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Health Reserves

Healthy living for a long life

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Health Reserves

Hoping to be a healthy elder? Healthy and successful aging requires careful preparation. Here's what you need to know for a long and healthy life.

Hoping to be a healthy elder? Then stock your health bank as faithfully as your financial one. Healthy aging requires preparation. This month’s Research Watch discusses what you need to know to build up your health reserves for a long and healthy life.

Aging is inevitable but infirmity, frailty, and dementia are not. While genetics may make an individual susceptible to various diseases, lifestyle choices and environment are equally important factors for determining the quality of your aging and your overall longevity.

Debunking the Aging Myth

In 1935 people over 50 years old represented less than 20 percent of the population and of those, less than 2 percent were over 75. In 2006 the over-50 population had risen to 30 percent and those over 75 had tripled to 6 percent. It is estimated that by 2030 the over-80 population will double.

In that same period, the leading causes of death have changed. In 1935 most deaths were caused by infectious diseases (influenza, diphtheria, scarlet fever) or acute illnesses such as appendicitis. Today chronic or degenerative diseases lead to most deaths in the aging population, primarily cardiovascular diseases and cancer but also diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.

These rather grim statistics actually speak to the success of, and access to, good medical care and to a healthier, better informed population. Indeed many of today’s leading causes of death and disability are preventable or controllable if steps are taken early and are maintained throughout middle age and into the elder years.

Healthy Body

Diet and physical activity are crucial to maintaining the healthy aging body. With age, the body tends to store more fat as the metabolism slows. Tastes and appetite may change. Vital organs become less efficient, especially the kidneys and the heart. Too much weight places stress on already wearing joints and a high-fat diet can result in diabetes, arterial blockages, and cardiovascular disease.

Aging weakens the immune system. Malnutrition, especially of micronutrients and trace elements, exacerbates age-related immune deficiencies. It is well established that most cancer occurs in the over-65 population; however, researchers hypothesize that aging does not cause cancer, but rather that cancer may be an indicator of a lifetime’s exposure to carcinogens.

A depressed immune system is simply unable to fight the cellular changes that result in cancer. Furthermore, a weak immune system is thought to intensify the inflammation effect that underlies many old-age diseases such as atherosclerosis, dementia, osteoporosis, and rheumatoid arthritis.

The good news is that much of this is preventable. One study has shown that non-smoking 70-year-olds who do not have diabetes or hypertension and who are not obese or sedentary can increase their probability of living to age 90 by 54 percent.

Weight gain, bone loss, diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol, and some heart disease can be reversed or controlled through diet and exercise. A diet that favours lean proteins, whole vegetables and fruit, and healthy fats is ideal. Combining a healthy diet with 30 minutes of moderate daily physical activity can keep body mass down while supporting muscle tone and development, and give the immune system a much needed boost.

Healthy Mind

As with physical health, cognitive function can decline with age. Most people with mild cognitive decline learn coping strategies. Dementia, especially Alzheimer’s disease, eventually requires medical and care intervention.

Scientists do not know what causes Alzheimer’s disease. The early-onset form, which afflicts individuals between the ages of 30 to 60, probably has some genetic aspect. For most Alzheimer’s patients over 60, however, there is no identifiable family history.

Increasingly it appears that the risk factors for age-related Alzheimer’s disease are similar to those for heart disease and stroke–high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, low levels of folate, and smoking.

The recommendations for avoiding cognitive decline and dementia are, therefore, similar to those for avoiding stroke and heart disease–keep physically active, eat a diet low in saturated fats but high in antioxidants and lean proteins, take a daily multivitamin, get regular medical checkups, don’t smoke, and keep the brain active with activities such as reading, crossword and number puzzles, or strategy games.

Healthy Outlook

Resilience, happiness, satisfaction, optimism, and perseverance–all describe aspects of a healthy outlook. Studies by researchers around the world report that older individuals who are positive are more resilient and able to cope with stress.

According to Finnish scientists, one way to achieve a positive outlook is to eat chocolate. Apparently elderly men in one study who liked chocolate were happier, more optimistic, and psychologically healthier than their counterparts who disliked chocolate.

Good physical and mental health plus a healthy, positive outlook are interdependent. To be in top form at age 90 and beyond means you must prepare in early and middle age–maintain physical activity, eat properly, avoid tobacco, keep up social networks, engage in cognitive challenges, and get regular medical care. Oh, and will someone please pass the chocolate?

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