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Dr. Walter Boortz

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Dear readers,

I recently attended the Positive Aging Conference in Los Angeles sponsored by the Fielding Graduate University.  Among the many speakers, one in particular grabbed my attention.  That was Dr. Walter Boortz, Clinical Associate Professor at the Stanford School of Medicine and a distinguished scientist on aging and longevity. Much of his research has focused on the importance of physical exercise in promoting robust aging.

Dr. Boortz is a marathon runner, running about 16 miles a week and completing  41 marathons including Boston and New York.  He is 81 years old.

During a conference break, I found Dr. Boortz sitting next to a table of books he has authored.     I had the opportunity to ask him, “What is your current message?  He replied, “We are not marionettes with someone else pulling the strings.  We have to pull them.”  That was followed by “Aging is a black hole, that is until we figure out how it makes money.”

And with that he proceeded to the podium.

He initially spoke about three “good things” that happened to him as a geriatrician.

First, he became the steward of tens of thousands of older adults that informed his thinking about aging.  That occurred for one reason according to Boortz – “no one else wanted to take care of them.”   He noted that surgeons loved him because he generated many surgical cases.

Second, he learned about his own aging.  When spending time in Africa with renowned paleoanthropologist and environmentalist Richard Leaky he asked, “What do you do with all of your older people?”  According to Boortz, Leaky replied, “We don’t have any,” inferring that that aging is just the continuity of the individual.

Third, being a geriatrician taught him about the medical industrial complex.  Unfortunately, “the product (being sold) is disease and it’s all about money. The sicker you are, the better it is for me financially.”  (Note:  not everyone would agree, particularly physicians.)  Furthermore he noted that docs have two tools in their bag:  surgery and pills — even though the biggest problems facing us are diabetes and obesity.  Neither prevents nor solves these problems, he added.

His strong message was the importance of self-responsibility.  He said “We know enough to live 100 years.  It is our responsibility to live a lifestyle to reach that landmark.”  He added that our longevity is determined by heredity (small per cent), accidents, disuse and the chemistry of free radicals.  He emphasized that often what we think of aging is just disuse.

Dr. Boortz demanded a health revolution.

In his recent book, Next Medicine:  the Science and Civics of Health (Oxford University Press 2011), he argues that the financial interests of the biotech and drug companies have eroded the values of the medical profession and have placed profits before human well-being.  He writes that chronic diseases like diabetes are largely preventable and that the medical-industrial complex has a vested interest in keeping Americans sick.  Boortz’s plan emphasizes personal responsibility and providing incentives for healthy choices.

He closed with wishes for his own death – “with no pain, tubes or loneliness.”    At age 100, he would like to exit the planet as a beach comber. According to Boortz, if he becomes incontinent, no one will notice it in the sand.  If he acts a little confused, most won’t notice because there are lots of confused people hanging out at the beach.  And if his balance fails, the landing will be soft.  And then he wants to gently be washed into the sea causing permanent ripples.

So what are his messages?

  • We have the potential to live to 100.
  • Exercise can offset our physical aging by 30 years.
  • Aging is not a disease.
  • We are responsible for our own health and how we age.
  • Society needs to provide incentives for healthy choices.

Our challenge is to act upon what we know.  That’s the tough part.  For 2012, let’s take on at least one of Dr. Boortz’s messages – engage in physical exercise as a keystone to longevity.

Note: Dr. Boortz’s other recent book is “The Roadmap to 100:  The Breakthrough Science of Living a Long and Healthy Life” ( Palgrave macmillan, 2010).

Copyright 2011 Helen Dennis. All rights reserved.

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