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Dr. Gupta: The lessons I learned in 'Chasing Life'

By Sanjay Gupta, M.D.
CNN Senior Medical Correspondent
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- When I began researching "Chasing Life" a year and a half ago, I wanted to write a book about immortality. Futurists are envisioning a time when science is able to beat death, and I was fascinated by what that would mean, both physiologically and philosophically.

During the intervening 18 months, "Chasing Life" came to mean something very different and very personal to me.

As I traveled to meet scientists and others trying to unlock the secrets of long life, I realized that we are still a long way from fully understanding aging and further still from figuring out ways to stop or reverse it.

At the same time, I came to learn how much we do know about ways we can chase life every day to live longer, healthier lives. I learned that most people don't necessarily want to live longer, unless they are of sound mind and body, without terrible illness late in life, not confined to beds or wheelchairs. They want to live their lives like an incandescent light bulb, burning brightly, until they suddenly go out. No flickering at the end. What I learned became the basis for the book and a CNN special. It also became my own guide for increasing what demographers sometimes refer to as "healthspan," the number of healthy years we live.

By most estimates, lifestyle accounts for 70 percent of our life span. Our genes are responsible for the rest. Lifestyle is nothing but the end result of the hundreds of decisions -- large and small -- that we make every day of our lives.

Living well now is like putting money in a savings account. The dividends will come later, as you age. The better you are at "saving," the richer you will be when it comes time to reap the rewards.

I started writing "Chasing Life" after my first daughter was born, and my second daughter was born before the book was finished. These were life-changing events. Before becoming a father, I didn't worry much about my own mortality. Now, I want to take better care of myself so I can be there for the milestones in my childrens' lives. I want to see their graduations and weddings. I want to be there when they have children.

"Chasing Life" does not contain any gimmicks. There is no single, simple key to a long, healthy life. It's human nature to want an easy solution, but there isn't one. Life is complicated. "Chasing Life," the book and CNN documentary, use the latest research as a practical guide for living the longest, healthiest life possible.

I've tried to take my own advice to heart, quite literally. I have a family history of heart disease, and I learned in the course of working on "Chasing Life" that my own long-term health was not nearly optimized. I am now trying to eat better -- shooting for at least seven different colored foods a day. I'm also trying to reduce the stress in my life. Both will lower my risk of developing heart disease later.

I've also tried to add more weightlifting to my exercise regimen. One thing I've learned during the writing of this book is how important lifting weights can be to avoiding broken bones and pneumonia later in life, while improving weight control, strength and posture now.

I've also become aware of how attitude can have a profound effect on our health and longevity. A positive outlook means a healthier body, more often than not. A sense of worth, of family, of joy -- all these can have profound and positive effects on your physical well-being. Okinawans, who are traditionally very long-lived, have a wonderful word: ikigai, which means "a sense of purpose."

Working on "Chasing Life" has helped give me ikigai. I hope reading it, watching it, or maybe both, help give you a sense of purpose, too.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta is CNN's senior medical correspondent. David Martin, a senior producer with CNN Medical News, contributed to this report.


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Dr. Sanjay Gupta's investigation of how to live a longer, healthier life took him to Moscow, where he investigated the use of stem cell injections as an anti-aging therapy.

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