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.
“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.”