People with a positive attitude toward aging can adjust very well when individual circumstances change. Their positive outlook allows them to adapt to the inevitable physical and biochemical changes of the body that are associated with the natural processes of aging.
People are growing older with more optimism and good health than at any time in our history. As “Bubs” Coleman of the National Advisory Council on Aging observes, “Successful aging has become a realistic goal… [because] control our physical, mental, and social functioning.”
People with a positive attitude toward aging can adjust very well when individual circumstances change. Their positive outlook allows them to adapt to the inevitable physical and biochemical changes of the body that are associated with the natural processes of aging. With a healthy outlook on the golden years, even unpredictable setbacks and disabilities can be managed successfully.
Individual genetic makeup explains the great variation in the rate at which we age: Some seniors experience more challenges than others of the same age, and some seniors continue to function better than many younger people. But genetics only accounts for about 30 percent of aging. Most of the changes we associate with age relate to factors such as diet and exercise habits; lifestyle issues, including over-consumption of alcohol and tobacco; and psychological traits.
Because we want to enjoy the ride when we get there, we can make healthy lifestyle choices by staying active both physically and mentally and by maintaining a healthy diet. Some of the setbacks associated with advancing age such as failing eyesight, loss of hearing, forgetfulness, weakness, loss of bladder control, and immobility can be forestalled with some active intervention.
The Eyes Have It
Growing older does not always mean you see poorly. Many older people have relatively good eyesight well into their eighties and beyond. However, the single greatest contributor to vision loss is a lifetime of exposure to damaging ultraviolet (UV) radiation in sunlight, which causes an accumulation of free radical damage in the eyes.
Carotenoids, a phytonutrient found in brightly coloured vegetables and fruits, are powerful protectors against free-radical damage. Eye-helping carotenoids include beta-carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin, which absorb harmful radiation, helping prevent macular thinning and degeneration. Research shows that simply eating leafy greens and other foods rich in these protective nutrients can reduce vision loss.
Nutritional supplements offer significant protection against age-related vision problems. In 2001, the Age-Related Eye Disease Study showed that supplementation with zinc, vitamins C and E, and beta-carotene reduced the risk of macular degeneration in high-risk patients by 20 percent compared to placebo.
The risk of cataracts was cut by 77 percent after long-term supplementation with vitamin C in one large study reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 1997. In another study, bilberry, which improves nighttime vision, slowed the progression of cataracts in 97 percent of patients when used in combination with vitamin E.
Hear Ye, Hear Ye
Problems with hearing can create isolation and insecurity in later years. One of the major causes of age-related hearing loss is damage to the hair cells in the inner ear that transmit sounds to the brain. These hair cells and their nerve endings can be damaged by infections, genetic diseases, or treatment with certain drugs. The most common cause, however, is loud noise.
Use earplugs whenever you are exposed to loud noise. Any sound level over 85 decibels may cause hearing damage. (City traffic measures 80 decibels, a lawnmower measures 90 decibels, and a power saw measures 110 decibels, a level that can cause permanent hearing loss after just two minutes of exposure.)
Nutritional supplements, including folate and vitamins B12 and D, aid hearing. A 1998 study reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that women over age 60 with hearing loss had 38 percent lower levels of vitamin B12 and 31 percent lower levels of folate than women with normal hearing. Vitamin D deficiencies also produce hearing loss that can be reversed by supplementation with this nutrient.
Other nutrients that may prove helpful for age-related hearing loss, particularly for those with poor circulation, include Ginkgo biloba and vinpocetine because of their ability to enhance blood flow through the tiniest capillaries, helping transport nutrients to the fragile hair cells.
Keep Memories Sweet–Not Vague
It’s common to forget things occasion ally, and most of these memory lapses can be attributed to lack of concentration, stress, or just plain lack of sleep. We can take positive steps to minimize the kind of memory loss that is associated with aging by simply remaining physically and mentally active.
Physical activity throughout life has been proven to determine better cognitive ability in participants compared with sedentary people of the same chronological age. Playing a musical instrument, doing crossword puzzles, playing mental games, attending adult education classes, and participating in movement therapies such as yoga and Tai Chi can help to keep our minds and memories strong and clear. Doing these activities often increases the likelihood we will remain mentally fit for life.
Eating a balanced diet high in antioxidants, zinc, selenium, and magnesium is another sure way to improve our memory by preventing premature aging of the brain and oxidative damage from free radicals. Adding unrefined, cold-pressed nut and seed oils like flaxseed, walnut, or sesame to our daily diet provides the essential fatty acids needed for brain development. They also contain the “brain food” lecithin, which plays an essential role in the transmission of nerve impulses that control memory. Lecithin can also be found in egg yolks, soybeans, and raw wheat germ. In addition, there is growing evidence that optimum levels of folic acid and vitamins B6 and B12 can prevent, slow, or reverse the deterioration in memory and other mental capacities important to the quality of life as we age.
Herbal teas make a soothing and brain-fortifying addition to our memory diet. Particularly effective is the herb Gingko biloba, which increases blood flow to the brain, improving mental clarity, alertness, and memory.
Shake Off Weakness and Immobility
Many people assume that aging ultimately means weakness and frailty. This is not necessarily so. If we want to remain strong and vital into our golden years, we must pay attention to our bones, joints, and muscle mass. The most common causes of weakness and immobility in seniors are osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, and sarcopenia–the age-related loss of muscle mass, strength, and function.
Osteoporosis is a disease that can cause our bones to break down over time. Bones–most often in the wrist, hip, and spine–become thin, brittle, and break easily. Essential to maintaining good bone health are vitamins D and K, essential fatty acids, calcium, and magnesium.
We can increase blood levels of calcium by eating dairy products and other calcium-rich foods, including canned sardines, salmon, and dark-green vegetables such as collard greens, kale, and broccoli. Magnesium–also essential for boosting bone mineral density–can be found in brown rice and whole grain cereals, dark green vegetables, legumes, and seeds.
Osteoarthritis is caused by the breakdown of cartilage, the tough elastic material that covers and protects the ends of bones in our joints and usually affects the hips, knees, hands, and spine. In osteoarthritis, bits of cartilage may break off and cause inflammation in the joint between bones. Over time the cartilage may wear away entirely, and the bones will rub together.
The wear and tear of aging and previous joint damage or injury are specifically associated with osteoarthritis, although a family history of arthritis appears to play a part.
Vitamin C, glucosamine, and chondroitin are commonly used to reduce the pain of osteoarthritis and to rebuild joint cartilage. Plant-based digestive enzymes (bromelain and papain) and pancreatin enzymes (animal based) work as powerful anti-inflammatory agents, reducing pain, swelling, and infection while improving joint flexibility.
Sarcopenia is thought to have multiple causes, including changes in hormonal, nutritional, and physical activity levels. Like osteoporosis and osteoarthritis, sarcopenia is a degenerative condition that affects function, such as increased risk for falls and vulnerability to injury. Having less muscle alters the metabolism, with numerous consequences that can include obesity, impaired glucose tolerance, and changes in the body’s ability to regulate temperature. Since muscular contractions help keep bones strong, muscle loss can also mean weaker bones.
Numerous studies demonstrate that resistance exercises can help frail elderly people in their eighties and nineties improve their strength to the point where many regain the ability to walk and perform other tasks without assistance.
“Muscles will get stronger in response to strength training no matter what your age,” says William Evans, director of the nutrition, metabolism, and exercise lab at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, who notes that much of the muscle loss attributed to age actually comes from inactivity. Building muscles builds confidence, too. This can enhance mood, functioning, and quality of life.
Take Control of the Flow
We’re all familiar with the television ads that feature seniors avoiding social functions and physical activitiesout of fear that their bladders will betray them. Despite popular belief, loss of bladder control is not a part of normal aging. “Incontinence is never normal at any age,” says Neil Resnick, MD, chief of gerontology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, and an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.
Incontinence is caused by a weak bladder, weakened muscles around the bladder, blocked urinary passageways, or damaged nerves. A variety of reasons may contribute to these causes, including the effects of stroke, nerve problems due to diabetes, or spinal cord injury. Certain medications, including antidepressants, sedatives, diuretics, or muscle relaxants also contribute to this disorder. Women may experience incontinence as a result of weakened pelvic muscles following childbirth and men due to the after-effects of prostate surgery.
Herbal teas, baths, and compresses can help to heal and relax weakened muscles causing urinary incontinence. Horsetail tea or juice is excellent to strengthen the connective tissues and heal the urinary mucous membranes. Cypress oil’s astringent and relaxing properties regulate excess fluid production.
Hot, moist hayflower compresses on the kidney and bladder region work well to heal weakened muscles, while regular, hot sitz baths with horsetail, oat straw, and camomile in the evening stimulate blood circulation in the urinary organs.
Aging gracefully is attainable with the right lifestyle choices and a positive attitude. Although our environment, genetics, and diet may play a large part in determining our health, we can control how we savour life while we reach for our dreams.
Some Lessons from Centenarians
Based in part on a study of seniors aged 100+ in the Boston area, here are six key ways to live a long and successful life, listed by the acronym “AGEING.”
Source: Longevity researcher Thomas Perls, MD, MPH, “Forty Forever.” Unpublished keynote presentation to the Canadian Association on Gerontology, Montreal, October, 2002.
Kegel Exercises for Bladder Control
Kegel exercises are beneficial for everyone, but most successful for those with poor muscle tone.
Exercises for Bone, Joint, and Muscle Strength
Low-impact aerobics help stabilize and support the joints–and may even reduce inflammation in some joints–while they aid in weight loss and muscular redesign to place less demand on the skeleton. Cycling and walking are beneficial, and swimming or exercising in water is highly recommended, as are dancing and hiking.
Strengthening exercises build muscle strength while burning fat and maintaining bone density using various means of resistance such as free weights, weight machines, elastic bands, and water exercises.
Range-of-motion exercises increase the amount of movement in a joint and muscle. In general, they are stretching exercises. The best examples are yoga and Tai Chi, which focus on flexibility, balance, and proper breathing. They also lower stress levels, help to reduce blood pressure, and may even have beneficial effects on cholesterol levels.
Brain Power Tips
Eat these six memory foods:
Sandra Cusack, a gerontology researcher at Simon Fraser University, and Wendy Thompson, an educational gerontologist and mental fitness trainer, claim that mental fitness is just as important as physical fitness. Authors of Mental Fitness for Life (Key Porter, 2003), Cusack and Thompson set out some of the latest research as seven steps to healthy aging: