Getting to Know the 94-Year-Old Dr. Marion Downs…

Marion P. Downs, DHS, DSc (Hon.)

How do some people, as they grow older, continue to lead happy, vigorous, event-filled lives, while others don’t? Meet Dr. Marion Downs. In her 94 years, she has…

Participated in a mini-triathlon (running, swimming and biking) at age 89.
Won Senior Olympics gold medals in tennis.
Achieved mandated hearing tests for more than 90% of US newborns when she was an audiologist in her 50s.
Retired — often.
Here’s what she has to say…
It’s fun to be old. I can do almost anything I want to do. Nobody cares! But one thing I know — to continue, I must take care of myself physically and mentally.
My “old age” got off to a great start. The day I turned 51, I stood at the top of20a hill wearing ski gear that my kids had left in a closet, scared to barrel down that first slope. I turned to the instructor and said, “I can’t do this! It’s too steep. What should I do?” He said, “Shut up and ski! You know how.” I did? Yes, even though it was my first time, somehow I did. So I went.
Now, whenever life gets strange and I don’t know what to do next, I tell myself, “Shut up and live! You know how.”
Most of us are living longer than our parents did, with no guidelines to see us through those critical years. “Girls” in their 80s and younger claim I’m their role model and ask for my longevity secrets.
A few years ago, I noticed that youngsters in their 50s and 60s dared to write books about how to live to a ripe old age. Why not me? I know how! So I wrote a book, too.
My three children, 11 grandchildren and 24 great-grandchildren are 38 great reasons to stick around. But only I can take care of myself. And I do.
I believe in taking full responsibility for one’s own life. Stop blaming Grandpa. According to a report on aging from Harvard, our genes account for only about 25% to 35% of our longevity and 30% of our physiological changes. My parents died at 72. Not me.
Maintaining a vigorous old age requires determination. My number one priority: Daily exercise.
Every morning I stretch for 15 to 20 minutes. Back stretches keep me free of pain from a serious back problem decades ago. Neck and shoulder stretches keep my head high, shoulders back. Daily leg stretches prevent the old folks’ shuffle, caused by short, weak leg muscles. Striding is better.
At home, I do an hour of strengthening exercises (with weights, stretchy exercise bands, on a large balance ball and with a soccer ball) three times a week and one to two hours of aerobics (mostly running, but I love my three-wheel bicycle, too) four times a week. My trainer, whom I call the Marquis de Sade, protects me from harm but keeps me hopping. I see him periodically for consultations about increasing the number of repetitions of an exercise, trying a new exercise regimen or device and general advice and help.
Exercise is play, too. Tennis has been my game since I retired from full-time work at 68. I prefer it over golf because it involves more activity. I play two hours three times a week in a league with changing partners.
I’m no dietitian. But I look pretty good for a nonagenarian, and people ask for my nutritional secrets.
What I eat: Foods high in protein and low in carbohydrates. Lots of fruit and as many veggies as I can swallow.
That regimen keeps me lean, clean, healthy and strong.
Another essential food group: Each morning I put a milk chocolate turtle on the kitchen counter. I admire it all day and eat it at night.
I’ve had them all, done research and come up with some answers…
Osteoarthritis. This age-related degenerative joint disease is the most common condition of older people. Deal with it, forget it and get on with your life.
Keep your joints moving. Exercise is the best long-term remedy.Recommended: If you injure yourself at all, have a sports medicine orthopedist oversee your exercise program. While a torn rotator cuff in my shoulder was healing, my doctor let me play tennis as long as I didn’t raise my arm high while serving.
Bursitis. At one point, hip pain shut down my tennis game. Unacceptable! Acupuncture helped only one side. Cortisone shots worked, but can’t be repeated indefinitely. Vioxx helped, but was taken off the market four years later because it raised heart attack risk. By then, though, it had let me exercise all my joints and subdue the pain for a long time.
Sleeping on my side with a hard pillow between my knees has kept my hip bursitis away. Bonus: This position helps to prevent back trouble.Double bonus: Lying on my left side prevents acid reflux, the surging up of stomach acid that plagued me for years.
Lung disease. Many oldies, including me, pay the price of having smoked in youth. I smoked two packs a day (except during pregnancy and breastfeeding) from ages 18 to 58. At 80, I developed chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). My breathing is impaired, but20I live with it under treatment by a pulmonary specialist. Drugs such as bronchodilators can help. If I weren’t a lifelong exercise fiend, I would be on oxygen.
Vertigo. Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV) is very common in older people. With older age, especially if we have had migraines, the little calcium stones floating inside our ears that help us balance can cut loose and drift into the wrong spaces.
My BPPV started one morning about 10 years ago when I got up and fell right back. I was taken, in a wheelchair, to a vestibular (inner-ear-regulated balance) expert, who maneuvered my head for 30 seconds and sent the rocks back where they belong. Fortunately, the problem hasn’t returned.
Hearing loss. I’ve worn hearing aids since age 80. People who refuse them despite increasing deafness miss a lot. Those who resist (typically, men) may not only lose contact with the world but also ruin their marital relationship. First step: See an ear specialist to make sure the cause isn’t a medical problem.
Skin cancer. Four doctors called my two-inch sore a spider bite. My son-in-law suggested a wound clinic, where a biopsy was done. Diagnosis:Squamous cell carcinoma, one step short of melanoma.
A terrific specialist removed it. Tip of the century: Find the right doctor. Persevere until you do. Get second and third opinions…ask everyone you know for recommendations to specialists… do real research.
Alzheimer’s disease. I haven’t had this one. But both of my husbands did, one older than I and one younger, for a total of 20 years. Was it rough? Oh, yes.
My bridge games, doing crosswords in pen — who knows if they help my brain stay healthy? I keep active and hope for the best.
When I turned 90, I decided to try skydiving. My family tried to stop me. Ha!
Strapped to an instructor, I did a 3,000-foot free fall at 120 miles per hour.
The landing was nice. We glided in. I sat down on a sand pile.
For my 95th, next January, I’m doing it again.

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