We’ve written before about the remarkable power of art to fuel our brains. Not only does it nourish our imagination, but looking at art has been found to activate critical parts of our brain, helping fend off cognitive decline and dementia. Actually making art brings additional benefits, reducing stress (and the inflammation kindled by stress) and amplifying our sense of wellbeing. But perhaps we can also learn from the lives of artists, many of whom live for above-average life spans with beyond-average health. How do they do this?
For my latest book, Windswept, (thank you to the 413 of you who tuned in to watch our webinar on walking!), I spent months researching one of my artistic and longevity heroines: Georgia O’Keeffe. O’Keeffe died quietly, a few months short of her 99th birthday. And although she’d previously had breast cancer, she was disease-free other than failing eyesight. Her long and healthy life was nothing to do with her genes – both her parents died in middle age. So what can O’Keeffe teach us about a life lived both well and long?
While investigating O’Keeffe’s walking routes I also spent time in her library, where I discovered a large number of health and longevity books. It appears that, from her 60s onwards, O’Keeffe was fascinated by good health and determined to improve her own. Her library included numerous cookery books but also books on vitamins, wholegrains, exercise, organic gardening as well as books with titles like ‘How to Live to 180’ and ‘Cook Right – Live Longer.’
O’Keeffe knew a mere fraction of what we know today. For most of her life she had no access to exotic superfoods, supplements, sunscreen, personal trainers/gyms or HRT. And yet she had an instinctive understanding of what the body and soul need to survive and thrive. And – in my view – she looked utterly fantastic until the very end.
These are a few of the less-known things I learned about Georgia O’Keeffe, which may have helped:
She lived at altitude, spending most of her time in a ranch 7000 feet up. We’ve not written about altitude before but living at a reasonably high altitude (between 4,900 and 8000 feet) has been found to enhance health and longevity in men and – particularly – in women. A study of 10 million Americans found those living at altitude lived for 1-3 years longer than those living at sea level. And the higher the altitude the greater the longevity benefit. Risk of heart attacks fell dramatically at high altitude – particularly for women.
At altitude the air is thinner and contains less oxygen, encouraging our hearts to work harder. Researchers think this protects our hearts by making them work more efficiently. Funnily enough, doctors worked this out two centuries ago, sending the sick and exhausted to rest in Alpine sanatoriums.
She grew her own organic fruit and vegetables. Having spent several years living in New York, O’Keeffe moved to a remote and isolated spot in New Mexico when she was in her mid-50s. Here she gardened, growing all her own organic fruit and vegetables, well away from the scourge of pollution and noise – both of which we’ve written about before. More and more research is linking pollution to poor health, while gardening is increasingly recognised as therapeutic in numerous ways. I talked on our webinar about the importance of getting our hands physically on nature – in soil, on tree trunks, among grass.
She rose at dawn every day, had a cup of herbal tea, then ran through a series of stretching exercises based on a practise called Mensendieck, proven in studies to improve motor function and reduce lower back pain. Starting each day with stretching exercises was something two of the nonagenarians in The Age-Well Project swore by.
We’re huge fans of setting our circadian clocks by waking at the same time every day, as O’Keeffe did. A long term study of 32,000 nurses found that “early risers” were up to 27% less likely to develop depression. A study published last month found that night owls who shifted their sleep/wake clocks to rise at 6am (O’Keeffe’s time) cut their risk of depression by a whopping 40%. We talked on our webinar about the relationship between light and the feel-good hormone, serotonin. Research suggests that an abundance of daylight improves our mood.
She ate three home-cooked meals a day, starting with a large breakfast that often included meat, nuts and yogurt. As we get older our bodies benefit from extra protein and B12. Her daily portion of meat would have ensured she got both sufficient protein and sufficient B12. Her daily yogurt provided a good dose of probiotics, and an intriguing study from 2020 links daily yogurt consumption to a reduced risk of breast cancer – scientists speculate that one of the causes of breast cancer may be inflammation triggered by harmful bacteria. The bacteria in yogurt could dampen this inflammation, apparently. Another reason to have a spoonful of yogurt every day.
O’Keeffe – who loved cooking and often went to bed with a cookery book – then ate a light lunch. Soufflé and salad with foraged herbs was a favourite. She ate her last meal at 5pm – fruit and cheese. An early supper ensured she fasted for 15 hours each night. And yes, we’ve written about the importance of a long overnight fast too. And we all know the importance of eating plentiful vegetables every day. She avoided sugar and, being a farmer’s daughter, canned and froze her own garden produce for the long, cold New Mexican winters.
O’Keeffe ate cheese every day. She never broke a bone – and her daily piece of calcium-rich cheese bought from the next door farm, where she also bought her (organic) milk and butter, may have helped.
She was out in the sun every day – New Mexico has 300 days of sunshine a year (yes, I know… sigh). Without any Factor 50, her body lapped up plenty of Vitamin D. Research from Sweden has found that women who get more sun live longer – we wrote about the astonishing power of sunlight here.
She walked her dogs every day, lengthy walks and climbs that had her much-younger visitors puffing and panting. She walked long distances all her life, much of it up and down hills – which, as I explained on our webinar, works every muscle in the lower half of our body. We’ve also extolled the age-well benefits of dogs on several occasions: good for your gut, your serenity, and so much more. Let’s not forget cats – a recent study published in Current Biology found that cats form deep social bonds with their owners, possibly deeper than those formed by dogs. They just express themselves in a different way. As cat owners will already know….
O’Keeffe was an avid reader. When her sight went, she got someone to read to her for an hour every night. We’ve written about why readers live longer in our book and recently at Noon.
She also loved travelling, which is to say she regularly exposed herself to novelty. Aged 72, O’Keeffe embarked on a world tour, spending weeks in India, Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, Cambodia, Pakistan, the Middle East and Rome. Two years later she rafted for seven days down the Colorado River. At the age of 87 she toured Morocco on a donkey, impelled by her intense curiosity and sense of wonder. She took her last Big Trip aged 96, to Costa Rica. Studies of superagers show many of them to be keen travellers: neuroscientists think travel could enhance our cognitive health because of the way in which new environments force our brains to work harder. After months of map-reading, talking to strangers and grappling with alien local customs as I followed in the footsteps of my Windswept Women, I can vouch for this.
O’Keeffe exposed herself to heat and to cold. Her pueblo bungalow had no central heating, and she recounts being hot in the summer and cold in the winter– but she loved the elements. She loved the wind, she adored storms, she had no truck with a bit of cold, often camping high in the desert where nightly temperatures plunged below zero. We say: keep taking those inflammation-busting cold showers!
O’Keeffe possessed grit – something else we wrote about in The Age-Well Project and a trait possessed by all the women I researched for Windswept. Grit (or resilience) enables us to learn and move on from set-backs. It doesn’t mean we bounce back. It means we learn, recover, accommodate our pain/grief/loss and then move forwards as older, wiser, and changed human beings. O’Keeffe had to recover from numerous set-backs, including the early deaths of both parents, nervous breakdowns in which she was hospitalised, an unfaithful husband, wounding reviews, cancer and a mastectomy. And much more besides.
Incidentally, psychologists often attribute ‘grit’ to cognitive flexibility – a capacity to be open-minded and adaptive. Cognitive flexibility has been linked to both creativity and longevity as well as resilience. Read more about cognitive flexibility here.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, O’Keeffe had a profound sense of purpose. She knew she wanted to be a painter from the age of 12. She made huge sacrifices to become a painter, ultimately dedicating her life to her work. As she said ‘I’ve always known what I wanted – most people don’t’. She didn’t rate happiness, saying it comes and goes. It was work that made her pulse race. Every day she lugged canvases and paints outside, often painting for 14 hours a day. When her sight went, she turned to ceramics, working to the very end.
We can’t all be successful artists. But we can cultivate a sense of purpose and meaning. We can all seek out interests that give us joy and spark our curiosity. And we can all walk, stretch, fast over-night, eat a balanced diet and develop our grit. Some can even handle the odd cold shower.
And doesn’t O’Keeffe look splendid? With her single breast, without hair dye, make-up, botox or fillers, she reminds us all how to live comfortably in our own skin.
Do you have a longevity hero or heroine? Please do share with us in the comment box or on social media. We’d love to hear.
And if you missed the webinar, you can watch it here.
Alternatively if you’d rather listen while you walk, you can hear me discussing Windswept with the wonderful Catie Friend here.