Few people put the words "healthy" and "aging" together, yet both can fit into the same affirmative statement. Sure, the aging body is a changing body and many of those changes are unwanted. The skin sags and wrinkles, joints stiffen, and the small print appears much smaller. Though some changes are inevitable, many of the changes we consider "normal" as we age can be minimized or prevented through proper lifestyle choices.
Most changes that come with aging happen gradually, yet somehow still seem to take us by surprise. We look in the mirror one day and suddenly have a difficult time recognizing that person with eye bags and wrinkled skin. We are certain there is something wrong with the TV, until we finally admit to ourselves that our hearing may not be so good.
Many of the changes associated with getting older are not inevitable. Yes, genetics play a role, but carrying the gene for some chronic diseases such as Type II diabetes does not guarantee that you are destined to get the disease. In fact, a healthy lifestyle may prevent the disease from even developing.
Oftentimes certain traits and illness tend to run in families and while genes play a part, so too does environment. It should come as no surprise that obese parents may likely have obese children. Are the children obese because of genetics, or because the obese parents have adopted unhealthy eating patterns and remain sedentary? In fact, obesity is often related to a variety of factors, many that can be controlled and some that cannot be.
Similarly, some diseases and ailments such as Type II diabetes, high cholesterol levels, and high blood pressure can be attributed to many lifestyle factors and are not solely dependent on whether or not your parents passed down the gene and/or gene mutation to you. Genetics predisposes you to developing a disease such as Type II diabetes, but does not guarantee it.
So, what does healthy aging encompass? Mostly it's all about making better decisions. Though there is no standardized definition of healthy aging, it is described as a process of developing and maintaining optimal health and function as one grows older. And, it is a process that can and should be started at any age - it's never too late or too soon to begin.
Though many factors effect the aging process, choosing how you age is up to you. Some things you can do to improve and maintain your health and wellness as you age include:
Exercise - Physical changes that occur with aging include a decrease in muscle mass. Less muscle means less strength to perform daily tasks such as housekeeping and grocery shopping and can negatively impact your ability to engage in activities you enjoy. Resistance training preserves and builds muscle. Use it or lose it - certainly you have heard that phrase tossed around, but you need to take it to heart. Our bodies are constantly changing, they do not remain a static structure like a statue. It can grow stronger through exercise or weaker through lack of use. You decide.
Consume a well-balanced, nutrient-rich diet - How you fuel your body will determine your body's performance. Feed it junk, it will operate inefficiently and slow down. Fuel it well and it will remain energized and maintain its' many systems. Lean sources of protein, healthy fats, and carbohydrates found in legumes, vegetables, and whole grains supply energy for daily activity, tissue growth and repair, and health maintenance.
A diet rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber provides the body with the substances it needs for proper digestion, absorption of nutrients, circulation of those nutrients throughout the body, and removal of waste products. These nutrients provide the body with a strong defense to fight disease and illness and are necessary for the function of every bodily system.
Filling your body with garbage puts your body in fight mode as it tries to negate the effects of chemicals and toxins. This continual fight leads to chronic inflammation and weakens your body's defenses leaving you susceptible to illness, disease, fatigue, and cognitive decline.
If your diet needs some upgrading, consider replacing junk food snacks with vegetables and fruit; choose lean source of protein such as chicken breasts, eggs, pork loin, sirloin steak rather than processed sausages and chicken patties; and substitute 100% whole grain products (such as brown rice) for those that contain processed ingredients (such as white rice, white bread, etc)
Learn to Manage Stress - The more years we live, the more stress we encounter and much of it we have little control over. Corporate downsizing may leave you out of a job, a good friend moves away, or a family member becomes ill and requires care. As we age, we watch spouses and loved ones pass away, we may need to move to a smaller home, or learn to live on a tighter budget. Many things we cannot control, but what we can do is learn to better manage the impact those things have on us.
"The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another" (William James). Certainly we cannot control whether or not the company we work for decides to downsize, but we can control our reaction to the loss of our job. Sure, it may come as a shock initially, but as you move forward you can choose to dwell on the negative or find and accept the positive. You may have to look for a new job, but now you have the opportunity to find a job doing something you truly enjoy. Or you may find a new job that gives you the opportunity to work from home. Change is difficult, yet it can also be the catalyst to go after something better. Choose your thoughts, choose to see the good, and choose how you will deal with setbacks and situations you cannot control.
Get the proper amount of sleep - It seems during the last couple of decades our society has regarded lack of sleep as a badge of honor. The less we sleep, the more important we must be, or certainly we are a harder, more dedicated worker, or we are somehow more mentally tough than those who require 7-8 hours per night. Our bodies require sleep - sleep gives our body the time and energy to repair, regenerate, and revitalize. Think about it - if you are busy all day, whether you are physically moving, sitting at your desk to complete the day's worth of paperwork, or even just vegging out on the couch, your body needs to work to support your physical structure, provide the energy you need to complete your tasks or even just to move from the couch to the bathroom, and maintain your body temperature. When you are sleeping, many of these needs are lessened and your body can now use energy for muscle and tissue growth and repair, hormone regulation and release, and for resetting its overworked systems.
Lack of sleep shortens the amount of time the body has to grow, repair, and regulate and, as a result, the body is unable to efficiently fight disease, the brain's ability to recall becomes diminished, and growth hormone production is disrupted.
Stay Well Hydrated - Water makes up approximately 60 - 70% of our body and that level must be maintained for good health. Though the bottled-water industry has boomed in the past decade or so, plenty of people are still not drinking enough water. Your body loses water every day through waste elimination, sweating, and breathing. A loss of only 1-2% of the body's water weight can cause headaches, fatigue, dry mouth, and dizziness and can have a significant impact on your mood and energy levels.
Chronic dehydration affects the organs, disrupts the normal functioning of many body systems, and can cause muscle and joint degradation. Severe dehydration can be deadly and must be treated immediately.
Do you really need 8 glasses of water per day? The jury is still out on that one, but it is a safe and healthy goal for most of us. Drink water throughout the day, don't wait until you are thirsty.
Social Interaction - Human beings are social creatures and many studies have confirmed that social isolation can have detrimental effects on older adults. Loneliness not only impacts emotional health, but has been linked to physical ailments including high blood pressure and inflammation. Socializing can be fun, but it also can improve your health. Those with strong social connections tend to live longer, live better, and find more joy in daily life. Sure, social media connections can have some benefit, but face-to-face interaction offers a much more positive impact on overall wellbeing.
Maintain your brain - The race to find a cure for Alzheimer's and other diseases of the brain has uncovered some interesting facts about brain health. Recent discoveries have determined that individual choices play a large part in the maintenance of brain health and the prevention of disease. Diet, exercise, weight management, and proper sleep all contribute to a healthy brain.
Practice Prevention - Rather than treating an illness or disease, taking steps to prevent them are the best way to go. Proper hand washing, covering your mouth when sneezing or coughing, and brushing your teeth are simple daily precautions you can take to prevent the development or spread of an illness. Maintaining a healthy weight goes a long way in the prevention of chronic diseases such as Type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Sure, losing weight, eating right, finding time to exercise and learning new ways to manage stress are all time-consuming and can be downright difficult, but managing medications, making trips to the doctor and pharmacy, and dealing with drug interactions and side effects take up more than your time and energy, they take your health.
Disease Management - It may seem contradictory to include disease management in a post emphasizing ways to avoid disease, but considering that over 100 million Americans suffer from at least one chronic disease, learning to live optimally while living with a disease is crucial. Proper disease management prevents further complications and empowers individuals to improve their quality of life. Monitoring and managing things such as blood sugar levels, blood pressure, and body weight are simple ways to improve your health and reduce your dependency on medical services and interventions. Not only will this result in better health, but it will also reduce costs, stress, and time spent at the doctor's office or emergency room.
Understand that disease management does NOT include tossing your medications into the trash and trying to manage your disease through proper choices alone. What it does mean is assuming personal responsibility for taking your medications as directed, questioning the need and side effects of medication, openly discussing other options with your doctor, and controlling those things that you are able to such as dietary choices, exercise, and sleep.
Rediscover your "Why" - We're gonna die anyway, so what's the point? This phrase gets tossed around a lot, sometimes jokingly, sometimes as an excuse, and sometimes as a reason to just go for it (whatever IT is). So far, yes, it is inevitable that we are all going to die, but healthy aging is not about when we are going to die, but how we choose to live.
Do you want to spend the last 20 years of your life confined to a bed in a nursing home or do you want to spend those years enjoying friends and family, experiencing new things, and participating in the activities you find pleasurable? Do you want to have the energy to keep up with your grandchildren (at least for a couple of hours), or do you want to rely on them to spoon feed you your pureed dinner?
Do you want to travel, read through your collection of books, or bicycle across the state (or across town??)? Or, do you want to wait for someone to have time to push you around the block in your wheelchair?
We all have different desires, dreams and goals, but I have yet to meet anyone who has said to me "I can't wait until I get older so I can move into the nursing home." How do you hope to live your later years? Discover your "why" and use it as a motivation to make the choices needed to get you where you want to be.
Aging well is for everyone - it may never be perfect, but it can always be made better.
Certainly, aging brings changes, but let's Change the Way we Age!
Better Health, Better Life, Better You!
FOR THE HEALTH OF IT!