A Personal Perspective on Health & Longevity:
Dr. Margaret Chesney Interviews Dr. Charlie Wilson

Dr. Wilson received the Cushing Medal, the highest award conferred by the American Association of Neurological Surgeon (AANS), from AANS President, Jon Robertson.

Dr. Charles Wilson was chairman of Neurological Surgery for 28 years and the first professor to hold the Tong-Po Kan Chair of Neurological Surgery at UCSF. There, he developed UCSF’s translational program of basic science and clinical research into the biology and therapy of brain tumors. By 1970, he had established the UCSF Department of Neurological Surgery and Brain Tumor Research Center, a national cancer research center.

Dr. Margaret Chesney of the Osher Center had the opportunity to interview Dr. Wilson about his career, his life, and healthy aging.

MC: How did you initially become interested in the field of healthcare?

CW: When I was sixteen, my father died of a heart attack. That was my first lesson in the importance of health, and it reinforced the idea that lifestyle is the most important factor in maintaining good health. Today, there is a large body of research that supports a healthy lifestyle.

Getting older is inevitable. It is a matter of fact. Aging, however, is under your control. What happens to aging people need not happen to you. In truth, you can actually get healthier as you age. There are no rules that say you can’t.

MC: What do you do to keep yourself healthy as you age?

CW: For much of my life, I loved running on trails and being close to nature. It was a passion in my life. It wasn’t that I lived to run, but rather I ran to live. It was wonderful for my health, both my mental health and my physical health.

I do more exercise now than ever before. Daily exercise, over time, is what is important. My aerobic (heart healthy) exercise includes the treadmill, stationary bicycle, elliptical and stair master. I do some weight lifting, but for safety, I use lower weight and more repetitions.

Posture and balance both deteriorate over time and in fact, poor balance leads to falls, broken hips and hospitalization. So, my daily routine includes squats and balance exercises. I stand on one leg for a moment and then switch to stand on the other leg. Sometimes I will move my foot and circle it. I have artificial hips and artificial knees, so that adds a little difficulty to it and also makes balance and posture paramount to me from a safety standpoint.

I realize what aging brings, and I realize my vulnerabilities, so I work on these things, but I have to do it in a way that is right for my body.

MC: In your opinion, what are the most important things for health and longevity?

CW: It should be easy. Here are a few of the things that I think are important for people to consider as they age:

  1. Maintain muscle and bone strength and do regular exercise that is safe. It starts out by getting to or maintaining a normal weight. If you’re over weight, it is not too late. Start where you are and always work up. Create an exercise program that you can use whether the weather is good or bad, and introduce new things gradually. Exercise is backed by science and is even known to treat depression and create new brains cells and neural networks.
  2. Accept the consequences of growing older. Focus on what you can do and not what you can’t do.
  3. Keep learning, try new experiences and polish old skills. For example, get an iPhone or a Kindle. You want to control the new technologies and not the converse, but keep learning because that creates new cells and new neurological pathways in your brain. Learn to use your non-dominant hand. Not only does it build up new pathways, but it may come in handy some day if you have an injury to your shoulder or your hand. Teaching yourself something new takes focus and concentration; either use it or you lose it!
  4. Growing older is inevitable. Aging isn’t.
MC: What are some of your typical daily or weekly routines that keep you healthy and engaged in your community?

CW: I get up every morning and I’m very grateful that I woke up; I know who I am and where I am. It is a great way to start the day. If you get up with a good attitude and say hello to people that you pass on the street, it just makes you feel good. I think we need more of that.

I make a point of spending time with my friends and with younger people. I give of my time, which is the most precious possession that I have. You can’t save it up. You can’t use it twice.

I prefer to see movies and theater shows that will make me laugh–this is actually very healthy–or that teach me new principles or show me a new way to think about things. I also like to attend musical performances. All of this keeps my interest and focuses my mind.

I do two kinds of meditation. One is relaxing and clears my mind. I just follow my breath up and down through my body. It is very calming to do this and not think about what’s happening today or tomorrow. The other is to focus on a particular thought or a particular topic. I get myself relaxed and then think about only one thing. If another idea comes to mind, I simply go back to my one thought. You can do that throughout the day, at any place (riding in a cab or on the bus). It is a great way to quiet down.

All of these factors–exercise, music, community engagement, volunteering, relaxation and laughter–reinforce each other. They improve my health, my mind and my spirit. Every individual has the power to change if they want to. Observing the vibrancy of people who have changed can and should be inspiring!

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