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Health & Wellness

At Age 96, What’s Harold’s Secret?

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Ask Harold Burson what keeps him going at 96, and his answer is quick and unequivocal: genes – and Marianne Legato.

Marianne Legato – or more precisely, Dr. Legato – is Harold’s physician of almost 50 years.  Over the years, Dr. Legato has become a close friend; they have long made it a point to meet regularly.  The story of their relationship may hold lessons for others.

Harold Burson is legendary in business, often referred to as the godfather of modern public relations.  In 1953, he founded Burson-Marsteller, now one of the largest public relations firms in the world.  With the intense work came high blood pressure and in his early 50s he realized he wasn’t happy with his general physician.  He thought:  why not have someone who can help look after me for the rest of my life? 

“I wanted to know I would have someone who would be there for the long haul,” he said.  “I wanted a relationship.”

In Dr. Legato, then an instructor at the Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons, he found what he was looking for.   The two met at a conference on medical ethics.  When Dr.  Legato opened her private practice soon after, Harold became one of her first patients.  

Harold stepped down as CEO 39 years ago, but each weekday he heads to the company’s headquarters in Lower Manhattan, where he sees clients, counsels staff and works on his second memoir.  The other day, I met him there and we went uptown for an appointment with Dr. Legato.  As we drove up, Harold mused on the topic of longevity.  

“I did some calculations, and my father would be 135 today,” he said.  “It’s amazing how fast time goes by.”  

Dr. Legato’s office walls are crowded with plaques, revealing her pioneering work in medicine, especially as it relates to aging.  

Dr. Legato greets Harold and me warmly and welcomes us into her office.  It deliberately avoids the usual office décor in favor of comfortable chairs, pillows and family photos – helping to put patients at ease.  

“I am the Chairman,” she says, describing how she coordinates with the other doctors who see Harold.  Over the span of her care for Harold, some of the other doctors have changed – but never “the Chairman.”  Luckily, he has had relatively few serious medical issues over the years – perhaps because he carefully follows Dr. Legato’s relatively simple orders:  

·         Be moderate in the consumption of all things, especially food, drink and tobacco.  

·         Remain as physically active as possible.

·         Stay mentally engaged.  

Dr. Legato also cared for Bette Burson, Harold’s wife of nearly 63 years, until her death in 2010 from cancer.  She was 85.  Harold sold their long-time home in the suburbs and moved to an apartment in the City where he could more easily see his friends.  

“I’ve noted no loss in his ability to think, reason and remember things, and that’s unusual at this age,” Dr. Legato said.  “He refuses, happily, to leave New York.  I think it’s stimulating for him.  His family thought it was time, and I had a lot to say about that.  He’s an emperor here.  People come for his counsel from around the world, and I think it keeps him alert, interested and engaged.”  

Famously humble, Harold smiles modestly upon hearing this.    

They move into another room for his examination.  As they emerge, Harold asks Dr. Legato if she thinks he should increase the dose of a certain medication.  

“I don’t like to over-treat people of your age” – then, catching herself – “our age!” 

Over the last 50 years, a lot has changed in Harold’s life, but one thing that hasn’t is the importance of the relationship with his doctor. 

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