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Long Live Healthy Aging

Get older, get healthier


Read the news, though, and instead of a positive spin on longevity you might catch yet another tale about how the aging of the baby boomers is doing nothing but straining publicly funded services.

Sheila Ringrose is a woman on the go. When she’s not synchronized swimming, going to the symphony, playing bridge, or travelling, she’s helping out with her nine grandkids, ranging in age from three months to 25 years. The Edmonton resident says she certainly doesn’t feel 78.

“That’s two years from 80, and 80 is old,” Ringrose says with a laugh. “Maybe when I’m 80, I’ll say 90 is old.”

The mother of four, who retired 15 years ago from a successful career teaching nursing, says that despite some health challenges—she has arthritis in her wrists and recently had cataract surgery—she feels fortunate to be so active.

“I’m always busy,” she says. “I’m so involved with my children, and I have a very supportive family. As you age, you’ve got to keep your mind and body as active as you can.”

She’s resilient to be sure, but Ringrose also admits that, as others have said before her, aging isn’t for wimps. Granted, no one wants to get old, especially in a culture obsessed with beauty and youth (as if one cannot exist without the other). But while it’s pointless to try to stop the process of aging altogether, there’s obvious good reason to at least try to slow things down.

Holistic aging

“We’re all trying to live longer, more fruitful, healthier lives. Ultimately, we’d all live a longer life if we could live a better life,” says Dr. Gidon Frame, director of the Anti-Aging Medical and Laser Clinic. “At this stage, people want quality of life by delaying the degeneration, deterioration, and disease that come with age ... healthy aging requires a proactive approach.”

Health experts agree it also calls for a holistic tack. To make those golden years greater, you need to take care of your physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and social health. With the right blend of preventive health and positive outlook, aging might not be nearly as bad as it’s been made out to be.

Unlike what popular media portrays, “The majority of seniors are living their lives outside of care facilities like nursing homes,” says Dr. Jean-Fran?s Kozak, director of research at the Centre for Healthy Aging at Providence. “If you pay attention to your physical, mental, and social-emotional health, you will improve the likelihood that you will remain independent as well.”

Aging is popular

Canada’s senior population is growing, from 3.5 million people in 1996 to an estimated 6.9 million by 2021. Read the news, though, and instead of a positive spin on longevity you might catch yet another tale about how the aging of the baby boomers is doing nothing but straining publicly funded services.

“We hear about the aging of the population as if this is a really bad thing, when in fact it’s a huge success story,” says Kenneth Madden, Geriatric Medicine specialist at the University of British Columbia’s Department of Medicine. “We’ve wanted to reduce mortality, and now that we’ve succeeded it’s become a big problem.

“A few more people around with wisdom is a good thing. I have a patient who remembers the Great Depression. And with the current economic crisis, he’s giving me advice. That’s a great resource.”

Path to healthy aging

So what does it take to navigate later life as healthily as possible?

Health screening should be routine. Women should be tested regularly for breast and cervical cancer and osteoporosis, while men need to be tested for prostate cancer. As well, men and women should be checked for diabetes, obesity, colorectal cancer, and high blood pressure and cholesterol. Having regular vision, hearing, and oral-health tests are recommended too. So is getting up off the couch.

“We know how important it is for seniors to remain physically active no matter how frail they are,” Kozak says. “There’s a vicious cycle with those who are frail: the belief that they need to stay in bed because they’ll feel better or because it’s safer. For every day of bed rest they lose anywhere from two to eight percent of their functional capacity. They need to get out of bed.”

Men and women need to focus not just on cardiovascular exercise but also on flexibility, balance (to avoid falls and consequently fractures), and strength (by lifting free weights). Although there’s an ongoing debate about how much aerobic exercise older people should get, Kozak says more research is pointing to the benefits of higher energetics.

The Public Health Agency of Canada recommends 30 to 60 minutes of physical activity most days, such as stretching, walking, washing the car, vacuuming, working in the garden, and taking dance classes. It could also include sex. Besides burning calories, sex stimulates the release of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers.

Aging of the mind

Regular physical activity isn’t just good for the body. It’s also good for the mind, helping reduce anxiety, depression, and stress. Mental health can be looked at in two ways: keeping the brain itself sharp and having a positive attitude.

Scientific evidence suggests that mental stimulation enhances brain activity. To challenge the mind, men and women should choose activities—such as puzzles and games—that promote brain health. While dementia has a genetic link, Kozak says lifestyle factors play a role in reducing the risk.

“Remaining physically fit reduces the likelihood of type 2 diabetes, which is linked to dementia,” he explains. In Magnificent Mind at Any Age (Crown, 2008), psychiatrist Daniel G. Amen outlines what he calls “bad brain habits,” which, if maintained, can exacerbate the negative effects of aging. They include chronic stress, negative thinking, poor sleep, excessive caffeine, consuming aspartame and MSG, excess alcohol, and spending too much time in front of the TV or computer.

To help boost memory, Amen suggests supplements such as Ginkgo biloba; phosphatidylserine, a naturally occurring nutrient that’s a component of cell membranes and found in fish, leafy green vegetables, soy products, and rice; and Huperzine A, a botanical extract that appears to increase the availability of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter.

Staying upbeat can be more challenging, especially if you’re dealing with illness (your own or in those close to you) or loss. The pain of loneliness can lead to depression, signs of which include a drop in appetite and weight, inability to sleep, lack of energy and motivation, and thoughts of suicide. Your family doctor can help you or refer you to a mental-health professional. Keeping busy and seeking out new social contacts, by attending community centre programs or volunteering, can also lift spirits.

Social and spiritual aging

Staying socially active, particularly for women, is proving to be crucial for seniors’ health. People who regularly interact with others maintain their brain function more than those who don’t.

“Research has shown that women who belonged to some kind of social network—a church group, a reading group, a volunteer organization—are more likely to have time-appropriate mammograms,” says Kozak, noting that although the gap between men and women regarding longevity appears to be narrowing, women still form the majority of seniors in our population. “Younger women need to become aware of what they should be doing to prepare for their later years,” he notes.

Just as important as a strong social network is a sense of spiritual well-being.

Many people find spirituality through religion or a personal relationship with the Divine; however they define that “greater power.” Still others find it through nature, music, or the quest for meaning.

Doctors at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine found that daily spiritual experiences in older adults with arthritis were linked with lower rates of depression and increased energy.

At the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke Medical Center, co-director Harold Koenig found that people who professed having a sense of spirituality had significantly shorter stays in rehabilitation facilities than those who didn’t.

“Spirituality was a simple, side effect free, feel-good way to reduce long-term care hospital stays,” writes Dr. Woodson Merrell, Chairman of the Department of Integrative Medicine at New York’s Beth Israel Medical Center, in the book he co-wrote with Kathleen Merrell, The Source: Beat Fatigue, Power Up Your Health, and Feel 10 Years Younger (Random House, 2008).

“Spirituality would be a pharmaceutical gold mine if it could be bottled and sold.” He encourages people to pray or meditate for at least two minutes daily.

The goal of aging, experts emphasize, is maximizing quality of life. “Successful aging isn’t about making it to 90 but is instead about being a vibrant, healthy, independent 90-year-old,” Madden says. “And the vast majority of people do age successfully.”

Bone health

  • Weight-bearing exercises, done three to four times a week, are best for preventing osteoporosis. (See story here.)
  • Certain medicines can weaken bones, including glucocorticoids for arthritis and asthma, as well as some anti-seizure drugs and sleeping pills. Talk to your health care provider.
  • Adequate calcium and vitamin D are still crucial at this stage in life. Osteoporosis Canada recommends 1,500 mg of calcium and 800 IU of vitamin D per day after age 50. Good food sources of calcium include low fat dairy products, canned fish with soft bones such as salmon, and dark green leafy vegetables. You can also get vitamin D from eggs and fatty fish. Many food products are fortified with calcium and vitamin D.
  • Stop smoking, since it contributes to loss of bone mass.
  • Have a bone density test after age 65.

Oral health

  • Decay of the roots of teeth and gum disease are common in older adults. Some evidence links gum disease to heart disease, respiratory disorders, and strokes.
  • Warning signs of gum disease include bleeding gums when you brush; tender, red, or swollen gums; gums that have pulled away from the teeth; and any change in your bite or the fit of your partial dentures.
  • Brush and floss real or replacement teeth at least twice daily.
  • Call your dentist if changes in your mouth last longer than 14 days.
  • Try an electric toothbrush if fine motor movements are difficult.
  • Oral cancer is more common in people over 50 who smoke, chew tobacco, or abuse alcohol. Early diagnosis and treatment increase long-term survival.

Eye health

  • Warning signs of vision problems include increased sensitivity to light and glare, difficulty distinguishing colours, clumsiness, and trouble recognizing faces.
  • “Hidden” signs of vision loss include social withdrawal or the cessation of activities that require fine vision, such as sewing and playing board games.
  • Quit smoking. People who smoke are three to four times more likely to develop age-related macular degeneration (AMD).
  • Increase intake of foods high in omega-3 fatty acids as well as fresh fruit and dark green leafy vegetables, as they provide nutrients that benefit the macula.
  • Keep active: excess weight, a sedentary lifestyle, and high blood pressure are all risk factors for AMD and diabetic retinopathy.
  • Drink only in moderation, because excess alcohol is a risk factor for cataracts.

Sexual health

  • Talk to your partner about your sexual expectations and changing abilities.
  • Discover new ways to be intimate. Even if intercourse isn’t possible, continue touching, hugging, and hand holding for much needed human contact.
  • Use a condom when having sex with a new partner until you’re sure you’re both free of sexually transmitted illnesses.
  • Water-based lubricants can help women dealing with vaginal dryness (caused by decreased lubrication because of hormonal changes related to menopause). Taking the time to become properly stimulated and trying new things with your partner may also help.
  • Talk to your doctor if erectile dysfunction is a problem. Taking the time to become aroused and having a willing partner can help.

Hearing health

  • More than 50 percent of Canadians over 65 have an inner ear hearing loss.
  • Signs of hearing loss include speaking louder than necessary; constantly asking for words to be repeated; misunderstanding conversations; favouring one ear; thinking that people always mumble; withdrawing from social contact; ringing or buzzing in the ears (tinnitus); and appearing disinterested.
  • Consider assistive devices such as hearing aids in both ears (a binaural system).


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