This Neuroscientist Says Healthy Aging Is All About Embracing Your Inner Cavewoman
When you think of healthy ageing, what comes to mind? Author and psychiatrist John Ratey explores the components of healthy ageing that we all must incorporate in our lives. Enjoy the show!
Today we are going to be inspired by a man who has a lot of information about something very important to us, our brain. John Ratey is a doctor and a Harvard Professor of Psychiatry.
He is a working psychiatrist and has been researching the relationship between the brain and psychiatry for years. Welcome to the show John.
Thank you and good to be with you.
What word do you use to describe what you do?
Neuropsychiatry. It’s a discipline that looks at how the brain works in relation to our moods and our cognition. It has to do with trying to climb the depths of what we need to be doing to keep things going.
Sixty and Me is a large community of women over 60, and we’re very much concerned and interested in healthy ageing and wellbeing. We already talked about the connection between exercise and brain health in another interview.
Today I want us to focus on something else, which is an extension of your work. How has modern life moved us away from a lifestyle that is healthier?
You are referring to a book I wrote that came out a couple of years ago. It’s called “Go Wild” and discusses how to live according to your genes which were developed over 68 million years. Our nature is that of hunter-gatherers.
It’s only been 10 000 years that our lifestyle moved in a different direction from our origin, so our genes have not changed all that much. However, in the past 50 years our environment has changed dramatically.
What are some of the key points? Obviously, we didn’t have phones and we were out in the world a lot more. Can you highlight some of the major issues?
I think the book chapters will get us started. We talk a lot about diet and exercise. We also talk about getting away from the sedentary world that we are trapped in right now. Then there is our need to be out in nature, to appreciate it for what it is, and how healthy that is for us.
We also cover meditation and mindful living. In the age of hunting and gathering, you had to be mindful or you were dead. You had to be aware of your environment all the time and use it in a creative way.
Next, the book talks about being connected to one another and how vastly important that is. We are now developing more and more evidence that social life is crucial to our sense of wellbeing and ageing. We need to develop small tribes.
Your website connects people into tribes, and that’s exactly what we need. We need to feel connected. This seems to be the most important thing as we age to keep our bodies healthy.
One of the key missions in our community is to create social grouping. We want to have that social connection that is so important to the state of our wellbeing.
When we think about social media, we always say it’s a bad thing. But, in some ways, it’s actually a good thing. Facebook, for example—and I know you have a very active Facebook page—keeps us together in groups with common interests.
Exactly. People come together and socialize via many of the networks we claim are bad. On my Facebook page we post a new news article every day. It’s either on the benefits of exercise, community or meditation. Its purpose is to keep our audience informed in getting healthier and staying healthy.
Let’s talk about cavewomen. What did the average cave woman do that was different?
First of all, all hunter-gatherers were moving between ten and fourteen miles a day. Women were foraging, swimming, climbing, lifting and, at times, sprinting away from the big cats or other predators. All members of the community were, in present terms, professional athletes.
They were going from one berry patch to the next or helping to run down an antelope. Whenever there was an opportunity, they would feed themselves. They had so much more movement and that’s why I focus on movement and exercise.
Also, their diets were very different from ours. Back then, there were about 400 different kinds of vegetables, and we know this from anthropologic studies in archeology. Our ancestors had a lot more options, and this is really important.
They depended on getting protein from meat and fish. With all the daily movement, they needed to have enough food to sustain themselves. At the same time, they needed to keep active, so this led to more motivation. As a result, their brains evolved down the chain to help us be the best movers we can be so we can be the evolution victors.
I’m surprised that there were 400 vegetables, because I struggle with a choice of five.
These were leaves, berries and varieties of things that people knew about. They knew that they could depend on them for sustenance, and so they would search for them and remember where to find them. They would log that information in the community so everyone would be aware of it.
They probably had wisdom about the health benefits of certain things. For instance, what would help for stomach ache. We don’t have it documented, but I’m sure that was the case.
That’s exactly right. People back then didn’t know agriculture. They didn’t grow wheat or produce any high-calorie foods— but they needed them.
In our day, we are addicted to high-calorie foods because it’s in our genes. Our ancestors needed the highest score of food, and we still get addicted to it today.
As a hunter-gatherer that made sense, because food availability wasn’t constant. So when you found food, you’d stuff yourself full, and then you’d store the energy so it doesn’t wear off that quickly. We have inherited these genes, which, in today’s world, we don’t need. We don’t need to eat the score of food we can find.
In review, we need to keep moving. In your book “Spark” you discuss the relationship between healthy ageing and exercise, and it’s an eye-opener. Your second point is that we need social connections so we can work as a tribe. I read somewhere about the importance of sleep. Perhaps our ancestors slept a lot more, so can you talk about that?
Don’t forget that when it got dark people would go to sleep. They slept at various times during the day as well as in the evening. Of course, somebody had to be up watching for predators at all times, but people slept a lot more than we do.
Travelling around the world and talking about these issues with various groups has made one thing very apparent—most people are sleep deprived. We have to do something about that because we know so much about sleep and how important it is to keep us healthy and well.
It seems that we have got to shift the program that we are on. In this world, we try to get the least amount of sleep and be proud of it. However, it’s important to listen to your body and to eat when your body is hungry—not when your mind is hungry.
Our community consists of women over 60, and we can relate to the idea of releasing our inner cavewoman. But, they probably didn’t live that long in those days. Do I really want to live their lifestyle and die at 50?
No, but we know that what they died from was infections and accidents. They lived very healthy lives. As the tribes prospered, the people became very active.
We know this is true about our communities today as well. We know that blue zones are where people typically live to be over 100. They live well, and they pay attention to moving, because they are constantly working.
Their diet is mainly vegetarian or vegetarian with fish. Every now and then they could cook an animal, but variety is key. There is also a real sense of community where people not only take care of each other, but visit each other, have fun and so on.
All of this is really important. The big data studies show that community is perhaps the most important element that you can have to make your life richer and healthier, and to not get sick.
The two blue zones that come to my mind are the one in Japan and the one in Italy, not far from Switzerland. There is a whole town where 70% of the population is over a 100. When you look at their lifestyle, you’ll see them climbing up hills every day.
They say that in the evening, they all sit on the porch and have a glass of wine with their friends. Everybody comes over, and so they truly seem to be in that cavewoman rhythm that you mentioned: simple food, lots of exercise, a glass of wine and community.
Another big factor is being outside in nature—not being hidden away in a cocoon sitting in front of a screen. That is really the antithesis of what we need. We need to be together and really touch one another.
Social media is great, but it’s best to have fun with a group in real life. It’s important to enjoy the group and to care for them genuinely—not necessarily to take care of them.
I’m really proud of Sixty and Me, because over the course of four years we’ve really developed friendships. When somebody shares a problem, there are always people who would jump in and say, “I had that, and it’s okay. You are going to be fine.” It has to do with the sense of being connected.
When you talk about exercise and movement, this is not a matter of going out for a leisurely walk around the lake or the park, is it? You’ve got to get the heart going. This is serious movement you’re talking about, or am I exaggerating?
There’s a correlation between intensity and duration, yes. So, if you are walking around the lake with somebody, and you keep walking because you are delighted in the conversation—and you walk for two or three hours—it’s great.
What we mean by exercise though, is constantly challenging yourself a bit more, not just resting on your lower zone. There’s nothing wrong with just meandering through the park.
There was a recent post on my Facebook page which said that getting out in nature three times a week is pretty good for improving your sense of wellbeing, your mood and your cognitive awareness.
In your book you mention a strategy of walk/jog/sprint. It has to do with starting out with a little walk. Then every now and then you should go into a bit of a fast walk. Finally, every now and again you should do something a little more intense, like a bike ride.
Right. This is called high intensity interval training (HIIT), and it was started by some New Zealanders a while ago. HIIT is used for training athletes, to get their maximum heart rate up. It led to training their hearts to perform and do better in general, and they didn’t have to spend so much time in preparation.
The recent studies looking at the ageing population show the same results. Pushing yourself to where you are sweating and out of breath just for brief periods of time is extremely beneficial for the entire body.
In fact, a chap in Macmaster University in Canada who spent his whole life looking into this recently published a book called “The One Minute Exercise.”
This brings us back to where we started—with the cave people. They would have been walking long distances getting from one place to the next. Occasionally, they would’ve had to rush because it was getting dark.
Then there would be times when a predator was nearing their neighborhood, and so they would’ve had to run like crazy. When you combine that with good nutrition, healthy sleep and community life, they lived a pretty ideal life, really.
Yes, they did. We would do well to treat ourselves kindly, especially when it comes to things like sleep, exercise and diet. These are really crucial for healthy aging.
You really need to pay attention to your diet. There are all kinds of studies now showing that the more sugar you eat, the less your brain is going to work, and the more likely you are to suffer from brain erosion, cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease.
One of the biggest issues with people in first world countries is gaining weight as we age. Post-menopausal women especially have to watch that because the more weight you put on, the more likely your brain is going to erode.
All the things that we have mentioned so far—community, exercise, diet and sleep—are crucial to keeping your weight under control. People don’t recognize that sleep is so important in that area as well.
You mentioned that the reason the caveman has evolved this way was to promote evolution. Are we positively evolving? We’re building stuff, landing on the moon, finding new technology, but is that taking the human race forward?
That’s why you are seeing this explosion in exercise activities, cross fit, Zumba and different aerobic challenges people are into no matter what age. Biking and climbing are great sports, too.
And they’re free. You don’t have to join a gym, so you can’t make excuses. You really have choices. You choose when you sleep, you can choose the food you eat. Most places have a good market with fresh produce you can choose from.
That’s true. And once again, I want to highlight that we need to avoid sugar and starch. We grew up in a fat phobic society, which substituted fat for carbs.
Now we know that carbs are killing us, creating this huge problem with obesity. The closer you are to your ideal weight, the healthier you are going to be.
My work was developed based on a study about healthy ageing and what kept people from developing cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. It was a worldwide study.
Three choices were presented to people: one was ideal weight, two was continuous learning and three was exercise. People only knew about the first two, but not about exercise.
Exercise factors in the blood pressure control, the stroke problem and a good cardiovascular system. That started the real science of looking at what exercise did to help our brains continue to grow and stay ready to work.
You have been at the forefront of this. I’m very thankful that you took the time to be with us today. You have written eleven books published in many languages, so our readers should be able to find “Spark” or “Go Wild” in their part of the world.
Thank you again, John, for being here. It’s my pleasure to meet you.
What do you think about the idea of releasing your inner cavewoman? Which part of this lifestyle do you need to address more than the others? Please join the conversation below!