this is the picture of how I want to grow old.
In Chinese medicine, a number of factors contribute to how we age, but most important is the concept of Essence. Considered to be one of our body’s vital substances, Essence is a bit like your body constitution and DNA all wrapped into one. You are born with something called Essence of Former Heaven, which is passed down to you from your ancestors. Like your DNA, it determines how healthy you will be during the course of your lifetime, as well as growth, maturity, fertility, and how you will age. As you get older this Essence becomes depleted, and when it’s all used up, you die.
There is a second kind of Essence however, that can augment that of Former Heaven. It’s called Essence of Latter Heaven, because it’s determined by what you do during your lifetime to support your health. The deal is that while the Essence you were born with is depleted over your lifetime, Essence of Latter Heaven can safeguard it, effectively extending your life and protecting your health.
According to Chinese medicine, the key to guarding your Essence and extending your lifespan is through living well. This means eating good food, balancing rest and work, moderate sexual practices, keeping your emotions even, and living moderately in general. Overwhelming stress, overwork, partying too hard, and eating from the drive-through window only serve to deplete your Essence.
While I knew from everything I had learned about Chinese medicine that moderation is fundamental to aging well, I still asked Shirley if there was a secret living to be 101. She must get asked this regularly, because she answered with a little bit of humor and without much hesitation. She said, “There is no secret. It just happens. I get aches and pains and I wonder if this is the end, but the pain goes away, and I’m still here”.
And while Shirley’s answer was that there is no secret to living a long life, just talking to her for a few minutes revealed a number of secrets. Among them:
-Her spirit was strong. While Shirley’s eyes were tired and red-rimmed, they had a sparkle. We call this Shen, or spirit. In Chinese medicine a strong Shen is indicative of a good prognosis in a sick patient. If there’s a sparkle, then the patient will get well. If their eyes are dull, then their chances of recovery are not as good.
-Shirley had a sense of humor which was apparent in just the few moments that we talked. Her ability to laugh and not take herself very seriously points to good mental health and healthy emotions. Stress and strong negative emotions can impact your health in a number of ways from decreased immunity to poor digestion. Simply put, a positive outlook protects your health.
-Shirley was engaged with people. She had family members with whom to celebrate her birthday. During our conversation, she and my husband talked about mutual acquaintances. In addition, Shirley was more than happy to stop and talk to us—and we were perfect strangers to her. In Chinese medicine, this connectedness speaks to a strong Heart—the source of Shen, spirit, and emotions. Shirley’s willingness to be engaged only enhances her mental and physical health.
-When Shirley told us that there was no secret to living to 101, it meant that she didn’t do anything special to extend her lifespan—no special diets, wonder foods, miracle supplements, or special exercise regimen. She just lived her life and 101 happened.
-Finally,while Shirley was walking with the aid of a walker, it appeared she didn’t need it. She was walking quickly and smoothly, without much effort. I suspect the walker was just to prevent falls. My point here is that at 101, Shirley was still very functional. The adage, “Move it or lose it” is at play here, in that Shirley was able to keep moving because…uh, she kept moving.
While I realize that living to be 100 is a crap shoot for each and every one of us, I believe that there are factors that can increase your chances—and Shirley exhibited many of them in just a few short moments. Do I want to live to be 100? I don’t know. Maybe. If I can be like Shirley and if I get to keep my sense of humor, then 100 might be okay.