Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - May 16, 2007

Dr. Walter Bortz II

Doctor explores real human potential

by Sue Dremann

Dr. Walter Bortz II sat in his Portola Valley living room surrounded by the accoutrements of a successful career: Persian rugs, a fabulous hilltop view of the San Francisco Bay and various collectibles acquired from years of traveling to the far corners of the world. He can rattle off an impressive list of luminaries with whom he has had relationships: Linus Pauling, Mother Teresa and John Gardner, to name a few.

Wealth, fame and penning a series of successful books didn't top his list of memorable experiences. Instead, the best -- so far -- has come from a humble place.

It was 1958, a time of polarizing racial segregation, and each day Bortz saw the medical and social inequities of the poor.

"The happiest year of my life was in residency at the Charity Hospital in New Orleans. It was like a MASH unit. ... People lived and died by whether you came to work. It was an instantly meaningful experience on the battle lines," he recalled.

Bortz has practiced on both sides of the medical frontier, from spooning gruel into the mouths of the dying in India, to doing esoteric medical research at U.C. San Francisco. He has spent a good chunk of his life exploring human potential. For decades, he has been on the forefront of the science of healthful medicine and healthful aging, dispelling the notion that growing old means being frail.

Bortz's father had started the American Geriatric Society. As a youngster, he was surrounded by some of the greatest minds on aging. One of his earliest influences was the renowned educator Ethel Percy Andrus, founder of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), he said.

An expert in obesity and trained as a microbiologist, he was recruited by Palo Alto Medical Foundation's founder Dr. Russel Lee to work with geriatric patients in 1972. The offer came at a critical time. Bortz was then grieving the death of his father, he said.

"The theme of my professional career is my opportunity as a caring steward of the end of thousands of lives. The final step before Roller & Hapgood, you go to see Bortz," he said.

Years of attending to the dying convinced him there are better ways to age.

"Most of what we commonly have considered to be age-dependent change is in reality due to disuse and is potentially reversible," he said.

Bortz set out to find the "true, full, human potential," which is about 100 years of age, he said. He has become a best-selling author of books such as "We Live Too Short and Die Too Long," "Dare To Be 100," "Living Longer for Dummies" and "Diabetes Danger."

A Stanford University School of Medicine Clinical Associate Professor of Medicine, Bortz has written more than 130 medical articles. He has also helped establish and shape many resources for healthy aging for Midpeninsula seniors.

As chairman and president of the Palo Alto Task Force on Aging, he recommended founding Avenidas. He is board chairman of Fifty-Plus Life Long Fitness and senior advisor to Healthy Silicon Valley. He is past vice-president of the Senior Coordinating Council, past co-chair of the American Medical Association's Task Force on Aging and former president of the American Geriatric Society. Among his proudest achievements is his work with the East Palo Alto Senior Center, where he was board president from 1991 to 1992, he said.

Bortz has four adult children with his wife, Ruth Anne, and nine grandchildren. At 77, he still runs 16 miles per week and has completed 35 marathons. Just because he's aging, doesn't mean he's about to slow down any time soon, he said.

"The journey so far has been splendid, but it still has many miles to go," he said, adding a quote borrowed from a friend to sum up his philosophy:

"Keep your foot lashed to the pedal. No braking allowed."

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be e-mailed at sdremann@paweekly.com.

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