Andrew Weil has a simple formula on how to age well: Breathe deeply, eat fruit and vegetables, walk, dance, play golf, do yoga, develop a positive attitude, learn a second language, get a massage, put fresh flowers in the house, be sure to love, and pay attention to spiritual health.
Compared with radical diets and extreme cosmetic procedures, Weil's common-sense approach to lifelong well-being has a lot of appeal. He was recently featured on the cover of Time, and his new book, "Healthy Aging," is on the New York Times bestseller list.
But for all his focus on personal health, this Harvard-trained medical professor and wellness entrepreneur is actually a dissenting voice against the current trend of placing so much responsibility for health on the individual. In the national debate over obesity, he points out, federal health officials talk about "personal responsibility" as though being overweight were strictly an individual choice.
"First of all, it's not true," says Weil. A person's weight is determined by a complex interplay of genes, environment and behavior. "It is individual responsibility plus government responsibility plus corporate responsibility," he continues. Unless healthy aging becomes a public responsibility as well as a private one, "things are not going to change."
Okay -- let's say you are president of the United States, I propose to Weil over a dinner of shrimp salad: How would you translate your individual-focused formula for healthy aging into public policy?
We bat around a few ideas, from the outrageous to the obvious. For starters, a president in the Weil mode might apologize for blaming the obesity epidemic on those who struggle to control their weight. "That would be huge," says Weil, as a way to signal a new national agenda for living better based on shared responsibility.
After the surgeon general issues a warning that junk food is hazardous to health, the president could go to the National Institutes of Health and announce a bold initiative to ban high-fat, high-sugar, non-nutritional foods in all hospitals, nursing homes and schools. The Department of Education would fund a No Child Left Behind fitness program that would include exercise and sports, nutritional instruction and techniques for stress reduction. The federal government would also supply a daily vitamin and mineral supplement to every student and require health education in grades K-12.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development would develop models for healthy communities that included safe and accessible sidewalks, pathways and parks for physical activity.
The Environmental Protection Agency would regulate not just for air quality but also for health quality, and rate the social environments of cities: Do supermarkets offer low-cost fresh food and easy-to-fix nutritious meals? Adequate multi-generational housing and efficient public transportation? Safe spaces for physical activity? Opportunities for continuing education and community service? Not to mention access to jobs and health coverage.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services would change its reimbursement formula to cover counseling therapies and preventive measures on par with procedure-driven treatments so that physicians and other health professionals could manage all aspects of a person's health rather that just treat a disease. (At the University of Arizona, Weil is director of integrative medicine, which takes a holistic approach to patients and integrates treatment of mind and body.)
The Food and Drug Administration would more closely regulate dietary supplements and "natural" therapeutics to make sure their anti-aging claims are accurate and protect people from futile treatments.
The National Institute on Aging would carry out a public information campaign to highlight the positive side of getting older. As Weil states in his book, aging can "add richness to life" and "replace the shallowness and greenness of youth with depth and maturity."
Meanwhile, the president would use tax incentives, regulations and legal challenges to get the private sector to assume its responsibility for promoting health, not just for employees but also for consumers.
Weil's message is hopeful and reassuring -- at least to those who can afford avocados and jog in safe neighborhoods. Weil knows that books like his assume a certain level of material comfort and lifestyle choice. But maybe this audience is where the grassroots movement will start to make healthy aging a public responsibility.
Meanwhile, anybody can try Weil's deep-breathing exercises to relieve stress. Some things in health are free.
To comment on this article, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.