A 103-Year-Old Doctor Says Doing This One Thing Could Help You Live Longer

Updated: May 28, 2024

This centenarian medical expert says there's a lot about "self-care" our generation has yet to learn. Here she shares her biggest insights for a long, content life.

The Blue Zones, Harvard happiness data: These days there’s a wealth of thoroughly researched advice on lifestyle choices to promote a long life and enjoy good health through most of it. But to hear from a doctor who helped pioneer the functional medicine movement, as well as a path for women in medicine…who also happens to be a centenarian? That takes enlightenment to a new level.

In April 2024, Gladys McGarey, MD, celebrated the release of her latest book, The Well-Lived Life: A 103-Year-Old Doctor’s 6 Secrets to Health and Happiness at Every Age. In some circles, Dr. McGarey is known as “the mother of holistic medicine.” She’s uniquely generous in sharing the habits and beliefs that have helped her live that long, as well as the life lessons she wishes she’d learned sooner. One major point she makes? Our generation perceives ourselves as the masters of self-care—but Dr. McGarey says there’s a lot we need to learn about what that really means.

The Healthy by Reader’s Digest spoke with Dr. McGarey to tap some of her biggest takeaways. Here’s what she shared on living well, and wisely.

A Well Lived Life BookCourtesy Atria Books

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The Healthy by Reader’s Digest: Dr. McGarey, you’ve suggested our modern-day understanding of self-care may be fundamentally flawed. We’re intrigued. How do you view self-care?

Dr. Gladys McGarey: To truly care for ourselves, we need to look deeper than the latest diet or exercise craze. Effective self-care is not just physical; it includes our mind and emotions as well as our spirit.

Fortunately these days, most people are aware that our mind and emotions have a profound effect on our physical health. That was not the case when I began my medical practice in 1948. My colleagues and I in the American Holistic Medical Association worked hard to help expand public understanding about the role of the mind and emotions in health, and today most people are aware of that. However, the role of our spirit is still often overlooked.

When I talk about spirit I’m not just talking about religion, though that can be part of our spiritual journey. I’m talking about understanding what we’re here for and what our purpose is. These are essential components of self-care. My personal mission and purpose is a major reason that I’m still here on this planet at 103.

When caring for our spirit, we also need to tap into that potent spark we call Love. My third secret for health and happiness at every age is “Love Is the Most Powerful Medicine.” For our self-care to really work, it simply has to include love. And I’m talking about an expansive love, which includes love for others, love from others, and love for ourselves.

So reach beyond diet and exercise when you think of self-care, and pay attention to your mind, your emotions, and your life’s purpose. And make sure you fill your life with a rich helping of giving and receiving love.

The Healthy: You say aging can be an enriching experience, both emotionally and physically. Could you speak to why you believe this specifically in terms of physical health?

Dr. Gladys McGarey: My sixth secret for health and happiness at every age is “Spend Your Energy Wildly.” As I have grown older, I have been able to get much clearer about what gives me energy and makes me delighted to be alive. My age helps me identify the things that enrich my life and the things that don’t, so now I know which projects to invest my energy in. I call this Aging Into Health. It enables me to confidently spend my energy on the things that are genuinely meaningful for me, rather than trying to rein my energy in and conserve it out of fear.

In this way, aging stops being equivalent to dwindling energy and diminished enthusiasm about life. Instead, it gives me the clarity I need to live a life wholeheartedly focused on activities that make my life worthwhile. I believe you will find the same thing is true for you if you start looking for the things that give you “juice.”

Try it! Speak up! Try things you’ve never tried before! Go places you’ve never been! Volunteer for a nonprofit that needs you! Have a deep belly-laugh that makes your heart sing! Spending your energy wildly like this makes you feel better emotionally and spiritually, and you’ll discover that your body can’t help but respond with more energy.

The Healthy: What kind of diet have you followed throughout your life?

Dr. Gladys McGarey: I’ve had many different diets during my life. A lot has depended on what was available. When I was in India, I ate curry and rice. When I was in medical school and broke, I came close to serving peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for Thanksgiving dinner. But when we moved to Phoenix in the 1950s and I started becoming aware of the profound effect nutrition has on health, I began to focus on feeding my family lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, along with the meatloaf and baked chicken and hamburgers and occasional KFC that growing kids demand.

Growing up in India made me open to trying unusual foods to improve my family’s health. For example, in the 1950s, all that was available in the grocery store was white bread, so every week, I asked the grocery store clerks for whole wheat bread until it finally showed up on the shelves. I also heard about the value of vegetable juices, and I juiced so many carrots that my son Bob started happily showing off his orange palms on the playground from all the carrot juice my kids drank.

Once, I read an article about the nutritional value of organ meats, so for dinner, I cooked up some pig brains for the family and disguised them in scrambled eggs. That did not go well at all. My daughter Analea figured it out, and we ended up at McDonald’s that night.

The main idea, though, is to consume healthy foods and be flexible and have fun with it. Don’t be so bent on finding the perfect diet that you make yourself sick. Remember, I still have a piece of chocolate cake every now and then.

The Healthy: How have you thought of exercise in your 103 years?

Dr. Gladys McGarey: I think of exercise in terms of activity and movement. In fact, “All Life Needs to Move” is my second secret for health and happiness at every age.

When I was a kid growing up in the high Himalayas, I clambered up and down the trail that led from my home to my school every day. It was a mile long with a thousand-foot climb in elevation. I didn’t need any extra exercise.

Then when I was the first and only woman in my medical residency at Deaconess Hospital in Cincinnati, and the head resident was trying to make it so hard for me that I would resign because he thought women should never be doctors, I was running so hard that I hardly had a moment to take a breath. Those were days when I didn’t need any extra exercise either.

I also didn’t need any extra exercise when I had a full-time medical practice with six active kids to take care of, or when I was caring for women and children in India and Tibet and Afghanistan, or even during this last year when I’ve done over 250 online interviews about The Well-Lived Life.

OK, that’s not exactly true. These days, sometimes, I have had to talk myself into getting up out of my chair and going for a walk or riding my adult tricycle. The main thing is that I aim to be active during the day doing what needs to be done. I choose to live an active lifestyle. That’s my idea of exercise.

The Healthy: If you had to attribute your remarkable longevity to any one thing, what would it be?

Dr. Gladys McGarey: Years ago when I was giving a lecture to a group of doctors in Hawaii, someone asked me what helped me have as much energy as I have. I stumbled around for a bit, mumbling something incoherent. But then my daughter Analea said, “Oh, come on, Mom. You know that. It’s because you live your life in a state of constant gratitude.”

And it’s true. I’m grateful because I love life. There’s always something more to learn; it’s an ongoing living process. Who knows what amazing thing will happen today? And I’m grateful because there is love in my life and that there are people to whom I can send that love. And I’m grateful because I have a purpose and a mission for my life, and that makes it exciting to wake up each morning, looking forward to what I can do today to make the world better. And I’m grateful that I have a 10-year plan, which is to create a Village for Living Medicine.

The Healthy: We know you’re a foremost pioneer of holistic medicine. What do you make of how mainstream wellness and mindfulness are today?

Dr. Gladys McGarey: It has been thrilling to watch while words like mindfulness and wellness have become household words. It was not like that at all in the 1950s when my husband and I started exploring meditation, the role of emotions and the power of our mind. We began by trying things out ourselves, and then using them in our practice and eventually lecturing about them around the world.

Mindfulness, wellness, stress management, acupuncture, self-care, and the role of emotions in physical health were unheard of back then, but they are popular now because we can see their effects in our everyday lives. It makes me happy to think how many people have access these days to ideas like this that can make their lives healthier and more satisfying.

The Healthy: Recent research has suggested that our relationships are critical to a long life. What’s your take on this?

Dr. Gladys McGarey: As I was growing up, I watched as my parents brought their life-saving medical training to the villages in the jungles of northern India. As crucial as the medicines they administered were, I came to realize that the relationships they built were just as important, sometimes even more so.

When I was 84 I taught safer birthing practices to women in the villages in Afghanistan. At the time Afghan women died during childbirth at a higher rate than anywhere else in the world. My work helped that rate plummet by nearly half. But it wasn’t the vital information I offered by itself that made the difference; it was the fact that the women reached out to their families and other women from neighboring villages and spread the word. It was their relationships that saved those lives.

Personally, my family relationships and my mission in life together give me the juice that keeps me going every day. We all heal each other by our connections. That’s my fourth secret for health and happiness at every age—You are Never Truly Alone.

The Healthy: What’s one lesson about staying well you wish you had learned sooner in your life than you did?

Dr. Gladys McGarey: The importance of laughter. Parts of my life have been hard—my divorce after almost 40 years in particular—and laughter saved me many, many times.

Laughter is one of my 5 L’s. The first L is Life. You can’t start this journey without life. The second L is Love, the Great Healer. The third L is Laughter, which is delightful when blended with love. The fourth L is Labor; when we’re doing what we love it is profoundly fulfilling. And the fifth L is Listening. When we listen with love, it provides the connections we all long for.

Laughter when combined with love can turn a tense situation around and make painful circumstances easier to bear. A big laugh can also calm us down because it “tickles” the adrenals. The diaphragm bounces the adrenals up and down, and that movement makes them relax. So I make it a point to have a belly-laugh as often as I can.