Santa knows secret to aging well

He could lose the cookies and pipe but otherwise is in good shape

December 03, 2004|By Korky Vann | Korky Vann,Hartford Courant

He's a senior citizen untouched by the typical effects of aging. His health is stable, his income covers his practice of showering lavish gifts on everyone he knows, his social calendar is packed with holiday merrymaking, and his appearance remains unchanged without the aid of Botox or cosmetic surgery.

Meet jolly "old" St. Nick, a spry gentleman of indeterminate age who's managed to stay lively and quick for hundreds of years in spite of his weakness for too many cookies and sugar plums.

Dr. John Hutchins, director of the University of Mississippi's Santa Institute, says the secret to Santa's longevity can benefit everyone looking to live productive lives well into the golden years.

The Santa Institute, staffed by Hutchins, a professor of anatomy, and other faculty members at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, strives to "study" many of the mysteries that have baffled children and adults for generations.

"Santa could stand to lose a few pounds, or he could be at risk for Type 2 diabetes, and he should immediately stop smoking that pipe," says Hutchins, 46, who created the institute in 1996.

"On the other hand, he's got rewarding work he loves to do; he lives a simple life in the North Pole, which is a very quiet area, so his stress level is low, at least most of the year; and he has a very positive attitude. We could all learn a lot from Santa."

Which is just what Hutchins and his panel of experts try to do. Along with Hutchins, the Santa Institute faculty includes Dr. Rebecca Waterer, an associate professor of medicine, who studies Santa's eating habits; Dr. David Dzielak, associate vice chancellor for research, who studies Santa's brain activities; and Dr. Andrew Grandy, director of laboratory animal facilities, who researches whether reindeer really know how to fly.

The group considers questions submitted by the public and presents their findings at an annual Santa Institute news conference.

Although the institute and its research are whimsical, Hutchins says Santa's success is based on good science. Take all those reindeer, for example. Research shows that if you want to stay active and feel better longer, head for the closest pet shop or animal shelter.

Pet ownership has a statistical significant effect on the physical health of older people, according to a team of Canadian researchers. And studies published in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society showed that caring for Rover or Fluffy -- or Donder or Blitzen -- cuts down on loneliness and acts as a buffer against isolation.

And don't overlook Santa's marriage of many years to Mrs. Claus, says Hutchins. Studies show that married people have lower incidences of many diseases and ailments than people who have never married or who are widowed or divorced. Those with a supportive partner also, on average, recover more quickly from serious illness, according to a Duke University study.

"Mrs. Claus seems to be very supportive of Santa's activities ..." says Hutchins. "I suspect she's a nurturer and occasional caregiver when Santa overdoes."

Although Santa is showing a few age-related conditions, experts say he's handling them in a responsible way. He's most certainly developed presbyopia, the inability to focus on objects close up. His reading glasses help cut down on eyestrain, headaches, eye fatigue and blurred vision.

But his mind, says Hutchins, seems as sharp as ever.

"We haven't seen any real cognitive decline, but by the way we see him making lists and checking them twice, we assume he may be experiencing benign, age-related memory impairment, or forgetfulness," says Hutchins. "In his work, remembering names is important, so the lists are a good tool."

Santa eventually will have to deal with some of the true challenges of aging, such as when to hang up the keys to the sled. Luckily for him, age alone is not the best indicator of driving skill, according to the International Association of Driving Rehabilitation.

As long as Santa maintains his visual perception, range of motion, balance and coordination, takes driver refresher courses and adapts other safe driving techniques, he should be able to safely stay behind the reins.

To help Santa stay healthy, Hutchins suggests households limit the number of holiday goodies left for Santa and consider healthy alternatives, such as raisins or carrots.

"Santa is a great example of positive aging," says Hutchins. "We need to do all we can to help him stay healthy, so we can keep him around forever."

The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper

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