Kojo chats with two reporters who spent the past year following the launch of Ron Brown College Preparatory High School, D.C.'s new school for boys of color. Their stories are now featured in "Raising Kings," a collaboration between NPR and Education Week.
A new documentary explores the secret to a long life, offering advice from a 101-year-old beer-drinking, cigarette-smoking marathon runner and a 94-year-old heart surgeon, among others. Filmmaker Mark Wexler joins Kojo to talk about why society makes it uncool to grow old, and what we can do about it.
- Mark Wexler Director and Producer, How to Live Forever
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWhen the death of his mother coincided with his 50th birthday, documentary filmmaker Mark Wexler decided it was time to ask some questions about getting old. His quest took him from a funeral directors' convention to a cryonics firm that will preserve you after death and hold body parts to nursing homes around the country.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe interviewed a 94-year-old doctor who still performs open heart surgery, a 101-year-old marathon runner who still smokes and drink -- drinks beer and the spry-looking Jack LaLanne, who, at 94, was still performing the two-hour-a-day workouts that made him an exercise legend.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAlong the way, Wexler probes the differences between quantity and quality of life and examines how our attitudes about aging impact the way we cope with our graying years. Mark Wexler joins us in studio. He is director and producer of "How to Live Forever." Mark Wexler, good to meet you.
MR. MARK WEXLERNice to be here, Kojo.
NNAMDIA convergence of life events prompted your decision to make this documentary about human longevity, including receiving your AARP card in the mail.
NNAMDIWhen you began your interviews for this film, what were your own thoughts about living a long life?
WEXLERYou know, when I began the film, I thought, basically, I was going to -- I planned to go around the world and talk to scientists and find out maybe, you know, if I eat, you know, 20 more blueberries a day or took this many more supplements that I would add another three or four years or hopefully much longer. And the movie turned out a little different as I moved into it, but that was the initial thought.
WEXLERYou know, I've also been interested in issues of health and longevity. And, you know, I had, as a lot of baby boomers, I had a lot of things I wanted to do. And when I realized -- my mom died. Then my AARP card arrived, and I thought, you know -- that suddenly struck me, like, maybe there's a way to add a few more years, maybe to have a whole new chapter in one's life. So that sort of really started me on this exploration worldwide.
NNAMDILet me see what our listeners think about this. How long would you want to live? What do you think is an appropriate life span? 800-433-8850 is the number to call. 800-433-8850. Eight hundred years, you think, would be an appropriate life span for you? There are some people in this documentary who are willing to go for 500. But you can also join the conversation at our website, kojoshow.org.
NNAMDIAt the beginning of the movie, you say, it's not death I fear so much. It's being stuck with the uncool trappings of old age. Why is it, in our culture, uncool to be old?
WEXLERThat's a good question. You know, I think we idolize youth here in America and the Western society. And if you go to Japan, especially Okinawa, you know, people who are, you know, in their 100-plus, these older people are venerated. And they're looked up to. So I think, unfortunately or fortunately, we live in a society -- and I'm part of that society and we're all part of that society that glorifies youth and wants -- youth is cool, and getting older is not.
WEXLERYou know, well, I was fortunate to be able to spend a lot of time around people -- a lot of people over 100 years old who are very active and very inspirational in many ways. And that was one of the great benefits of being in the movie and making the movie, was that I got to, you know, see what the possibilities are, you know, down the line.
NNAMDITalk about some of the people you met during the course of making this film, especially the people you met in Okinawa. What makes people in Okinawa especially long-lived?
WEXLERI think in Okinawa, it's kind of the perfect storm. There are people there in Okinawa -- first of all, there is no word for retirement in the language there. And people -- when you're 90 years old, you're just starting to be considered getting older. And people are living and working into their hundreds there. I think it's -- you know, a lot of it -- it's a great environment. There is very clean air and water. They're eating very rich foods there.
WEXLERAnd also, I think they have, what in Japanese they call ikigai, which is a reason to get up in the morning, a purpose. And throughout talking to all these people, I found that purpose is really -- is key to longevity, one of the keys. You know, these people are not, you know, as we, here, are, you know, going to the gym, exercising, trying to live longer.
WEXLERThey're just living their lives and living a long time. So that's one of these things. I don't know exactly what's going on in Okinawa that's making people live, but I think it's a combination of several factors.
NNAMDIIn one of the scenes in this movie, you attended a convention of funeral directors. And after touring the various coffins and cremation urns, a mechanical arm lowers you into a casket. What was that like?
WEXLERYou know, I'm one of the -- I'm the sort of this character who brings this through the movie, you know -- and a lot of times, I sort of just -- I just -- I'm sort of disassociated when I'm doing these things.
WEXLERBut that was the one time when I was lowered into this casket at this very bizarre convention where, you know, several thousand people basically get together over -- in one huge, you know, auditorium, or actually convention hall, to talk about death in very open ways because we all try to avoid talking about death. And here's a -- but being lowered -- to answer your question, being lowered in the coffin, it just felt very -- it felt creepy, I must say.
NNAMDIIt was surreal. I got to tell you that. Is there a secret to living a long life? Call us, 800-433-8850. Beyond your 70s, 80s or 90s? Have you or a family member stayed active through your golden years? 800-433-8850. Or you can go to our website, kojoshow.org. Ask a question or make a comment there.
NNAMDIYou interviewed exercise legend Jack LaLanne, who has since died, and he told you to stay in shape by walking and swinging your arms vigorously. Let's listen to a clip from the movie. He's telling you to work your arms harder, and he's sharing his philosophy of life.
NNAMDIRight now, Mark Wexler. You got to keep exercising, is what he seemed to be trying to tell you. He seems to combine fitness of both body and mind. Of course, he passed in January of this year.
WEXLERYeah, I mean, I was so happy to be able to be one of the last people to interview and photograph him in his personal gym up in Northern California. And it was a great pleasure to do this because, you know, I'd watch my mom when I was five years old, him -- watching, you know, exercised with him on the TV and then to be able to work out with him. And he really, you know, he beat me -- beat my ass, you know, work, work -- I couldn't -- he was going on much longer than I was.
WEXLERAnd then to be able to work out with him in his gym was just a real pleasure, you know? And then there's so many -- he had so many great lines that we weren't able to put in the film, but we could easily make a whole film about Jack LaLanne. And -- but I asked him if he liked to exercise, and he said, I hate it. And I said, what are you talking about? He goes, it's really hard to leave a warm bed and a hot woman for a cold gym.
WEXLERAnd his wife Elaine was, you know, sitting there, you know, who's in her late 70s, was there, listening to this. So just -- unbelievable lines coming out of him.
NNAMDII like to tell people you like having exercise. That's what you like. You've done it. It's over. But doing it itself is not that much fun. But what also impressed me, particularly in the movie, is the 92-year-old fisherman in Japan who dives off his boat to set nets and fish wearing only a wetsuit and goggles, no fins or oxygen tank. You followed him into the water. He seems to get more vigorous once he hits the water.
WEXLERYeah, I mean, I saw several people in Okinawa who were just living their lives and living like they were 20, 30 years, you know, younger than their actual age. And so that's -- that was a real, you know, inspiration and great to be around those people.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Mark Wexler, director and producer of "How to Live Forever." It's a documentary film. I was struck in the film by how early in life people begin worrying about getting older. Did that surprise you?
WEXLERI think particularly nowadays, when I think, you know, some gerontologists in the movie said that, you know, I think in the next 20 or 30 years, they believe, with certain technologies coming right around the corner, that we will be able to extend life maybe even up to 1,000 years. And, you know, I actually think some of this is possible. I think the timeline may be a little exaggerated.
WEXLERBut I think, you know, the fountain of youth has always been very appealing to many people. And now, I think, we actually are at a stage where we actually might be able to extend life significantly. And this will affect all -- different kinds of things in society that we have no idea, good and bad, affect things. So I think we're in for a lot of changes down the line, not far from now.
NNAMDIHere is Eric in Alexandria, Va. Eric, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ERICA very interesting discussion. Do you know the first problem especially for men and probably for women, too, with aging? And I haven't heard it in the discussion yet. The loss of sex appeal. And I'm not necessarily saying with any -- with your wife or husband or you -- and any significant other. But the loss, I guess, of the ability to have sex appeal is one thing that I'd like to hear you guys address, if it was addressed.
NNAMDIMark Wexler, you should know, received a marriage proposal in Okinawa from a 107-year-old woman. So I guess he's feeling a lot better about his sex appeal than some other people.
WEXLERYeah, across generations. You know, one of the sort of the proven ways of -- it's actually not proven. One of the ways of extending one's life, they found, is with this thing called calorie restriction, and that is eating maybe -- basically 1,500 calories a day, which -- and so I did try this in the movie, and I found that it was a miserable way to live. I mean, I would gladly give up a few years to be able to eat the way I want to eat.
WEXLERBut all of the calorie restrictors, actually, their testosterone levels were -- are way lower. So I think that is affecting their sexuality. But I don't know. I mean, I think it's all -- sex appeal is very much in one's mind as is, I think, longevity, in a lot of ways. I think that your belief systems about what it's like to grow older really affect how you grow older. It's, you know -- and that is one of the takeaways from the movie.
WEXLERI mean, yes, the air we breathe and the food we eat, these are all very important things. But how you think about things, your mindset, affects your physiology, and I think that's true with sex and everything else.
NNAMDIYou explored, as you mentioned, what science and medicine will contribute ultimately to longevity. What are the ramifications of dramatically extending our life expectancy? Would the planet and society be able to cope with a significantly larger population?
WEXLERI mean, these are all very good questions. I mean, some of the people who are promoting, you know, or saying that this will happen very soon are very excited about this. And -- but they feel that there will be, possibly, you know, solutions to what people see as issues, even -- we don't even know because, you know, 50 years from now, we don't know what kind of technologies will exist that will solve these issues.
WEXLERSo -- but, yes, there are all kinds of questions, not only, you know, population issues, but also, you know, interpersonal issues. You know, do you want to be married to the same person for 3- or 400 years, you know? So there are all these issues that will definitely come up.
NNAMDILet's listen to former television star Suzanne Somers, who was 60 at the time of the film. She talked about her Las Vegas show and said she looks forward to being 100 or 120.
NNAMDIMark Wexler, were you surprised by the extent to which she and other people go to stay young?
WEXLERYou know, I think everyone has their different paths. Some people are consumed with, you know, what kind of foods they eat, other people, what kinds of, you know, things they can ingest. You know, I think that -- I'm not surprised. I'm just fascinated by how, you know, people want to live longer.
WEXLERAnd also in a healthy way as well.
NNAMDIAfter the journey of making this documentary, how does -- how has "How to Live Forever," the documentary, affected its director and producer in terms of your outlook on life and longevity?
WEXLERYou know, making the film taught me that there is really not one secret to a long life. You know, I've learned to embrace the experiences that each stage of life has to offer and kind of live in the moment and maybe not to worry so much. But now I'm actually, you know, worrying that I'm worrying too much. But then there was a study the other month that said that people, actually, who worry a lot actually live longer. So that actually made me feel much better.
NNAMDIGood. Now, I'll worry about that. Mark Wexler is director and producer of "How to Live Forever." And I got some information about "How to Live Forever." It's showing at the Landmark E Street Theater this Friday and Saturday, July 29 and 30. Mark Wexler will be on hand for Q and A at 7:10 p.m., both nights. And on Friday night, he'll be joined by Bill Newcott, entertainment editor for AARP magazine. Mark Wexler, thank you for joining us.
WEXLERThank you very much.
NNAMDIThank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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