September is Healthy Aging Month, a perfect time to take steps to adapt healthy habits. John Whyte, Chief Medical Officer at WebMD, answers common questions about aging and why our perception of aging needs to change.
September is Healthy Aging Month. How would you define healthy aging?
Healthy aging is the adoption of healthy behaviors that allow you to have the highest quality of life. It’s very individualized and personal, based on what your goals are and your underlying health conditions.
What are some myths that we need to dispel about aging?
Some of the biggest myths around aging is that dementia is inevitable. The reality is that most of us don’t develop dementia as we get older. In fact, less than 10% of adults less than 65 experience signs of cognitive decline. Depression is also one of those areas that people think is a natural part of aging, and it isn’t. It is not normal to get depressed as we age. Given concerns about loneliness, we need to be alert to the signs of depression and make sure we get treatment for ourselves and our loved one.
What are some steps people can take today to promote healthy aging?
I always tell people that “food is medicine” and it can be as powerful as a prescription drug. It really does affect all the organs of our body. It is important to eat foods that are nutrient rich—fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy. We need to be eating more fish and less meat. There are good data that show this will improve length of life as well as quality of life. We also need to be more active. Ironically, we tend to be less active as we get older—when in fact it often can have tremendous benefit. We need to strengthen bones and ligaments and prevent decline of muscle mass. We do need to exercise smarter as we get older and do it safely. But too often we just use excuses. You’re never too old to be active! It’s also important to get yearly checkups—including screening for vision and hearing loss. Make sure you get checked for skin cancer. And please don’t forget about your colonoscopy. I find that’s the most common test for which patients don’t show up!
You wrote a book on aging called “Is This Normal? The Essential Guide to Middle Age and Beyond.” What inspired you to write this book?
The dedication of my book reads: To my mother, may we all age as gracefully as you. My mother lived up until her mid-eighties and was quite healthy. I would often talk to her friends since of course she told everyone her son was a doctor. From talking to her friends, I saw a need to help explain what’s normal as we get older and what could be a sign of something more serious. And that can be hard to do sometimes. For example, it’s normal to have difficulty reading fine print as we age, but it’s not normal for signs and objects to look wavy. Physicians don’t always take the time, and sometimes patients feel embarrassed. I also don’t want people to dismiss pain as just a normal part of aging, when sometimes it isn’t. The book helps people to distinguish the difference, in connection with their doctor.
In the book, you answer common questions about aging. What are some of the most common questions you receive?
I always get a lot of questions about memory, and when people should get concerned. I tell people it’s ok to sometimes forget where you place your keys. But it’s not ok if you find your keys in the refrigerator. Sleep is another big area. Our type of sleep changes as we get older (e.g. less deep sleep) but fundamentally we do not need more sleep as we age. It should still take only 15 minutes or so to fall asleep once you lay your head on the pillow. If you are consistently sleeping less than 6 hours or more than 10, you need to get checked out.
You are the Chief Medical Officer at WebMD. What does this role entail?
As the Chief Medical Officer, I lead efforts to develop and expand strategic partnerships that create meaningful change around important and timely public health issues. It’s exciting since I have the opportunity to help educate consumers on important health topics, so they can live their best life. If they have better information, they usually have better health. I’m proud that WebMD is the leader in giving consumers quality, evidence-based health information.
You describe yourself as “passionate about changing how we think about health.” Why does our perception of health need to change?
We are a system that is about sickness—treating you when you have symptoms. We don’t focus enough on wellness and prevention. We need to focus more on preventing disease and helping you maintain health. We still have too much diabetes and high blood pressure. So how do we help people more effectively manage and prevent disease? We have to rethink how we think about health in order to do that. Physicians don’t think enough about health, and honestly, most patients don’t talk to me about how they can overall live healthier.
What are some habits and hobbies you have that help you practice healthy aging?
I have two young sons—6 years and 4 years, so they keep me active, even if I didn’t want to. There’s a lot of running around in my house. I also have been focused on trying to eat more whole foods. I find a key to success is preparation, in making sure such foods are in the house so they are available. Since I travel a lot, I’ve made it a point to always try to eat fish when I’m out for dinner. And honestly, I’m still working on mindfulness—I have a way to go and that’s ok, since healthy aging is a journey!