Dr. Donald Abrams provides integrative medicine consultation to cancer patients at the UCSF Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Mount Zion. A physician since 1977, Abrams spent the first half of his career at the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco. In 2003, after meeting Dr. Andrew Weil, a pioneer in the field of healthy aging, Abrams shifted his focus to using complementary therapies, especially as a means to support the aging body. His research interests include mind-body treatments, botanical therapies, medical marijuana and traditional Chinese medicine.
What sparked your interest in healthy aging?
I'm interested primarily because I'm in the process of doing it. But if I had to pinpoint a moment it would be in 2003 at the Telluride Mushroom Festival in Telluride, Colo., when I heard Dr. Andrew Weil speak. I was struck by the wisdom of his words, particularly his advice to embrace the experience of aging as a stimulus for spiritual awakening and growth. I said to myself "aha" I want to know how to do that!
How does your approach to aging differ from the culture at large?
We live in a youth-oriented society. Our culture spends a lot of time, energy, and resources trying to reverse aging. The problem is that aging is totally natural and, in fact, quite beautiful. I think of aging as something that adds value. As a culture, we appreciate things that get better with age, such as wine, cheese, and redwoods, more than we appreciate our elders. Even musical instruments, like the famous Stradivarius violins, are most valuable and beautiful when they are old. That's how I'd like to age.
As an oncologist, you work primarily with people who have cancer. Do you see people's perspective on aging change after a cancer diagnosis?
Many people become grateful for the opportunity to age. There are 12 million cancer survivors in the United States. It may sound like an oxymoron but I think people who've had a cancer diagnosis can continue to age healthfully.
What is the most difficult thing for people to accept about aging?
The hardest thing to accept is loss. As we age, we lose both physical and mental function. We lose speed. We lose some of the flexibility, agility, and comfort we once had in our bodies. And, of course, the loss extends beyond our bodies. As you age, your friends age right along with you. So, the older you get, the more likely you are to experience the death of close friends. And, of course, eventually you lose your parents. Incorporating loss into life is difficult for most people but it does get easier with time. Maybe because age confers a certain understanding that life itself is the most valuable thing you have and what's valuable is still being here, as one friend of mine puts it, "on the right side of the turf."
How do you approach aging?
For me the keys are nutrition, exercise and state of mind. By state of mind, I mean controlling stress, keeping the mind active, learning new things, staying socially engaged, and being flexible in mind and body. I took up yoga when I turned 60 because I knew I would need strength, flexibility, balance and serenity in the years ahead.
Has your perspective on practicing medicine changed as you've aged?
I've become more humble. When I was younger, I thought I knew it all. Now that I'm older I realize that I hardly know what I think I know. Try as I might, I can't always get it all right. Also, as a young doctor, I used to think medicine was a science. Today I have a better appreciation of the art of medicine. Plus, now that I have gray hair, my patients heed my advice more often because they know I am speaking from experience.
What's the most important thing a person can do to age well?
Eat an anti-inflammatory diet, meaning lots of fruit and vegetables. Get most of your nutrients from food, not vitamins or supplements. Of course, there are a few exceptions to that rule especially for aging adults. For instance, after age 50 the skin and kidneys can't make all the vitamin D you need from the sun, so a supplement is a good idea. Other nutrients worth supplementing as you age are calcium and magnesium because the bones tend to thin a bit. Of course, resistance exercise is also important for maintaining strong bones. The last supplement I recommend is omega-3 fatty acids because most people don't eat enough cold water fish to keep the body in balance.
Any last words about aging?
You can be smart when you're young, but you need to be old to be wise.
Interviewed by Catherine Guthrie
Photo by Tom Seawell