Dawn Wells - Journal Of Longevity
Dawn Wells - Ready for the Next Millennium

The renowned television actress shares her insights about living a long and healthy life.

by Douglas Hunt, M.D.

Most people know her as Mary Ann, the pretty "girl-next-door" from Kansas who finds herself shipwrecked with the rest of the cast of Gilliganís Island. But there is more to Dawn Wells than the character she portrayed in the 1964 - 1967 series.

Although Dawn the woman is more complex than Mary Ann the character, sheís on friendly terms with the farm-girl-turned-island-castaway. "Thereís a lot of me in Mary Ann and vice versa," especially the awareness about what makes for a long and happy life. Dawn says that weíre all faced with the decision whether or not to "play" a healthy, robust person in life. If we choose to accept the challenge, then we need to nourish ourselves every day of our lives with precise nutrients that bolster the body and spirit. As a result, life will reward you with positive feedback.

"Any place in the world where I go, Iím greeted with love. From Beijing to Johannesburg to Mexico." She smiles. "Thatís not bad to have people say how much they love you and that you meant something to them in their childhood. Why would anyone not want that?"

In particular, women have admired Mary Annís intelligence, warmth, wit, practicality, and simplicity. "She was a nice girl. You could trust her, she could be a girlís best friend without trying to take your boyfriend away. We could use a few of her today." And Mary Ann is always popular with men, who are drawn to her compassion and playfulness wrapped in a subtle layer of sensuality. "I got the role on the show right out of college, and I was brand new to the business," she recalls. Since Gilliganís Island, Dawn has performed in over 60 plays, from Tennessee Williams to William Shakespeare, displaying "a range that you never in a million years would have expected from me as Mary Ann." But Dawnís heart feels most at home with the work she performs beyond the stage.

Indeed, Dawn travels extensively every year for various charitable causes. She has been actively involved with the Childrenís Miracle Network Telethon for many years, having co-hosted and co-produced the event for mid-Missouri since 1985. In addition, Dawn serves on the University of Missouriís Childrenís Hospital advisory board. "Iíve watched surgeries and been involved with observing the care that is given to these kids." In fact, Dawnís major in college was pre-med, before she caught the "acting bug."


Wishing Wells

Dawn also has been concerned about the treatment of older people. Disappointed by the care that some of her older relatives have received, Dawn also has developed her own clothing line, called Wishing Wells Collections. "Itís for people who have difficulty getting dressed, people who are recovering from things like stroke." "So I came up with the clothing line so that older people can dress themselves and get back that spirit to heal. A lot does depend on how we look, how we feel about ourselves."


Keys to Living Longer

"I think a lot of my continued good health is genetic, but also I was raised with good, solid nutrition." She notes, "My upbringing with my mother was always very balanced." Growing up in Reno, Nevada and its clear air definitely helped. "There was always a garden growing. We had fresh vegetables, fresh fruit I donít think I ever ate a canned vegetable. Plus, I always make sure to take a multivitamin."

Dawnís healthy nutritional tips are evident in her book, Mary Annís Gilliganís Island Cookbook. It is a culmination of four generations of family recipes, along with contributions from friends and her colleagues on the show, some with a definite tropical twist.

Dawn believes that being active is another important element of staying healthy over time. "You look at the people who are 100 or older all of them are doers. Not many of them sit around."

In addition, "All of them have a passion of some sort a passion of caring, a passion of painting, a passion of gardening. A passion for something to keep them going." Despite having bad knees ever since she was a teenager, Dawn says: "I love the outdoors. I fish, horseback ride, swim. In fact, the best thing for me is water aerobics. Thatís what I love the most."

Plus, Dawn travels a lot, and in her own words, "Iím not a sitter. Even in my office, I stand at my desk." A world traveler, Dawn has been able to climb the mountains of Rwanda to see the gorillas and been among the first women to canoe through the exotic Solomon Islands. But even if people donít have those opportunities, they can still be active.


The Eyes Have It

Much of the appeal of the Mary Ann character seemed to radiate from somewhere deeper, more grounded very real and present.

Itís in Dawnís eyes they have an energy that holds you the instant you meet her. Wide, aware, curious, and expectant, theyíre always focused on you as you speak. Theyíre also bright and erupt with warmth and excitement as she talks about her life and the people that mean so much to her.

In fact, Dawn is especially careful to maintain the health of her eyes. "I take a supplement that contains vitamin A, among other things, to guard against macular degeneration."


Preventing Degeneration

As a physician whose observed enough patients struggling with poor vision, I was encouraged by Dawnís awareness of this growing problem. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the leading cause of irreversible blindness among those over 65. Thatís right - irreversible. Unlike cataracts, where vision can be restored by replacing the diseased lens, AMD does not offer this possibility because the macula (the central part of the retina itself) becomes damaged beyond repair.

And the effects of AMD can be psychologically as well as physically devastating. Activities that are essential for independent living, such as reading, driving, and writing, are most impaired by this loss of central vision. Most cases of AMD are believed to occur because of free radicals, roaming electrons caused by an overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays. Thatís why taking vitamin A, as Dawn does, can be so beneficial in protecting your vision.

Vitamin A, an essential substance that fights free radical damage -especially in the eyes - is one of many compounds called carotenoids. Abundant in fruit and vegetables (mainly in carrots), the most famous carotenoid is beta-carotene, which is converted into vitamin A in the body.

One of the most comprehensive studies on vitamin A was conducted on more than 50,000 women beginning in 1980. Researchers found that women with the highest total vitamin A intake had a 39% lower risk of developing eye problems (Hankinson 1992). In addition, a study published in the journal Experimental Eye Research found that oral supplementation with vitamin A could restore visual function within eight days (Kemp 1988).


Her Best Role Yet

Dawn feels she has learned a lot about getting older from her 88-year-old mother. "Sheís always using her mind, always giving her brain practice. You read about people getting Alzheimerís because they have a few symptoms and then stop exercising their brains. My mother wonít use a calculator, she still remembers phone numbers. She always keeps her brain sharp. Her body is giving out, even though her mind is there 100 percent. "Dawn welcomes the chance to care for someone who has meant so much to her. "I think about all the things that my mother has done for me, and this is such a small thing to be there for her. I feel grateful that Iíve had her in my life and that I can give something back."


All in the Family

Recently, other carotenoids besides vitamin A have been discovered by researchers to offer significant benefits for the eyes. These newcomers, lutein and zeaxanthin, are considered to be state-of-the-art pro-vision nutrients that quench free radicals and protect the retina and, more specifically, the macula (Schalch 1992).

The Journal of the American Medical Association found that among 356 test subjects - those with the highest intake of carotenoids (featuring lutein and zeaxanthin) had a 43% lower risk of AMD (Seddon 1994).

In addition to the carotenoid family, tocopherols (vitamin E) play a major role in eye health. In 1992, the British Medical Journal found that people with low concentrations of tocopherol had a higher risk factor for experiencing eye damage (Knekt 1992). This potent antioxidant is one of the most well-known free radical fighters for the eyes. I recommend that you seek out a source of mixed tocopherols - in other words, several highly absorbable forms of vitamin E.

Convincing studies show that using a combination of lutein and zeaxanthin, along with vitamins A and E, is the best way to ensure proper eye health. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition states that a combination of these carotenoids and antioxidant vitamins may be the best way to slow the destructive processes that occur in the eyes (Snodderly 1995). But keep this in mind: Although eating a diet high in vegetables and fruits can give you carotenoid substances, the way to ensure you are getting a concentrated and potent amount is through oral supplementation.


The Key - A Healthy Perspective

Whether it is your eyes, heart, or any other part of your body, Dawn emphasizes that a positive attitude has a lot to do with staying healthy. Indeed, a sharp and healthy mind is a powerful weapon against illness.

In particular, Dawn always remembers Missy Braden, a girl she met at University of Missouriís Childrenís Hospital who was suffering from cystic fibrosis. "I had a real difficult time when she died. I believe in miracles and positive thinking and last-minute breakthroughs, so why didnít it work? Well, over time I realized that in those 20 years that she lived, Missy had more experiences - highlighted by such will, determination, and courage - than anyone Iíve ever known."


Ready for the Next Phase

Relentless in her enthusiasm for life, Dawn has aimed her sight on "the next opportunity, the next challenge." Her schedule is a busy one. She was a consulting producer for a television retrospective on Gilliganís Island - from the beginning to the end and featuring several of her home movies - for E! Televisionís True Hollywood Story, which aired in early December.

Plus, Dawn continues her speaking tours, doing motivational talks from Louisiana to Oregon. She also runs a Film Actorís Boot Camp at the foot of the Teton Mountains to help actors making the transition from the amateur to the professional level. "I think being a mentor to somebody else can be a valuable gift that you can give as you get older."

In addition, co-star Russell Johnson ("the professor") and she will be performing Peter and the Wolf in Seattle for an organization called Tree House for abused children.


Living for Someone Else

"I think that true longevity has to do with the thought that I donít want my life to end with me," says Dawn. "I would like somebody to have become enriched or become better because of me - a time when I really touched someone".

Indeed, Dawn Wells possesses a healthy energy, a love of life, and a belief in the human spirit that truly makes her ready for the next millennium.

Mary Annís Gilliganís Island Cookbook is available through Rutledge Hill Press at 211 Seventh Avenue North, Nashville, Tennessee 37219. The cost of the book is $12.95 ($17.95 Canadian), and all the proceeds go to the Missy Braden Scholarship Fund at Stephens College in Missouri. In addition, you can read about Dawnís latest public appearances and find out about her Film Actorís Boot Camp by logging onto her web site at www.dawn-wells.com.