“I’m not your Typical White House Doctor”
In AGEIST’s journey to better understand a redefined later life, there are very few people as qualified to talk on the topic as Dr. Connie Mariano.
As the personal physician to two US Presidents, and the first Filipino doctor to hold the post, she has been at the vanguard of developing strategies to living a longer and healthier life. Now, as a 61-year-old in private practice (and with a book entitled My 11 Presidential Secrets to Longevity in the works), I sat down with her to understand which of the learnings she applies to to her own life and find out why so many ex-Presidents seem to live so damn long.
Dr. Connie Mariano: David, I’ve heard so many nice things about you.
David Harry Stewart for AGEIST: Thanks! I’ve spent a couple of days reading your book [The White House Doctor] so I feel I know more about you than you do about me. The book was fantastic, an amazing story. From your father being a steward to you becoming a Rear Admiral and White House Medical Director—the personal doc for George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Wow. What really comes through is how you know yourself and what you were capable of. I love this “Semper Gumby.” What is that about?
CM: The motto that the Marines use is “Semper Fidelis.” Semper is “always”, fidelis [loyal]. And in my medical school we said, “Semper…Gumby.” Remember, when we were growing up, they had Gumby, that little green little funny thing that you bend, it is flexible?
CM: We use a motto, “Semper Gumby” [meaning] always, always flexible. (chuckles). You always have to be flexible.
AGEIST: Now that you have moved on to a second career, a whole second life, that must really come in handy.
CM: Absolutely. I tell people that when I do my calendar… I put birthdays in pen and everything else is in pencil.
AGEIST: What are you working on now, in addition to your executive medical practice?
CM: I’m working on writing my next book… on longevity, and how I see that in presidents, and how I look at the news on how people are living longer. They said, “In order to have a good life you have to have three things: you have to have something to do, someone to love, something to look forward to.” It’s simple as that. And it’s the “looking forward to” that makes it important because … If you are always looking forward to the next day, you’re going to be around, you’re motivated to stay here, you’re also motivated in taking care of yourself.
I am in Scottsdale where, it’s almost Beverly Hills. I argue with my patients, “How are you going to lose weight?” You show them the numbers of cholesterol— that’s not going make them lose weight. What’s going to make them lose weight is that their daughter’s getting married and they are going to wind up seeing the ex-wife.
AGEIST: Love that.
CM: I have a motto of “too vain to gain.” Like, “dude you know, I want to be a size two and I want to look young and leave my hair long.” And it’s almost, “raging against aging.” I use that expression because they’re not going to go kicking and screaming. They say, “I have the money to pay to look young and to feel young and to feel good.” They do lots of things to stay and feel wild and young. They refuse to be old.
AGEIST: Extraordinary. And in our lifetime—I mean, you especially, as a physician you must see it —how 20 years ago, 60 was old. Now people are living these amazing lives in their 50s, 60s, 70s. They are expecting to live so much longer and so much healthier at that age. How does that affect how people behave?
CM: I became a grandma this year and there’s no way I’m “grandma.” They call us “glama” more like “glamorous.” We don’t look like grandma. We refuse to be old. We are breaking stereotypes. We really are, our generation. We’re not going to live like old people.
I remarried 5 years ago. I was married for 29 years and when I turned 50 I realized that I didn’t want to spend the next 30 years in a marriage that was unhappy. I was wanting to be single. I had a practice that would keep me busy full time, my kids were in college, I had wonderful women friends. I wasn’t going to get remarried until one of my [divorced] patients, who I’d known for 5 years prior, found out that I was going to divorce and said, “Marry me?” And I said, “Are you kidding me?” So, I had him leave my practice and I dated him. We got married 5 years ago and he’s lost about 40 pounds. He works out; he looks younger than ever. He’s 59, I’m 60. We’re just so happy. We count our blessings every day that we can enjoy good health and our adventure and our life. Now he’s retired. He flies airplanes and we’re just, we’re blessed to have our love in our relationship, and just the things that you would expect in a youthful relationship, we have it. And being old doesn’t deny you that. We’ve had lots of birthdays, sure, but whatever.
AGEIST: Tell me about “old” and what that word means to you.
CM: We don’t consider ourselves old in the least. It’s really a mindset…you don’t accept that stereotype. You know, all my life, David, I’ve never set a stereotype. I’m not the stereotypical White House doctor. So if those don’t apply, why should the aging part apply, right?
There is an old saying that we have engraved on our wall in our home in Colorado: “It’s never too late to live happily ever after.” Never too late. When I bought my wedding gown 5 years ago in LA, I asked the lady, “How old was your oldest bride?” and she said, “My oldest bride was about 75 and she had to call her mother who was 96 to ask her about the dress, to tell her about the dress.”
AGEIST: What do you think separates the people who have this attitude from the people out there who don’t?
CM: I think number one, it’s having the positive attitude towards life. Without that, you cannot accomplish the other things. The other thing you have to believe is that you have a calling in this life, that your life is significant, you’re not here by accident. That there is a reason you’re here, in your way to touch people around you to make things a difference. And the way I think about it, the book that I am writing [titled] My 11 Presidential Secrets to Longevity, one of the secrets is the pulpit. Presidents, they live more. Even though they look crappy in office after 8 years, they outlive everyone. George Senior is 91, although he has Parkinson’s and then Jimmy Carter got brain disease but is 91 and his whole attitude is of adventure, right? “I’m looking forward to the next adventure.” But [the role of the] pulpit is, they are valued, they really had the purpose in life to lead and guide this country. Each of them believe that they have a reason to be here and that they are spokesman, that they are useful.
AGEIST: Yes, working is living if it’s work you love.
CM: And find your purpose, and also have partners. I want to still be part of that dance where you have a partner who loves you and you have a family that loves you and you don’t want to leave yet. It’s not time to die. My patients give up when they think, “I am only in the way of my kids.” That’s when they die. They think, “I don’t have a reason to be here.” That’s when they die. And I have patients who are CEOs and still running companies in their 70s. They are not going to give up. They are the founders of the company; they are not turning it over to their kids. They are vital: “I don’t have time to die, I am too busy to die.”
AGEIST: I love that. It seems to me some of what you’re speaking about has to do with— these people all have a certain curiosity. You mentioned in your email that you were writing something about women over 60. What’s that about?
CM: That was a chapter in a book [by] Dr. Joyce Knudson, a Ph.D. in Psychology. I write a chapter about rejecting stereotypes. It talked about how we approach aging, and I really came from the message that I have always rejected stereotypes so I would do that as well when it came to aging.
AGEIST: Ah yes. I mean why stop pushing on the expected. Right? You were the first Rear Admiral of Filipino descent, first woman White House Medical Director; I can’t imagine you doing anything other than living the life you want to.
Even so, It’s very interesting that you talk a lot in your book about how you felt like you were never quite…
CM: Good Enough.
AGEIST: But you made yourself not just good enough but you made yourself better than everyone.
CM: But you know a part of this is that you’re just competing with yourself. You grow up in a family that says, “Don’t be big on yourself, you’re just got to be humble.” But part of it is, I always believed that I can be an example to somebody else and give them a hope. And it is not about me being great, it’s me being an example to somebody else to give them a message that they needed to hear, that: “You’re not old,” that, “You’ve got years ahead and it is not too late to look better. You don’t have to look 20 but you can look a really good 60 years old.” I have been vain enough to train myself not to read the menu with reading glasses because automatically makes you feel older.
AGEIST: So you clearly don’t feel 60. How old do you feel?
CM: Probably in my 30s— without having anymore periods, which is nice. Probably 30.
AGEIST: Tell me a bit about this investigation you are doing into longevity. You mentioned The Blue Zones. What are your findings on longevity that really interest you?
CM: You know, I based it on my experience with presidents. I read The Blue Zones. I think that it’s fantastic. I loved studying what makes those civilizations, those cultures live until they’re a hundred. But the thing is, I don’t live in Loma Linda, I don’t live in Costa Rica, I do not live in any of the Blue Zones. But what it is about them that I can remind my patients every day? And what I have done is looked at how presidents lived, having known 3 of them. Even after they left office…the presidential perk is you outlive your constituency. And I call them “The Eleven”—which I won’t reveal, because I will put them in the book—but it is also looking at the longevity