Be positive. Researchers have established a longevity benefit for those of us who find a way to go through life with hope and optimism. A Yale study found maintaining a positive attitude as we age can extend our lives by as much as 7½ years. Focusing on the joy and beauty in life lengthens and enriches the journey.
The term Blue Zones has been used to describe places where people live long and healthy lives. What exactly does it take to live a long and healthy life? What is the science and the secret behind longevity and life extension? In this series, we are talking to medical experts, wellness experts, and longevity experts to share “5 Things You Need To Live A Long, Healthy, & Happy Life”. As a part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing journalist and author William J. Kole.
William J. Kole is an acclaimed journalist and former foreign correspondent for The Associated Press who has reported from North America, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.
His first book, THE BIG 100: The New World of Super-Aging (Oct. 3, 2023, Diversion Books), was inspired by his 103-year-old grandmother and his reporting from France on 122-year-old Jeanne Calment.
Kole is a recipient of 2022 fellowships in aging journalism at Columbia University in New York and the National Press Foundation in Washington, D.C.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’?
I grew up in Massachusetts in a family of engineers, and I was the black sheep — bookish and drawn to literature. I was a teenager in 1974 when The Washington Post’s revelatory reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein brought down President Nixon, and after that, all I wanted to be was a journalist.
Once that dream came true, I made it my ambition to become a foreign correspondent — a goal fulfilled in 1995 when AP sent me to Paris. Honestly, I still can’t believe Paris was my first international assignment!
After a couple of exhilarating and very newsy years in the French capital, I became AP’s bureau chief in Amsterdam. My longest foreign assignment was as bureau chief in Vienna, where I oversaw coverage of a dozen countries across Central and Eastern Europe. I also spent weeks at a time on assignment in Africa and the Middle East.
Last autumn, I retired a little early as AP’s New England editor to complete THE BIG 100, an exploration of extreme longevity and how the phenomenon of more of us living to triple-digit ages is transforming society.
I haven’t completely overcome my addiction to daily news coverage, though. Early each weekday morning, I work a few hours as a copy editor for Axios. All I can say is thank God for coffee!
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
Oh, gosh, there have been so many it’s hard to pick just one.
The most fun I ever had as a journalist was covering a meeting in Prague of leading international astronomers who decided to demote poor Pluto to dwarf planet status — a controversial move that, back here on Earth, forced the hasty revision of textbooks and those hanging solar system mobiles in public school classrooms. Some of the astronomers who wanted Pluto to remain a planet dressed up like Disney’s Pluto dog character. It was nuts!
But easily the biggest story I ever covered was Princess Diana’s death in that horrible car crash in Paris. My stories, done in tandem with a French colleague, were the first to report that Diana’s chauffeur was intoxicated and had been speeding wildly through the tunnel in the moments before the fateful crash.
My biggest takeaway from the Diana story was the importance of reporting carefully, accurately and with decorum — all qualities that distinguished AP’s coverage from the rubbish the British tabloids were churning out. (They’d sent “reporters” to Paris who didn’t speak French, and all they did was sit around their hotel bars making things up, like Diana was pregnant. It would have been laughable had it not been so brazenly unethical.)
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful for who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I couldn’t have had the career I did without the support and encouragement of my partner and the love of my life, Terry DeYonker Kole.
She’s a mega-talented visual journalist and illustrator in her own right, yet she selflessly focused on creating a warm, nurturing and restorative home environment for me and our two kids. I’m pleased and beyond proud that she’s carved out a second act as an acclaimed children’s book illustrator.
There’s a reason THE BIG 100 is dedicated to her. She’s an unsung hero. (She’s also an amazing chef. It’s a wonder I don’t weigh 400 pounds.)
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
№1 would have to be curiosity. I always tell aspiring young journalists that if they’re not curious about the world around them, they really need to find something else to do with their lives.
I mentioned my grandmother, who lived nearly to 104, and my reporting on 122-year-old Jeanne Calment as inspiring me to take a closer look at centenarians. But sheer curiosity led me to something else that prompted me to write THE BIG 100.
In May 2020, at the height of the pandemic, I found myself wondering about COVID’s impact on the oldest of us. That led to an award-winning article about how people aged 100 and up were being hit hard. Curiosity is essential.
№2 would surely be empathy. The stereotype of an obnoxious reporter thrusting a microphone into someone’s face is the stuff of memes because sadly such people exist. That’s never been how I roll — either on a story or in life. All of us face heartache and disappointment. A little empathy and kindness go a long way toward helping us overcome life’s setbacks.
When I ran a newsroom, if I sensed that one of my reporters was having a tough time, I made sure they took whatever time they needed off from work to rest, recover, and recharge. People shouldn’t have to ask. Those of us who manage others should put empathy above productivity.
№3 would probably be generosity. Selfishness is all too often our default setting. I’ve found great joy in small ways to be generous to others, like picking up the check at lunch; donating to the local food bank; and sharing clothing or cash with those less fortunate, particularly the immigrant newcomers in our community.
We’ve all been there, or if we haven’t, our ancestors certainly were. Paying it forward is infinitely more satisfying than hoarding wealth. My faith teaches me that, and it’s also something I learned from my father, one of the most generous people I’ve ever known.
OK, thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of our interview about health and longevity. To begin, can you share with our readers a bit about why you are an authority in the fields of health, wellness, and longevity? In your opinion, what is your unique contribution to the world of wellness?
I’m a competitive marathoner and a nationally certified distance running coach, so I can speak with some authority on matters of physical fitness.
If I wasn’t a longevity expert before I wrote THE BIG 100, it’s fair to say I am one now! I interviewed dozens of researchers, gerontologists, and centenarians themselves for the book, which includes the latest science illuminating not only why more of us are living to 100 and beyond, but how we can maximize the likelihood that most of those extra years will be healthy and happy ones.
THE BIG 100 details encouraging and, to me, surprising new findings that suggest Alzheimer’s disease and dementia aren’t inevitable as we age. And we’re making rapid headway in our search for new drugs to slow Alzheimer’s. An outright cure remains elusive, but hope is building that we’ll see one in our lifetimes.
Seekers throughout history have traveled great distances and embarked on mythical quests in search of the “elixir of life,” a mythical potion said to cure all diseases and give eternal youth. Has your search for health, vitality, and longevity taken you on any interesting paths or journeys? We’d love to hear the story.
I have to say I’m not a huge fan of purported potions or elixirs.
One time I was on assignment in Bosnia, and the Bosnian photographer working with me took me to a river flowing with water that was said to have healing properties. I splashed some on my face and it burned my eyes like crazy! They were bloodshot for the rest of the day.
It turns out the water had high quantities of minerals including phosphorus. (Sava, wherever you are, the statute of limitations hasn’t run out on that little stunt. I’m coming for ya!)
Based on your research or experience, can you please share your “5 Things You Need To Live A Long & Healthy Life”? (Please share a story or an example for each)
- Don’t smoke. Nothing will take years off your life and wreck your health like smoking. People in Hong Kong live nearly a decade longer than many Americans, and that’s partly because they’ve made it socially unacceptable to smoke. If you’ve already started, stop.
- Manage your stress. Something that centenarians have in common, apart from great genes, is that they tend to handle their stress well. Stress is part of life, but it also chips away at our health and longevity. Whatever you can do to shed stress will add years to your life.
- Stay active. You don’t have to run marathons or bench-press 300 pounds at the gym, but walking briskly a few times a week will add to your years. There’s something about moving our bodies that not only keeps us physically fit — it’s good for our brains, too.
- Remember to sleep. Our culture encourages us to go, go, go, wringing the last ounce of productivity from every waking minute. There’s nothing wrong with a great work ethic. Just don’t forget to rest. A good night’s sleep gives our cells time to repair themselves; our brains time to recharge; and our immune systems to reset.
- Be positive. Researchers have established a longevity benefit for those of us who find a way to go through life with hope and optimism. A Yale study found maintaining a positive attitude as we age can extend our lives by as much as 7½ years. Focusing on the joy and beauty in life lengthens and enriches the journey.
Can you suggest a few things needed to live a life filled with happiness, joy, and meaning?
A sense of purpose has also been linked to longevity. Scientists have found we live longer when we’re involved in something that satisfies, motivates, and inspires us. In my book, I write about Dr. Ephraim Engleman, a 104-year-old rheumatologist who died at his desk in between seeing patients. He very deliberately refused to retire.
Some argue that longevity is genetic, while others say that living a long life is simply a choice. What are your thoughts on this nature vs. nurture debate? Which is more important?
There’s no denying the role that genes play in getting us to 100. And the few of us who live to 105, 110 or beyond have basically hit all five numbers plus the Powerball in the genetic lottery.
Fortunately, that’s not the whole story. The way we’re wired genetically only accounts for about 25% of what gets us to 90. Our behaviors — things like diet, exercise, sun exposure, not smoking — account for about 75% of what it takes to reach our 90th birthday. After that, the ratio flips: Our genes play a 75% role in getting us to 100 and beyond.
Life sometimes takes us on paths that are challenging. How have you managed to bounce back from setbacks in order to cultivate physical, mental, and emotional health?
Two years ago, I lost one of my brothers, a heavy drinker who died of complications from severe liver disease. He wasn’t just a sibling — he was a friend and a fishing partner — and his death plunged me into depression. Therapy has helped a lot in processing my grief. And since alcoholism runs in my family, I’ve quit drinking myself.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
My late father once told me, “There are no guarantees in life — only opportunities.” He said that in the context of my impending marriage, but I’ve carried it with me throughout my career, my creative pursuits, and my friendships. We’re not promised a long or even a healthy life, but we take advantage of everything we’ve been given to maximize our potential. As Eminem famously says: “You only get one shot / Do not miss your chance to blow / This opportunity comes once in a lifetime.”
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Tech bro billionaires are spending obscene amounts of money on “longevity hacks” — dubious (and potentially dangerous) things like getting stem cell treatments or injections of blood plasma from younger people.
They’re doing this while billions are dying prematurely of hunger, thirst, and disease. Citizens of the Central African Republic have the world’s lowest life expectancy at 53 years. Some of us will live twice as long as that. It’s unconscionable.
I’d love to see a public name-and-shame campaign targeting these billionaires and pressuring them to spend their money where it could do others some good. When I was in college, there was a popular slogan, #EatTheRich. Maybe we could make that hashtag great again.
What is the best way for our readers to continue to follow your work online?
Follow @billkole and @billkolebooks on X, formerly known as Twitter, or visit https://billkolebooks.com/.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent on this. We wish you only continued success.
Thank you! May you live a hundred years! 😊