Notorious RBG: A role model for healthy aging

About Liz Seegert

Liz Seegert (@lseegert), is AHCJ’s topic editor on aging. Her work has appeared in NextAvenue.com, Journal of Active Aging, Cancer Today, Kaiser Health News, the Connecticut Health I-Team and other outlets. She is a senior fellow at the Center for Health Policy and Media Engagement at George Washington University and co-produces the HealthCetera podcast.

Photo: Franz Jantzen, Supreme Court Curator’s Office.Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2017.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg (a.k.a. Notorious RBG) is celebrating her 25th year on the bench of the nation’s highest court. She has become a somewhat surprising (to her, anyway) pop icon and a role model to millions for her progressive views about a woman’s right to choose, social safety net issues, and stance on gender equality, among other issues. A documentary on her life, released in May (well worth seeing) was a huge box office hit.

The 85-year old Brooklyn, N.Y., native is also a rock star among another crowd — those who look to her as an example of healthy aging. Ginsberg regularly engages in many activities and habits that aging experts recommend: exercise, cognitive and social engagement, a healthy diet and maintaining a sense of humor.

She exercises regularly using a routine that would sideline some people a third of her age, as Ben Schreckinger of Politico found out — the hard way.  Despite a physical appearance of frailty, Schreckinger reported that Ginsberg, a two-time cancer survivor, works out with a personal trainer several days a week. Her hour-long sessions include warmup time on an elliptical machine, stretching, strength training (including bench presses, leg curls, and pull-downs); followed by squats, push-ups (20!), planks, exercise ball and dumbbell curls. Remember, she’s 85 years old. This is followed by leg exercises that promote better balance and a round of tossing a medicine ball with her trainer. The ball toss is a crucial exercise; the trainer told him, “because it employs the motion needed to use a toilet unassisted.”

Ginsberg “thrives on work and puts in a full day (and occasional night of it),” as the Greensboro News & Record reported in 2015. That engages her razor-sharp mind. Employment, particularly in intellectually challenging fields like law, has been linked to maintaining optimal cognition longer, as this NextAvenue story describes. Work also provides social engagement opportunities, another key to healthy aging.

Ginsberg is a huge fan of opera and still attends performances whenever possible. She’s even made an occasional cameo appearance on stage. Opera nights get her out among the public, exercise her mind, and provides a wonderful counterpoint to an otherwise ever-present focus on pressing legal dilemmas, as she explained in this 2015 AARP Magazine interview. As researchers at Johns Hopkins University point out, “there are few things that stimulate the brain the way music does.”

She also makes no secret about enjoying a glass or two of red wine, which may have some benefit for heart health, according to the Mayo Clinic. (The American Heart Association says research is still inconclusive.) She likes to eat and she eats a wide variety of foods, according to this USA Today story. RBG even wrote the forward for the Supreme Court cookbook, although her late husband Marty was the family chef. She also avoids social isolation by being continually surrounded by family, friends, colleagues and admirers. As we’ve previously reported, social isolation has a serious negative impact on the health of older adults.

Not everyone can be such a rock star, of course. After all, how many 85-year-olds do you know are affectionately parodied on Saturday Night Live, have an action figure bearing their likeness and receive a standing ovation by groupies of all ages?

However, most older people can continue to engage in a healthy, active lifestyle by:

  • Working, volunteering or activism.
  • Exercising regularly adopting a healthy eating plan (like the Mediterranean diet).
  • Avoiding social isolation with the support of family and friends.

Although some fans have expressed concern about her health (send her kale!), Ginsberg says she plans to work until she’s at least 90, as long as she can do it full steam. Good for her.

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