Friday, August 16, 2013

The Most Remarkable Book About Longevity--You Won't Believe When It Was Written

In the iconoclastic, long running animated television series The Simpsons, Homer Simpson, one of the main characters who is the husband of Marge, and father of Bart, Lisa and Maggie, is portrayed as a bumbling idiot. One is therefore not surprised when he declares one day that he is "not easily impressed" and then whirls around to declare in excitement "look, a blue car!"

Like Homer, I am also not easily impressed, not even by blue cars. So let me tell you that I just finished a book that really made an impression on me; I hope you will give it serious consideration.

It's a free book written by Luigi Cornao and it can be found under the name, The Art of Living Long. Some refer to it as Discourse on the Somber Life.

What made this health related book different from the 50 other health books I've read in the last 2-3 years. For starters, it was first published in 1558. That's right, it's over five hundred and fifty years old.

Alvise "Luigi" Cornaro (1467–1566) was a Italian nobleman who lived in Venice and wrote treatises on eating properly, including Discorsi della Vita Sobria (Discourses on the Sober Life). Finding himself near death at the age of 35, Cornaro modified his eating habits on the advice of his doctors and began to adhere to a low calorie regimen.  Even though he was born into an affluent family, he fell on hard times, which is well described in the book's introduction about him.

His first treatise was written when he was 83, and its English translation, often referred to today under the title The Sure and Certain Method of Attaining a Long and Healthful Life, went through numerous editions; this was followed by three others on the same subject, composed at the ages of eighty-six, ninety-one and ninety-five respectively. The first three were published at  Padua in 1558. He is said to have died at Padua at age 98, although some references state he was 103.

Although the available edition is obviously in translated English, as the original was written in Italian, I found the writing to be profound, if not poetic.

For those less inclined to read the entire book, I've taken the liberty to cull excerpts that really resonated with me. With each, I add a few comments.


Later in the book, Luigi wrote, "For I have observed that long discourses are read by a few only, while brief ones are read by many; and I most heartily desire that this be read by many, in order that it may prove useful to many. Eloquence…in men of intellect, verily has great power; so much so, indeed, that it will persuade some people to believe things that are not and can not be true."

I agree with him that it is more likely that you will read my writing if I keep them brief, but I overflow with things to write, so I apologize in advance for my sometimes lack of brevity. 

Using Reason

Luigi beseeches us all to use our given skills in reason when it comes to making good decisions regarding our health when he writes, "In a being endowed with reason, the desire for life and health possesses greater weight than the mere pleasure of doing things which are known to be hurtful."  Don't we value life over the mere satisfying of appetite? If so, why do repeatedly choose unhealthy foods despite the consequences?

One of Luigi's more profound statements was, "Whosoever wishes to eat much must eat little." Luigi looks at life in its totality. He is saying that people who don't overindulge their appetites and overeat will live longer and therefore over the course of their lives will have eaten more food than those who overindulge and die early.

Choices Matter

When I read, "The food from which a man abstains, after he has eaten heartily, is of more benefit to him than that which he has eaten," it really struck a chord with me.  Patients and readers have heard me say and write time and again how harmful certain foods, such as added sugars, are to our health, and why eating mostly healthy doesn't neutralize the harmful effects of foods, such as french fries covered in acrylamide, that cause ill-effects.

Process Works

With "It is through order that the sciences are more easily mastered; it is order that gives the victory to armies; and, finally, it is due to order that the stability of families, of cities, and even of governments is maintained," Luigi is explaining the importance of process in living a healthy life. Patients often ask how should they control their appetite when they go out to eat? I explain they need a process such as consuming almonds before leaving for the meal. pre-choosing a selected item from the menu deemed healthiest, and pre-cutting fruits at home so they know it awaits them for dessert when they get back, making them less likely to succumb to temptation to consume a very poor choice from the restaurant menu.

The Value of Life

In my previous blog, A Decade of Life, I used the next quote to exemplify the shortsightedness of sacrificing up to ten years of you personally enjoying healthy living in order to eat what you want. Luigi concurred when he wrote, "Men are as a rule, very sensual and intemperate, and wish to gratify their appetites and give themselves up to the commission of innumerable diseases. When, seeing that they cannot escape suffering the unavoidable consequence of such intemperance as often as they are guilty of it, they say—by way of excuse—that it is preferable to live ten years less and enjoy one’s life.  They do not pause to consider what immense importance ten years more of life, and especially of healthy life, possess when we have reached mature age, the time, indeed, at which men appear to the best advantage in learning and virtue—two things which can never reach their perfection except with time.

First Steps

Yesterday, a patient told me that my suggestions to her to reduce her stress were easier said than done. I agreed, but that didn't mean she shouldn't try. Like Luigi said, "The only difficulty, if any there be, consists in making a beginning." 

More importantly, being healthy is a noble goal and in concordance the Luigi's words,"When a man has fully resolved to realize a noble enterprise and one which he is convinced he can accomplish,--though not without difficulty,--it is made much easier by bending all his energy upon doing it and actually setting to work...Unworthy of a man to abandon a noble undertaking simply on account of the difficulties encountered."

He adds, "Do not think that what is hard for thee to master is impossible for man; but if a thing is possible and proper to man deem it attainable by thee. Persevere then until thou shalt have made these things thy own."  Just do it! Start!

Nature Guides

Sometimes it seems that the reason there is so much food around us is because we are meant to enjoy it. Is that true? Is that natural? "Nature, being desirous to preserve man as long as possible, teaches him what rule to follow in time of illness; for she immediately deprives the sick of their appetite in order that they eat but little—for with little…Nature is content."

Bad Examples

Some people live in denial and/or rationalize to themselves that they are different. They will not succumb to an unhealthy lifestyle including poor food choices. To them, Luigi responds, "I do wish to be told here that among those who lead the most irregular lives there are men, who, in spite of this fact, reach, healthy and robust, those furthest limits of life attained by the temperate; for this argument is grounded upon a position uncertain and dangerous, and upon a fact, moreover, which is of so rare occurrence that, when it does occur, it appears more a miracle than a natural result...There is no doubt, of course, that a man blessed with a strong constitution will be able to preserve himself longer by living a temperate life than he who has a poor one, and it is also true that G-d and nature can cause men to be brought into the world with so perfect constitutions that they will live for many years in health, without observing this strict rule of life…But such instances are so rare that, it is safe to say, there is not more than one man in hundred thousand of whom it will prove true."

Irreparable Damage 

You may also think if something goes wrong, you can change course later as doctors will fix you the first time. When something break, they stay broken and that is so true for your body. Just ask Luigi who says, "With the increase in years and the consequent decrease of natural heat, dieting cannot always have sufficient power to undo the grave harm done by overeating…for sickness shortens life even as health prolongs it.

So what's a person to do?

Making Sense of it All

First avoid unhealthy foods in their entirety as much as possible. Why? "The gratification of the tastes and appetites means infirmity and death. If this pleasure of the taste were a lasting one, we might have some patience with those who are so ready to yield to it. But it is so short-lived than it is no sooner begun than ended; while the infirmities which proceed from it are of very long duration."


Will willpower work? Can you spot with just  a little cake, ice cream, bread, pasta, etc. No way! "It is necessarily impossible, in the nature of things, that a man should be determined to satisfy his taste and appetite, and yet, at the same time, commit no excesses." 

Then what?

A Season For Change

"Persons would live to enjoy the blessings of extreme old age, if, as their years increase, they were but to reduce the quantity of their food and distribute it into several meals during the day, eating but a little at a time." Five hundred years ago, you got it, Luigi. "Man is, in his youth, however, more a sensual than a rational creature, and is inclined to live accordingly. Yet, when he has arrived at the age of fifty or fifty, he certainly ought to realize that he has been enabled to reach the middle of life through the power of youth and a young stomach, those natural gifts which have helped him in the ascent of the hill.  Now he must bear in mind that, burdened with the disadvantage of old age, he is about to descend it towards death. And, since old age is exactly the opposite of youth, just as disorder is the reverse of order, it becomes imperative for him to change his habits of life with regard to eating and drinking, upon which a long and healthy life depends. As his early years were sensual and disorderly, the balance of them musty be exactly contrary, reasonable and orderly; because without order nothing can be preserved—least of all, the life of man."

Be Useful

Luigi doesn't just limit himself to dietary advice, he also covers as a devout Catholic, the importance of spirituality, of being charitable to others, or as he call it, "being useful to others."

All in all, this was an extremely moving book fro me. As Luigi said,we are "born to die." However like Luigi, I would like to delay this inevitability as long as possible with a sound mind in a healthy body. What about you?

Here is a link to a free copy of the book.
Start with page 30 and read to 113.

1 comment:

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