Photo by Kevin Van Paassen for CBC.

David Suzuki has been welcomed into Canadian living rooms since 1970 when he first appeared on television. His passion for the natural world came to the forefront when he took over the role of host of The Nature of Things on CBC in 1979.

In September 2020, the show will celebrate its 60th anniversary. Both Suzuki and his popular program (airing in more than 50 countries) are going strong. He will turn 84 this March and will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Canadian Screen Awards. It seemed a fitting time to examine what it means to age – which also happens to the subject of an episode of The Nature of Things entitled Aging Well Suzuki Style (airing February 28 or streaming free on CBC Gem). In it, he takes a personal look at the changes in his body and mind as a man in the latter part of his life.

YouAreUNTLD got personal, too, when we spoke to Suzuki about what aging means to him.

YAU: You talk about the difference between lifespan and healthspan. Can you talk about what that means?

DS: Lifespan is about the average length of time that a species has. Every species has a life span and then they die. We’re no different from any other creature. Other scientists think that we can extend it because of experiments with fruit flies where you can select out a strain to extend life by 50 percent. You can get mice to live longer, too. There is a genetic component to longevity. But, as we have eliminated the major killers, like infectious disease and starvation, you’ve got people now on average living much longer. We’re still limited by the life span. People are not going to live until they’re 140 just because they were in good health when they were younger.

Originally, when the proposal came in [for The Nature of Things], it was to do a film about the science that was going to let us live longer. And I said, “That’s bullshit.” For most people, by the time you hit 65 or 70, you’re beginning to show signs of aging. For many, quality of life goes down. Isn’t it more important to try to extend the quality of your life as long as you can rather than trying to add 50 more shitty years of life?

So the producers changed their focus to staying healthy for as long as we can. It’ll never be as long as your lifespan, but I think it’s possible to maximize it. I’m feeling fine. Ideally, I’d like to feel fine until my time is up and then just boom, go.

YAU: Do you think there’s a societal shift happening from the focus on longevity to the idea of aging well?

DS: Well, I hope so because what I hear now that, in a way, elders are being demonized not explicitly, but implicitly. Some people are saying, “The population is aging. The fastest-growing sector of society now is the aging and the elderly so they are an increasing burden due to medical costs…” We ought to be spending far more time keeping them as healthy as we can, as long as we can, rather than just finding ways to put them up in old age homes and all that stuff. Let’s keep them going, and live out good lives.

I’ve spent 40 years now going into indigenous communities in Canada. You go into a community that’s got enormous problems, but when you go to a feast or a memorial or any kind of event, the elders are like rock stars.

They’re really valued and they get the best seats in the place and they always get served first. They are the ones that open the meetings with a prayer. That’s what we desperately need to recognize. Older people have a hell of a lot to tell us and to contribute.

David Suzuki undergoes testing to determine how well he can maintain his balance.

YAU: In your earlier years, did you have the mindset that you wanted to live longer and better?

DS: Absolutely not. I like to tell people I chose my parents very carefully. Well, of course, so there’s a genetic lottery. You’re born with that and you have to live within it. In terms of my social life and development, World War II was a big thing. It gave me all of my hang-ups about being Japanese. It was also a time that impoverished my family. We were incarcerated for three years and then kicked out of British Columbia. We had nothing.

Afterward, the first place we went to was to live on a farm where we all worked and my sisters and I were put to work, earning money, and picking berries as kids. When I got bigger, I worked in potato and celery fields. It was hard work, but I really think it laid down the basic musculature and the skeletal formation of my body.

When I became a scientist and was sitting at a microscope for seven or eight hours a day, I developed a pot belly. Then I began to go to the gym and work out. That’s over 40 years ago. I was astounded that underneath it all, as I began to shed weight, there was still that body I had when I was younger. I look at that early period of poverty and hardship as a gift.

YAU: What healthy habits have you adopted later in life?

DS: My wife is trying to get us to eat a vegan diet now. We cut red meat quite a while ago. But I’m very, very reluctant to give up fish because I’m Japanese and I know as a species we were omnivores. We weren’t vegetarians. I don’t think there’s a biological reason why we should give up all meat. But, of course, there are environmental reasons why we have to go much more to a vegetable diet. That’s a very late-life adaptation for me.

YAU: You said in the episode of The Nature of Things that it’s never too early or too late to adopt good habits.

DS: That’s right. And I think even if someone who is 60 or 70 decides to start walking for an hour a day, that the body will respond. That’s what always amazes me. I watch, usually after New Year’s, people who have all these illusions that they are going to lose weight. They come to the gym and they just go at it hard and I know right away they’re not going to be around in another month. They want changes to happen instantly, and it doesn’t happen that way. You’ve got to watch your diet, but you’ve got to go and exercise on a more sensible basis. And the body will respond, even at 70, or even at 80.

“I don’t have the stamina to go at it for eight hours a day. I’ve really slowed down. But the reality is that I accept that.”

YAU: What’s the most difficult thing for you about aging?

DS: It’s the fact that I’ve slowed down. Like to make that treehouse shown in the episode… I was very pleased with it, but I’d look at that and think, back when I was working in construction. I could have thrown up that treehouse in half a day. But I built it over several days. I don’t have the stamina to go at it for eight hours a day. I’ve really slowed down. But the reality is that I accept that. I’m not as fast as I was when I was younger. I guess it’s that it’s accepting that things take longer now and I’ve got to be more patient.

YAU: What’s the best thing about aging?

DS: I’m freed from running after the things you do when you’re a young person. You’re looking to make a living. You’re worried about your job, a promotion… You’re worried about becoming famous. You’re worried about sex. There are a lot of pressures when you’re younger that make life worthwhile when you’re a young person. But boy, is it ever wonderful to be freed from those dynamics. Now I can sit back and reflect. And I feel that this is really the most important part of my life because I’ve lived a full life and I’ve learned a lot, and I feel my job now is to share what I’ve learned over that lifetime. So as an elder, the body may be slowing down. My brain is still operating, and I’ve got a job to do.

YAU: I really love the Japanese concept of ikigai you talk about… your purpose in life. What is your ikigai?

DS: For me, it’s all focused on my grandchildren. Everything I do, I hope, is aimed at trying to protect a future for my grandchildren. And at the end of my life, that’s what I hope, is that I’ll be able to tell my grandchildren, “I’m only one person. I’m not going to save the world, but I did the best I could for you. It gives me joy to think that I’m trying as a grandfather to protect their future.

“part of aging well means having something that turns you on.”

YAU: With age comes the inevitable discussion about retirement. How do you feel about it?

DS: Whatever gives one pleasure, I think one should try to maximize that and stay active. My wife forced me to finally stop using the word ‘retirement’. She said, “You believe in what you’re doing. You enjoy it, so stop talking about retirement. You’re just going to keep doing it as long as your body and mind will allow you to do that.”

Retirement, for some people, is a goal because they’re working at a job that, to them, is basically about making money to survive. And for them, if they’ll be happy to stop doing that, then fine, retire. But I hope that in retirement, it doesn’t mean you basically give up on life. There’s got to be lots you can still do. And that’s the most important part of aging well… having something that turns you on.

YAU: What messages would you like Canadians to take away from this episode about aging? 

DS: I hope it is that you can have a really meaningful life even after retirement or accepting that you’re old. You don’t have to simply give in and say, “Oh well, it’s too late to do anything. I’ll wait out my last years.” You can have very healthy and vibrant lives in your old age, but it means you have to work at it. You have to exercise. You have to find a group or a mission in old age. I hope people are uplifted by that and don’t see old age as a terrible fate that you have to go through. Most importantly, I think, I hope older people come away feeling that they’re valuable. You’ve got a job to do now. You’ve lived a life and learned a lot, so get on with passing it on.