Last week I had the opportunity to participate virtually in the 7th Annual Symposium on Positive Aging hosted by The Wechsler Center For Modern Aging at the Marlene Meyerson Jewish Community Center Manhattan in New York. The theme of the event was “Living Your Best Life!”
A distinguished columnist and author on personal health
The morning keynote featured a conversation between Abigail Pogrebin, author and host of the JCC’s What Everyone’s Talking About and Jane Brody, New York Times Personal Health Columnist. I’ve been a fan of Jane’s ever since she started her award-winning Personal Health column in 1976. As a long-time Times subscriber, I think I’ve read almost every post since the early 80s, including her final column last February when she announced her retirement after 57 years at the paper.
Jane is also the sole or principal author of more than a dozen books, including the best-selling Jane Brody’s Nutrition Book and Jane Brody’s Good Food Book. Her latest, Jane Brody’s Guide to the Great Beyond, is a practical guide to help people prepare medically, legally, and emotionally for the end of life.
Talking about nutrition and exercise as we age
At 81, Jane Brody is fit and trim and preaches about her positive health practices with gusto. However, like all of us as we age, she is not without health issues. A former avid swimmer, Jane shared how she used to bike to the YWHA every day to go swimming until her shoe caught the bicycle pedal and she fell and hurt one of her ribs. No longer able to swim or bike, she discovered that walking up and down the hill with her shopping cart to Whole Foods is good exercise.
Her big push for healthy living is nutrition and food. She pays attention to the quality of the foods she puts in her body. “You get up in the morning. What are you putting in your mouth? Plan what you are going to do,” says Jane. For example, she watches her carbs and reveals that if she eats more carbs for lunch she watches how many carbs she consumes at dinner.
“When I was in my 20s I weighed 45 pounds more than I do now,” says Jane. “I eat three meals and one treat a day.” She says she is an avid reader of food labels, especially since she loves cookies and ice cream. “I buy Breyers Frozen Dairy Dessert,” said Jane. “Breyers is lower in fat.” Ooh, ooh, ooh, so do I. Jane, so do I. I also buy Breyers Frozen Dairy Dessert for my boyfriend E. He loves the chocolate chip flavor which is a bit higher in fat but still lower than all the other full fat ice creams and just as good or better.
A personal health writer emerges
A fellow Cornell grad, Jane always wanted to be a veterinarian. That’s why she went to Cornell. She majored in biochemistry and went to work at a lab. Not finding happiness, she thought writing about science would be more interesting.
She got a job at the Times and her articles morphed into a weekly column on Personal Health. Not being a doctor, she expected to get push back from the medical community. Meantime, many doctors liked her plain speak so much that they copied her articles and gave them to their patients. Even her internist had her books on his shelf.
Jane pushed the envelope on what could be openly talked about, writing about everything from impotence to masturbation. In the early days, her editor pushed back on some of the words she wanted to use.
“I used my personal life when it would be helpful to others,” said Jane. Writing about cancer — she lost her mother to ovarian cancer and was screened every year as a preventive measure. Writing about heart disease — her father died at 71 from a heart attack. Writing about her husband’s death — he was a life-long smoker despite promising to stop when they married. He was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer and didn’t want treatment. He died 6 weeks after diagnosis. “I learned at an early age that shit happens and you just have to go forward,” said Jane.
Living through the pandemic
During the pandemic Jane commented that she took an inventory of her life and made changes. “I stopped coloring my hair,” she said. “This is ridiculous. Why am I doing this?” She resisted covering up her face and rarely wears makeup anymore. “Wrinkles be damned,” admits Jane.
Bytes of Wisdom on Wellness
Jane had many positive tips on wellness during the Q&A. Here’s a sampling:
DIETING: “The word diet came from the word “to die.” Diets should be banished. You have to learn how to eat.” She admits that discipline is hard for some. “I don’t know what the secret is to discipline, but it feels right.” Her advice: “eat whole grains and skip the whites – white rice, white bread. If your plate is 2/3rds filled with veggies, you can’t have that much more.”
COPING WITH STRESS: “The most important thing to coping with stress is exercise. Exercise is critical.”
MEDICAL CANNIBIS: “I use 1000 mg CBD cream on my injured rib. It works better than Voltaren.”
SUNSCREEN: “Wish I had it when I was growing up in Brighton Beach. My grandmother always looked like a rotisserie chicken.” OMG Jane, my mom did too. She and my dad used that orangey Bain du Soliel.
MINDFULNESS: “I’m not a meditator. I’m not good at it. Mindfulness takes many forms. Pay attention to the here and now. Slow down. I never knew how to stop. At 81, now I’m practicing pacing. Slowing down and doing nothing.” Me too. Me too. Or at least I’m working on it.
BREAKFAST: “You have to fuel your morning. It doesn’t have to be the minute you wake up. I have a small snack before I exercise and a bigger breakfast when I get back after exercise.” She wrote a column about breakfast cereals and encourages people to read the labels — many cereals have added sugar. Jane said the best cereal is oatmeal. She cooks steel cut oats and adds toppings like fruit and nuts. My favorite is steel cut oats too.
Jane also loves peanut butter. “I eat Jiff or Skippy. I’m not rigid about my brand. If you prefer almond butter, eat almond butter.” I do prefer Trader Joe’s almond butter. It’s my favorite.
RELATIONSHIPS: “The power of relationships is so important to health. Loneliness is not good for you. One of my joys is I have a dog. I take the dog out three times a day and talk to people. Some I don’t know. I don’t walk through life ignoring my surroundings.”
”I strive to say something positive to a stranger or person every day. When I see others talking to their children instead of being on the phone I compliment them.”
Jane’s new book on end of life planning
Being an octogenarian, Jane reinforced that it’s important to come to terms with the end and prepare for it.
That’s one of the reasons she wrote Jane Brody’s Guide to the Great Beyond. It’s a primer on all the things one needs to think about — from who’s going to take care of whom to where do you need to go when you can’t take care of yourself. “It’s not enough to have a living will,” said Jane. “Everyone has to know exactly what you want.”
A life well lived
In closing, Jane said that the day after her 80th birthday she wrote a column about her life. “My bucket list is empty. My family is thriving.”
And her current philosophy is a good one: “Live every day as if it could be your last but with an eye on the future in case it’s not.”
Thanks Jane. That’s exactly what I intend to do!