Even in one of the world's most beautiful places, people do terrible things to their health.
Here's what one study found, and what you can do about your aging process- and also save the lives of your children. Fair warning, I'm going to start easy and go big and personal, so strap in.
New Zealand is breathtakingly lovely. I spent a year there, on and off, between 1983 and 1987. Part of that time was down in Dunedin, on the South Island. South Island is about as magnificent a place as exists on this good earth, but clearly beauty isn't enough.
About ten years before I first arrived, a cohort of some 910 adolescent men (of course, and all of them were probably also white, it's what researchers do) were engaged in a longitudinal study.
That study looked at four factors which could, and did, influence their health into middle age. These young boys, who began smoking, developed obesity and/or had psychological disorders as well as asthma by the time they were eleven, thirteen and fifteen, were again assessed at 45.
Forty-five, ask anyone my age, is awfully damned young. The study found that these factors, alone or in combination, with the exception of asthma, caused these young men to age faster than their healthier peers, on average of about three months a year.
From a CNN story on the study's results:
There are several reasons why smoking, psychological disorders and obesity could accelerate aging, the authors said: All can impact factors linked with accelerated aging, such as greater inflammation and oxidative stress, an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in the body. Free radicals are unstable molecules from environmental sources like cigarette smoke or pesticides, which can damage the body's cells. "There's a long history of that kind of research in terms of how smoking is damaging at the cellular level but also can result in the kinds of health conditions that we associate with biological aging, like (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), lung cancer, things like that," (Kyle) Bourassa said.
The unshakable belief that we can't be touched when we are young, that said youth will last forever, is part of what leads us to believe that the damage we see done to others can't happen to us.
Here's what they found, in part:
By age 45, the new study found that participants who had two or more of those three general health concerns -- smoking, obesity or psychological disorders -- as adolescents walked 11.2 centimeters per second slower, had an older brain age by two and a half years, and had an older facial age by nearly four years than those who didn't.
And that was decades before the pandemic, the Internet, all of toxic social media and the ultra-processed and dangerous foods pushed upon us today.
This study spoke intimately to me for multiple reasons.
I also smoked as a teenager, but I also quit as a teenager. I also got obese, but I got rid of 85 lbs in my early thirties. I was subjected to incest as an adolescent, and multiple rapes in my early twenties. While I paid a high price for those experiences, eventually I was able to turn them to psychological gold.
That is the heartbeat of alchemy: the psychological shifting of dross into something valuable. You and I might develop bad habits as a result of slick advertising, wanting to be like a badass star who looks cool when he smokes or any of a slew of reasons when we are very young and impressionable.
We can also reverse those very trends, but only if we change our habits.
In the US today, our smoking rates are down but vaping is up. That said, vaping is bad, and frequently leads to full-on smoking, a fact that Philip Morris knows full well, and which is why such products exist.
Anxiety and psychological disorders are skyrocketing. Here is where we are with adults:
But for kids it's even worse and worsening:
From that article:
An analysis of health data revealed that as many as one in six U.S. children between the ages of 6 and 17 has a treatable mental health disorder such as depression, anxiety problems or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
Anxiety and depression can often lead to smoking, and often lead to smoking AND obesity, which is even worse in its widespread impact:
Millions of kids are obese, and the numbers are exploding.
At a time when the emphasis from all directions is to be perfect, we are shaming ourselves and our children into self-hate, which further drives so many kids towards early bad habits.
That's aging us fast. All of us.
You know what's coming. If you're still pretty young, and pretty (male or female) and you have any of these habits and the issues associated with them, the research argues unequivocally that you are aging yourself fast. Right about the same time we are overly-stressed about how we are looking older. Really? This makes sense how?
This article touches on a few more habits, most particularly and first, sugar consumption and lack of adequate sleep:
There's nothing here you haven't read, seen or likely know. However, what struck me about the New Zealand aspect of this is that this is one gorgeous place, a heaven on earth. Yet still people drink, smoke and eat, and worry themselves into swift old age and decrepitude even in Paradise.
Those kids, living in relative Paradise in New Zealand, skewed unhealthy. That was back in the early Seventies, long before we saw a world skewing obese, mental illness and anxiety on the swift rise, a pandemic which, well, you know. You get it.
All right. I'm gonna get in your face here.
We are a world on fire. Yet so much of this still remains a matter of choice. As parents, guardians, those with responsibility for kids, your habits teach your children. If you model irresponsible behavior, if you, as my parents did, tell your kids not to smoke through a cloud of unfiltered Marlboro, your kids will do what you do no matter what you say.
If you demonstrate a lack of coping, terrible depression and OCDs as a result, and by god I most certainly have, you are teaching your kids how to be a victim.
While we can indeed lay a great deal of blame on the American slick-as-shit marketing machine which creates not only convincing messaging but also Big Food's addictive products, you and I still have a choice.
Nobody is "making" you do bad things to your body. Nobody is "making" you smoke, or drink, or avoid exercise. Nobody. That's you. I realize that redirecting ourselves is harder for some if not many, but it is essential for us all. You and I do not have to be victims.
Nor do we need to victimize our kids by modeling victimhood. "I just can't help myself" doesn't cut it when our children are involved.
When it comes to our kids, we model behavior for them, and their formative years can be addled or added to based on our choices. My parents made some bad ones, and I had to pull myself out of the smoking. I never started drinking, which is a whole other issue, but my brother became a smoker, an alcoholic and drug addict very young.
The last time I saw my big brother before he died, it was a shock. He had been a wickedly handsome man; we met at a coffee shop off Sixth and Union in Lakewood, CO. When he came through the door I did a double-take.
He looked eighty. Still tall and strong, his face was pockmarked with the self-inflicted cancerous removals he had done by knife, the result of years in the high country sans SPF.
His face and eyes were ravaged by years of alcoholism, drug use and battles with mental illness. I hardly recognized him. At the time, he was barely in his late fifties, like I was, his little sister, eighteen months younger.
We'd been apart for years. Those intervening years, his bad habits had ripped his face and body apart. He didn't make it. He committed suicide at 62. He's lucky he made it that far. These days more and more kids are committing suicide between 5 and 11, with a variety of factors at work, chief among them depression.
What are we teaching our kids through our own behaviors?
The answer is the trouble they're in. They didn't come up with that all alone. They learned from us, our bad habits, our lack of resilience and courage, our resistance to taking care of ourselves in any kind of healthy way.
Want proof? This:
This is what we are teaching our children. I do not apologize for this graphic image. Because if we don't understand the importance of taking responsible care of our body and your health we are condemning future generations to dying young.
They already are.
I don't have to have kids to care about them. There is no excuse for this. None whatsoever. If you want to bark about "kids these days" please kindly look in the mirror. What are we modeling? What kinds of choices are we making, what kind of drivel are we parroting to our kids that masquerades as fact but is fiction that we use to justify smoking, drinking, our daily double donut habit, whatever?
How are you speaking to your kids and those over whom you have influence? What kinds of words are you feeding them? Because kids die from toxic words faster than toxic food.
I did make many of those mistakes and I did redirect. Many of us have those stories and we are walking a very different path. Many of us later in life grabbed our bad habits by the short and curlies and straightened them out. Better choices are available. My brother didn't choose. He's dead. Too many of us are dying young out of hopelessness.
When you and I make better choices, we heal ourselves, first. That opens life up so that rather than wallow in misery we can create options for a better life. Paradise isn't a place, it's a state of mind. You and I could move to Dunedin (helps to be very rich), and if we don't clean the crap out of our brains and bodies and souls, we will be just as ill there.
For those Christians among my readers, you know this: the Kingdom of Heaven is within. All religions teach this at some level. What is inside us determines whether or not we are in a living hell or a Paradise no matter where we are. Better choices, made out of abiding love and respect, to which your sacred self is entitled, lead to the latter.
So is this all about aging ourselves too fast? Yes. Kinda.
But it's far bigger than that. This Guardian story offends me mightily for one simple reason: living longer isn't the point. Learning to live better with the years we have right now is:
From the article:
Asked about the trend after Calico launched, Bill Gates was scathing: “It seems pretty egocentric while we still have malaria and TB for rich people to fund things so they can live longer,” he told an “ask me anything” forum on Reddit.
I'm with Bill.
Distracted, diseased, addled, addicted, obese, mentally ill people cannot possibly help manage a world that needs their help, or bring up children with the skills and confidence necessary to ensure a future not only for themselves but for their own.
What on earth is the point of longevity when we are doing such a lousy job of managing the time we already have?
And forgive the obvious question: how will our children feel about a planet even further overpopulated with poorly-behaved ancients who refuse to get the hell off the planet and out of the way?
That doesn't sound like Paradise to me.
For my part, the way I see it, we have a responsibility to work within the life limit we have to make ourselves the best we can be mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally. Focusing on living longer and selling longevity cures is mother's milk for the foolish. Like sending rich idiots to Mars, that money is better used to help us get healthy right down here where it matters.
Because Paradise needs us: You, me and our kids.
And Paradise needs us to move on when it’s our time.