The average life expectancy for an American today is 77.9 years -- but for some people, that’s simply not enough.
Following the death of his mother, documentary director Mark Wexler devoted about three years of his life trying to understand the title premise of his new film, “How To Live Forever.” The documentary (which Wexler promises in the beginning will only take up about an hour and a half of your life) releases nationwide today, offering a comprehensive and surprisingly uplifting look at death, dying, graceful aging and longevity.
Traveling from California to Japan and back again, Wexler spoke to a variety of experts, including scientific leaders, religious figures, funeral directors and even a representative from a group that freezes dead bodies with the intent to bring them back to life when science allows.
But Wexler also interviewed a handful of people in the 80 to 100-plus community (including a few cameos from the oldest people in the world) about why they’ve been able to celebrate so many birthdays. From one of the most famous fitness personalities of modern times to a cigarette smoking marathon runner, here’s some of their most salient advice on aging gracefully:
Delores Bates at age 80, Ms. Senior of Arkansas: Continue to find new dreams
In one of the early scenes of the documentary, Wexler visits the 60-plus Ms. Senior of America Pageant in Las Vegas, where a “philosophy of life segment” replaces the swimsuit portion of the competition. (One senior cracked during this part of the pageant, “I’m may be a senior, but I’m still hot. It just comes in flashes).
Here, we meet Ms. Senior Arkansas, who at age 80 is dancing on stage after a total knee replacement. Her pastor didn’t approve of a trip to sin city, but Bates went anyway. And while she didn’t take home the crown, she says she’s still a winner -- getting married again after being widowed for 17 years. “He can drive at night,” she says. “That’s a plus when you get older.”
Jack LaLanne at age 94, fitness guru: Put yourself first
LaLanne, who passed away earlier this year at the age of 96, spent two hours a day exercising. “This is where I take care of the most important person in my life: me,” he jokes. “Exercise is king. Nutrition is queen. Put them together and you’ve got a kingdom.” Keeping up with a weight lifting, cardiovascular and diet plan until he died, LaLanne believed in treating his body with the utmost respect.
Shinei Miyagi at age 94, resident of Ogimi, Okinawa, Japan: Embrace longevity
Wexler and his crew spent some time in this region of Japan, where living to the age of 100 and beyond is not uncommon. Among the probable reasons are diets packed with nutrients and low in calories and consistent, daily physical activity (not visiting the gym to get a workout, but activities such as gardening, walking or traditional dance). And almost all of them have something to get up for in the morning -- they have no word for retirement. “Long life means living a long time, even if you’re confined to bed,” he says. “Longevity means you are healthy and active until the day that you die.”
Buster Martin at age 101, marathon runner: Be you
Sitting with a pint of beer in a London pub, Martin may not seem like the picture of health. A cigarette smoker since the age of seven, he is currently training to run the London marathon for the second time. “I’ve always been fit. I don’t eat fish. I don’t eat dairy products. But I do love me red meat. I don’t drink tea. I don’t drink water,” he says of his regime. “I’m not like you people … normal.” But one thing he does believe in is staying true to himself -- when Wexler asks for him to rephrase an answer for the sake of the documentary, he declared, “I’m not an actor.”
Phyllis Diller at age 90, comedienne: Laugh often
Diller believes in the old cliché that laughter is, indeed, the best medicine. “I would urge people to laugh more. Children laugh as much as 400 times a day. Adults, 20 times at most,” she says. And that philosophy includes poking fun at the aging process: “You know you’re old when your walker has an airbag. And they’ve discontinued your blood type.” But underneath the humor, Diller explains that she believes in a true connection between a happy mind and a happy body.
Marge Jetton at age 104, nursing home resident: Accept that there aren't always answers
“I have no secrets to a long life,” Jetton says. She spent her 90th birthday in Disneyland, drove her car until she was 101 and says she didn’t feel old until she was 95. But while Jetton says she doesn’t hold the key to longevity, she seems to have found hers by keeping it simple -- biking seven to eight miles five days a week on a stationary bike and lifting five-pound weights for about five minutes. While she says it would be nice to pick out how you were going to die and just go to sleep, the bottom line is that no one ever really knows. “You often wonder what’s gonna get you.”
Check out the trailer here -- then, answer this question that Wexler asks throughout the documentary: If you could take a pill that would allow you to live 500 more years ... would you?