Drop Dead Healthy

A. J. Jacobs

I pledged to read the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica and learn everything I could. It was an extreme measure, sure, but not without family precedent. I got the idea for this quest from my father, who had started to read our Britannica set when I was a kid but only made it up to the letter B, around “Borneo” or “boomerang.” I wanted to finish what he began and remove that black mark from our family history.

It’s a bizarre situation. It’s like owning a house for forty-one years and being unaware of the most basic information, such as how to work the kitchen sink. Or where to find the kitchen sink. Or what this so-called kitchen is all about.

I read a quote from Carl Sagan that I printed out and put on the wall above my computer. It will be my guide: What is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas.

He’s skinny, but not the POW skinny I was expecting. More like lead-singer-of-an-emo-band skinny.

I know whom to blame for this epidemic, incidentally. When I read the encyclopedia, I learned about the father of distracted eating. He was an eighteenth-century British gambling addict who invented a food he could snack on without interrupting his card game. His name was John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich. So the humble sandwich, much as I love it, has caused a whole lot of trouble.

• A cocktail shrimp fork, since that will make me eat more slowly than if I had a big fork. (The more slowly we eat, the less total food we stuff in. This is because the body, God bless it, is dumb and slow. It takes twenty minutes for the “I’m full” message to go from the stomach to the brain.)

The MacArthur Study of Successful Aging—a respected eight-year-long study of more than one thousand New Englanders—concluded that one of the keys is to stay active, connected, involved, and cognitively challenged. You can retire, but you must find something you’re passionate about in your retirement. You need some reason to wake up in the morning.

Exercise, exercise, exercise. I’ve read it a thousand times. It cuts down on heart disease and cancer. It soothes stress and improves concentration. It’s like Prozac and Lipitor and Adderall combined.

“What are your sources?” Vlad asks John. John sighs. “I don’t want to have this debate now.” Vlad seems annoyed, and walks off. I get the feeling Vlad is the fundamentalist caveman, and John is the reform caveman.