How to Live a Happy and Healthy Life, with Joan Lunden

Exclusive Interview with: Joan Lunden

Award-winning journalist and breast cancer survivor, Joan Lunden has been one of the nation’s most trusted voices and personalities for over 30 years. The best-selling author of 8 books, the former Good Morning America anchor has used her visible career to raise awareness and build supportive networks for cancer patients and working women balancing their careers with family. Through her speaking, online presence, and advocacy she continues to bring the latest tips and findings to the general public so that they can create a healthy lifestyle for a better tomorrow.

The 76 million boomers out there like me, have to start planning for the kind of future we want because otherwise, someone else will decide what we get.

SPEAKING.COM: People are living longer, what can people do to ensure that those extra decades are healthy and vibrant years?

LUNDEN: I suggest people start making a plan for what their future is going to look l like. We’ve had this expansion in life expectancy over time, but not everybody noticed it was happening. Consequently, many people haven’t really embraced the fact that they’re going to have to figure out what to do with their lives, and not just the finances of it (as television commercials frequently remind us).

The things that help maintain your optimum level of cognitive thinking are social connections, staying engaged in life, staying physically active, and also having a sense of purpose. Those are the things that are the best predictors of successful aging. It’s really not just how much money you have.

Having a reason to wake up every morning and get out of bed – having something to look forward to – is what will truly make those new extra 15, 20 years good, happy, and meaningful. So, I think that as a society, the 76 million boomers out there like me, have to start planning for the kind of future we want because otherwise, someone else will decide what we get.

SPEAKING.COM: You’ve become an incredible advocate for seniors, how did your passion for health and wellness develop into such an interest in boomers and seniors, and what messages do you want to convey to those audiences?

LUNDEN: I became really interested in the boomer, senior caregiving space through caring for my own aging mom, and coming to a realization that we hadn’t had that important discussion that every family should have.

I made multiple mistakes along the way. I put her in a big, beautiful senior housing facility that was really more for active seniors, not realizing that her dementia had come to a point where when she went down to the beautiful restaurant for lunch, she got frustrated and upset because she couldn’t remember who people were when they came up to say hello to her.

When she went back to her beautiful one-bedroom apartment, where I initially envisioned her entertaining friends, she was instead frightened. It was the first time she had been alone behind a closed door, and she started to get sundown syndrome.

I lived far away from my mom, so I wasn’t seeing everything that was going on. And sometimes, even if you live nearby, it’s common to have blinders on when visiting aging parents, partially because we don’t want to see what’s falling apart. We don’t want to acknowledge that there are stacks of mail and out-of-date food in the cupboards, but truthfully, we have to be little investigators and snoop a little. I tell people, “Go to the refrigerator, see if there’s fresh food in that refrigerator. Go in their bathroom, see if they’re being compliant with taking all their medications. I also suggest putting in night lights and make sure that any area rugs that have kind of a rubberized bottom.

It’s a tough day way you realize that your parent really can’t take care of all of their daily needs, because all of our lives, our parents have been our parents. But then we grow up and move out on our own, which seems pretty natural. Then we get married, which seems natural. Then we have children, and all of a sudden, somebody else’s life came before us, which is also natural. However, the day that you suddenly become the parent to your parent, there’s nothing natural-feeling about that. It’s awkward and it can be very difficult for both the grown adult, and also for the senior. But there might come a time where you understand that it’s not going to be safe for a parent to live in a home by themselves.

Gerontologists now tell us that isolation is as dangerous as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. You have to be able to understand what your parents’ needs are and where they are, as far as their mental capacity and socialization. Often, any senior home will be able to help assess your parents’ need and how much assistance they need in their everyday care. But it’s still one of the most difficult stages of our life. When you get pregnant as a woman, you have nine months to prepare. Contrast that to getting that call of a fall, a broken hip, a stroke, an accident, or whatever it is that literally thrusts you into the senior caregiving community. You don’t usually have a lot of time to prepare.

I highly recommend that people have that family discussion. I always recommend that they have it with their siblings and decide who’s best at what. Maybe someone’s really good with finances and they can take over paying the bills. Maybe someone else is the person who can be there to take a parent to doctors appointments, the hairdresser, grocery shopping, and do those things.

That meeting is so important so that everyone can come together – something that is, by the way, a huge problem for many grown adults. Sometimes they haven’t agreed with their siblings or spoken to them. But it’s so important to come together, because if you don’t, the financial and emotional issues that will come once something happens will be overwhelming. You don’t want to be asking these questions and coming up with all of these answers in that time of need.

Have these discussions beforehand, and the best way to start them is, “I want you to think about what you want your next few chapters of your life to be like, and talk to me about them, so that I can find ways to help facilitate that, so that I can help make sure that you’re happy and that you’re getting the life that you want. But I won’t know that unless we have this discussion.” If you’re in your 40s, 50s, 60s, and you have aging parents, it’s time to have that discussion.

People are going to start asking, “What’s so magical about 65?” A 65-year-old today is not what a 65-year-old was like 30-40 years ago. They can run circles around some millennials.

SPEAKING.COM: How is ageism reflected in our society, and how can we combat it?

LUNDEN: I do think that finally people are starting to come to grips with the fact that if you retire at 65, you could have 20-30 more years. And I think that’s making people more curious about the aging process and what we can do – not just to live longer – but to stay healthy and start to come to grips with this new timeline. There’s kind of a new age category: it’s older, but not old.

People are going to start asking, “What’s so magical about 65?” A 65-year-old today is not what a 65-year-old was like 30-40 years ago. They can run circles around some millennials. They’re still going to SoulCycle. They’re eating healthy because they’re coming closer to that time that they know they really have to extend their health – not necessarily their life – but their health in order to get more good years.

I think we’re going to see many more people reinventing their lives and having encore careers. I hear from people on social media. One woman whom I love, works up on the poles with the telephone company and electrical lines. She said, “I’m going to school so I can get accredited to be an EMS, an emergency medical service, because that’s gonna be my encore career.”

I’m hearing from more and more people who realize that turning 65 does not mean they’re going to lay back in their chair and put their feet up somewhere and do nothing. Some of it’s just plain finances, of course, because financing 20, 30 years, is no small issue, but more importantly, it’s because people want to stay engaged in life. They want to stay relevant. They want to stay curious, and feel that they are still making a mark on their world. We’re going to see that age category, from about 55 to 75, take on a new life of its own.

SPEAKING.COM: How can the mind-body connection help promote better health both physically and emotionally?

LUNDEN: For a long time, people thought that those were two separate things, but we are finding out that they are inextricably linked together. Our blood pressure and all the things that happen to you when you’re stressed out, are very much connected with our mind, how we approach life, and how we navigate life’s changes.

There’s a tremendous amount of research going into how a person’s mindset impacts their physical health, and how having a positive outlook and expecting a good outcome of any situation, can affect your blood pressure, your immune system, and how you navigate an illness. We even have science about smiling and laughter now. There are studies on how much a smile – the actual turning up of the lips – impacts how you feel at any given moment. Two minutes of hard laughter, which seems like such a mundane little silly thing, can almost impact your body like 10 minutes of cardio.

On the other hand, we now understand that exercise is probably more important to brain function than anything else. I mean, if you think you’re just going to do it with brain games on your phone or brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand, I hate to tell you, but exercise is what pumps blood and oxygen up to your brain; it’s the catalyst for neurogenesis , which is literally, building new neurons that can then connect to your central system and boost your cognitive thinking and ability to stay mentally young, which is THE big nut to crack. We may find cures for cancer,, but the big one is a cure for dementia and Alzheimer’s, because otherwise, we’re just going to have more and more people living longer and longer, but without quality of life.

I think this area of study -the mind-body connection – will impact medicine, us, and hopefully, the corporate world in understanding that we shouldn’t throw people away when they’re 65. There’s great value in keeping people around with experience, knowledge and a soundness to them that they can impart to new, young people coming into a corporation. I think that there’s going to have to be more education to the public before this starts happening but, eventually, the more we can integrate older people who are knowledgeable, experienced, and want to stay engaged, the more successful we’ll be as a society.

SPEAKING.COM: You tell your audiences to “Know Your Numbers.” What are these numbers?

LUNDEN: Knowing your numbers means knowing your blood pressure AND understanding what those two numbers actually mean. Another example is your cholesterol: you want to keep your bad cholesterol number down, and your good cholesterol number up, so just being told these numbers by your physician is not enough. You have to ask, “What do those numbers mean to me?”

Another number on the list is your blood sugar level. In recent times with this huge obesity epidemic that we have peaking in this country, there are about 84 million Americans who are currently pre-diabetic. That means that their blood sugar level is up, higher than it should be, but they’re not quite diabetic yet, where of course, they’ll stop producing insulin properly and have to start taking insulin medications on a daily basis for the rest of their lives. The big scary thing is that of that about 90% are unaware. However, if you are aware, there are a lot of measures you can take in what you eat and the exercise that can keep you from ever reaching that blood sugar level where you are diabetic – and nobody wants to reach that level.

Finally, there’s your BMI, which is a measurement of your height and weight. (Clearly some of us feel that we are too short for our weight.) People can measure this themselves . It’s also important to understand your waistline and your waist circumference because that number is actually very closely associated with having an increased risk for type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Incidentally, pretty much anything you’re doing for your heart health is also good for your brain health.

My mom had a heart attack and survived. The important point of my mom’s story is that we were out together one day and we were getting our hair done when the owner of the salon came over to me and said, “Your mom’s in my office and she’s lying down. I think she might be having a heart attack, but she doesn’t want to go to the hospital because she said that the two of you have all these plans for the afternoon.” Thank goodness we ultimately called an ambulance because she was in fact having a heart attack. .

Most women don’t realize it, but there are more women than men who die of heart attacks, because they don’t go for help. I think the reason is also that men’s heart attacks are pretty much like the Hollywood heart attack – that stabbing pain in your chest. It’s pretty obvious that you’re having a heart attack.

For women, though, the symptoms can be subtle. It can almost feel like you have a flu. It can be soreness around your jaw or your neck, but the symptoms can be something that you could write off as being something else. Since we have so many things in our life, so many people that we’re taking care of, quite often women will say, “Well, I’ll check it tomorrow. I have to go to the grocery store and get groceries for dinner tonight.” And that’s why women die of heart attacks more often. When you think that something doesn’t feel right, you need to go to the hospital right away, because if it’s a heart attack or a stroke, minutes matter.

Once you’re down this path and you know what your treatment is going to be, try to keep your life as normal as possible.

SPEAKING.COM: What advice would you offer the friends and family members of breast cancer or just cancer patients in general?

LUNDEN: Number one: Don’t let them go to appointments alone, especially those first appointments, where they are hearing scary stuff and important decisions are going to have to be made. When you hear those words, “You have cancer”, you don’t hear much afterwards. It’s almost like the doctor’s mouth is moving, but you just hear, “wah, wah, wah”, because you’re in shock; your entire life just changed. No matter what important plans you have going on, cancer doesn’t really care.

Some people will dismiss this idea, saying “I don’t need everybody to go with me. I can take care of myself.” My family insisted and, boy am I glad they did.

Also, don’t take your most emotional friend. Take someone with a good sound head, who will listen to everything that’s being said in those appointments and then take notes for you. I found that having all those notes that kept track of what my levels were and how I was doing gave me an element of control at a time in my life when life felt pretty out of control.

The other big piece of advice that I think I would give is that once you’re down this path and you know what your treatment is going to be, try to keep your life as normal as possible. This advice is for all the people around that patient, as well. It’s very easy to roll up into a ball and lie on the bed and by 10:00 am you’ll have every single symptom that they talked about: sore mouth, headache, everything. It’s important for one’s psyche to feel like “I got up every day, went out, and at least took a walk or did a stretch or something that made me feel engaged in life that day.” For friends and family: when it comes to conversation, don’t just talk about the cancer; talk about everything else. Go to a movie. Go out to lunch and talk about fun things because that’s what patients really need the most.

SPEAKING.COM: What are some common misconceptions about breast cancer?

LUNDEN: Breast cancer is not just one disease; it’s a lot of different diseases. It’s very important that you get good information. I highly recommend going for a second opinion. Sometimes it can be very divergent from the first one, which is what happened to me. If you have to go for a third, go for a third, because these days, the good news is that if they catch breast cancer at an early stage, the majority of women have a very good chance of living through it.

That means making sure that you get your mammograms. Now, this is a huge area of confusion and frustration among women today. For decades, we’ve been told to start getting mammograms at age 40, unless you have a first degree relative who has had breast cancer, in which case you may have to start earlier. Unfortunately a couple of years ago, the US Preventive Task Force, a government panel that decides all kinds of medical decisions for the general population (and ironically has no doctors on it) decided that women really didn’t need to start mammograms until age 50. I highly disagree with that.

What happened after those recommendations came out? The American Cancer Society then said, “start at 45.” Then a few weeks ago, the College of Physicians went along with the recommendation to start at 50. It’s so confusing to women, and it’s so dangerous. I hear from women day-in-and-day-out on my social media platforms, who are being diagnosed with breast cancer in their 40s and even in their 30s.

What would have happened to all those women if they just never got a mammogram, and they never knew that they had cancer? In my case, I couldn’t feel my cancer. Mine was back against my chest wall. I didn’t have a family member who had ever had breast cancer, so I didn’t have any of their risk factors, but I can say that I am certainly glad that I started at age 40 and that I was vigilant.

There’s one other number that women need to know and that’s their breast density. The only way you can know whether you have dense breast tissue is by getting a mammogram. It has nothing to do with how you look, or how big your breasts are. When you get a mammogram, they can tell you how dense your breast tissue is. The problem is that dense breast tissue and cancer both appear white on a mammogram, so it makes it impossible in many cases to ever be able to see cancer. A woman can walk in thinking, “I eat healthy, I exercise, I came, I got my annual screening, and I got a clean bill of health.” And they can walk out actually having breast cancer, that just couldn’t be seen on the mammogram. I had a clean 3D mammogram the day I was diagnosed. Then I walked across the hall, had an ultrasound, and that’s where they found my cancer.

We just got legislation passed on the federal level when this last spending bill was signed that directed the FDA to make it mandatory for radiology labs to notify women of their breast density as well as whether a mammogram may not be a sufficient screening tool, and whether they might need an ancillary test like an ultrasound or an MRI.

It’s really important that women understand that their breast density is important. It can mask cancer and it is a risk factor for breast cancer. So any women out there who are of age that are getting their mammograms, should call up the radiology lab and ask about their breast density.

I really encourage all women to have that kind of intimate conversation with their moms and their aunt that, “even if you didn’t tell anybody else in the family you need to tell me, because that’s really important information to know.”

SPEAKING.COM: Why did you choose to make your battle with breast cancer public?

LUNDEN: About 24 hours after getting my diagnosis, I was still thinking about putting on my sunglasses and a baseball cap and trying to sneak in and out and never telling anybody, because that’s a hard one. It’s hard to tell people that you have cancer, particularly for my generation, because we were raised in that era where it was talked about as “the Big C.”

Women never talked about having breast cancer until Betty Ford came forward, and it opened the door and allowed other women to start talking about it. NOT talking about it is dangerous, in that, sometimes women will not even know that a mother or an aunt had breast cancer simply because no one talked about it. I encourage all women to have that kind of intimate conversation with their moms and their aunt that, “even if you didn’t tell anybody else in the family you need to tell me, because that’s really important information to know.”

When i got diagnosed, I thought about the fact that my dad was a cancer surgeon, and he used to fly all over and give talks about cancer and new techniques at big cancer conventions. This was in the early 60s so, it wasn’t an era of specialists. He was an avid private pilot and he would often fly himself to another city just to assist in a difficult cancer case. When I was 13 years old, he was flying back from a cancer convention, and he crashed in the bad weather and was killed at only 51 years old. I think it might have even become more important to me then to follow in his footsteps, but I went to work in the hospital the summer before college and I found out, pretty quickly, that probably stitches and scalpels wouldn’t be part of my career.

As you know, I went into journalism, which gave me an ability to disseminate lots of health information. It was kind of my beat on Good Morning America. but here was an opportunity that dropped into my lap, and the ability to look at my cancer as an opportunity to carry on my dad’s legacy and follow in his footsteps. And that changed my entire breast cancer journey in the most unbelievable way.

The next day, I started taking my phone in with me, to every single appointment. I’ve had more people say to me, “Joan, I watched your videos after I got diagnosed and thank you for taking the scary out of it.” By sharing my journey, I learned the value in each and every one of us sharing our stories because people will learn and we can often inspire them and give them hope: “Here we are. We survived. Fight hard.” And we can often motivate other people to pay better attention to their health, honor their body, and get all of their needed tests.

I feel like my advocacy gave me the ability to really make my mark in life, and if that’s what my little dash on my tombstone represents I’ll be totally good with that one. There’s a wonderful quote that I’ll leave you with: “There are two great days in our life, the day we’re born and the day we discover why.”

To bring inspirational keynote speaker and health advocate Joan Lunden to your organization, please contact Michael Frick at:

©, published on June 3, 2019

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