I went on vacation to learn when I’ll die

Humans hate mortality. In Greece, there’s an island where it’s illegal to die. Meanwhile in the US, average life expectancy has dropped 1.5 years since 2019.

According to the CDC, I’ll croak at 77.3 years old. I have 45 years left. Or do I? I recently fell down the rabbit hole that is metabolic age. It’s a trending concept that our bodies might be younger, or older, than our birth certificates. My research culminated in a vacation at Pritikin Longevity Center & Spa (from $604 per night) in Miami.

“First time here?” asks the receptionist. It is. But long time guests have been coming to this Oprah-approved wellness center since 1975.

“All I’m trying to do is wipe out heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and obesity,” said Nathan Pritikin.

Ironically, while dying of leukemia, he’d commit suicide at the age of 69. The center — which has welcomed guests as young as 8 and as old as 96 — doesn’t take pride in how its founder died. But it does like to point out his autopsy showed he had the arteries of an 18-year-old.

Carol Espel, the fitness director at Pritikin, leads a class.
Worth the weight: Carol Espel (center) is the fitness director at Pritikin.

“This is what your arteries look like as you age,” said Dr. Makhoul, the cardiologist assigned to me during my stay. He’s holding up a plastic replica showing the gradual buildup of plaque that causes heart disease — the leading cause of death in the US Immediately.

I wish I could unsee it. 

Dr. Makhoul passes me off to a paramedic who tapes wires to my chest and puts me on a treadmill for an ETT (exercise tolerance test). Determined to discover my metabolic age, I sign up for every test Pritikin offers.

The author holding her pee sample.
Step No. 1, pee into a cup.
Katie Jackson

First, I pee in a cup and let a nurse draw my blood. Then I strap on a gas mask and sprint on another treadmill for a VO₂ test. Next, I lay in awkward poses on a $30,000 X-ray machine for a bone density scan and body composition test.

On my last day at Pritikin, I take the resting metabolic rate test. It requires fasting and then pinching my nose and breathing into a tube for 12 minutes. My RMR is 1,339, which means my body burns 1,339 calories at rest. That number is slightly higher than the average for most 32-year-old women. In other words, my metabolism is faster, or younger, than normal. While Pritikin’s test didn’t give my metabolism (or body) an exact age, this free online quiz indicates my metabolic age is closer to 28 years old.

Does that mean I can add four years on top of that 77.3? Not exactly.

The author on a treadmill.
The author treadmilling her way to the big answer.
Katie Jackson

“I believe in it, but I’m not sure how to apply it since there haven’t been enough studies conducted,” Dr. Makhoul said when I ask about the concept of metabolic age. He’s also not convinced I’ve defied aging by having a faster metabolism.

“You have the spine of a menopausal woman in her 50s or 60s,” he said while reviewing my bone density scans. (I make a mental note to start drinking more milk.) Instead of getting caught up in the numbers, Dr. Makhoul preaches three things: don’t smoke; be active; eat healthy.

“I saw both of my parents die horrible deaths. I want to die healthy and not have my legs chopped off.”

Pritikin guest in her 70s

Pritikin is serious about nutrition. Guests enjoy an unlimited low-calorie diet of foods with no added sugar or salt. Saturated fat is frowned upon. When I ask the chef why there are only a few shreds of cheese on my pizza he laughs. “I put it on with tweezers and two dieticians looking over my shoulder.”

Pritikin is teeming with experts in the fields of fitness and medicine, too. I duck into a lecture on foot and knee pain taught by a former physical therapist for the Miami Dolphins.

 “Pills, shots and surgery,” he laments. “We’re just enabling people to do the wrong things for longer.”

A guest undergoing a bone density scan.
A guest undergoes a bone density scan.

I attend another lecture titled “Secrets to Living Long & Strong.” The cardiologist teaching it introduces us to the blue zones — five areas in the world with the most centenarians. I learn the only blue zone in the US is in Loma Linda, Calif., where a lot of Seventh-day Adventists live. (I make a mental note to learn what Seventh-day Adventists are.)

At some point the lecture turns into a sharing circle with every guest and their mom — many multigenerational families visit Pritikin — chiming in.

“I don’t want to live longer just to live longer,” said a man in his 60s. “My dad is in his 90s, but he’s been blind for 10 years and lives alone.”

Staffers at Pritikin.
Pritikin’s Oprah-blessed staff have been amplifying both the quality and quantity of life since 1975.

A woman in her 70s goes next: “I saw both of my parents die horrible deaths. I want to die healthy and not have my legs chopped off.”

 I shudder — thinking of my diabetic dad who is losing feeling in his feet, but realize they have a point.

Maybe, instead of trying to calculate my metabolic age, I should focus on what Martin Luther King Jr. said in 1964: “The quality, not the longevity, of one’s life is what is important.”

Just a few years later he’d die at the age of 39. Only the good die young.

Or do they? Betty White almost made it to 100