Our life spans have already nearly doubled since the early nineteenth century, when the average life span was only 47 years old. People being born today in the U.S. are expected to live to 80—and in other countries the life expectancy is even higher. And while there is no magic pill that will allow us to “turn back the hands of time,” there are some basic steps we can take to respect our bodies, challenge our minds, and nurture our souls in order to improve the quality of our lives as we grow older.
Diet: Eat a well-balanced diet, choose foods high in fiber, and drink eight glasses of water a day. Take high-quality animal-based omega-3 fatty acids (many experts believe that it is likely the predominant reason why the Japanese live so long), eat foods rich in folate (found in asparagus, artichokes, Brussels sprouts and sunflower seeds), and avoid processed, sugary meals and snacks, as well as caffeine and alcohol.
Exercise: Even people with the healthiest diets in the world need exercise to reach optimum levels of health. Evidence shows that physical exercise is the key for disease reduction, optimal mental, emotional and physical health, and longevity. Exercise helps lower blood pressure and the risk of heart disease, strengthens your lungs, heart and bones, and keeps joints flexible and muscles strong. It also gives you more energy, while reducing stress, anxiety and depression. One of the primary benefits of exercise is that it normalizes your insulin and leptin levels, with the secondary benefits being weight loss and normalization of blood sugars. Even if you start exercising later in life, you will reap tremendous benefits.
Welcyon fitness center, with locations in Bloomington and Edina, is committed to improving the lives of people over 50. The goal is to help members gain strength and energy to live more fulfilling lives, as well as help prevent or improve chronic illness such as diabetes and heart disease.
“We have members who have lost inches and in some cases lost 30 or more pounds,” says Welcyon co-owner Suzy Boerboom. “But more importantly, we are changing lives. We have members who couldn’t climb stairs before they came to Welcyon. Another woman didn’t have the strength to get into and out of a bathtub. Welcyon helps people keep their independence.”
Experienced fitness coaches develop customized programs—strength training, aerobic exercise, flexibility, and balance training—for each member, Welcyon’s air-driven equipment is designed for aging adults, the clubs use a Smartcard that sets a personalized weight load and tracks individual progress, and the welcoming atmosphere provides a sense of community for aging Boomers (complete with a social area and book club).
Stay active. Staying active is one of the “golden tickets” to living a long life. “If someone is active and healthy until they’re 65, odds are they will probably have another 20 years of good health,” says Dr. Kephart. “People who do things that engage them after retirement usually do really well. People who don’t have a reason to get up in the morning after they quit a wage-earning job don’t typically do as well.”
One way to stay active is through the Minnesota Senior Corps, a group of programs that give Minnesotans age 55 and older the opportunity to help meet local community needs through a wide array of options. Opportunities include projects in education, social services, the environment, public safety, homeland security, and other critical needs areas. Volunteers can serve as Foster Grandparents, tutoring and mentoring disadvantaged or disabled children and teenagers; Senior Companions, helping adults who need extra assistance to live independently in their own homes and communities; or take part in the RSVP program, providing hundreds of community services that match the personal interests and skills of older Americans with opportunities to serve their communities.
“A majority of the volunteers I work with tell me that they get much more out of volunteering than they could ever give back,” says Ron Urbanski, assistant director, Minnesota Senior Corps. “I believe that people who volunteer are healthier and happier because of the service they provide. Volunteers who are engaged in their communities build deep and long-lasting connections with people they would otherwise never know. Many Senior Corps volunteers see service as a way to improve life in the places they grew up or have lived in for many years. Service also gives volunteers the opportunity to try something new or to discover and develop personal skills.”
It’s the life in your years, not the years in your life. Remember that genetics is only part of the equation—your age in years is only a number. It’s very possible for a 70-year-old to be just as “fit” (biologically speaking), as a 40-year-old, or even more fit, depending largely on lifestyle. “There’s some truth to that old expression: ‘Aging is just a number. It’s all in your head,’” says Dr. Ken Kephart, a geriatrician and the medical director of geriatric services at Fairview Healthcare System. “If you choose to stay active, eat healthy, be social and not ACT old, it will work wonders for you.”
Use your brain: Researchers in Chicago found that people who are cognitively active in old age are 2.6 times less likely to develop dementia or Alzheimer’s than those who use their heads less. Stimulating activities include such routine habits as reading the newspaper, checking out and reading a library book, as well as playing chess, going to the theater and other mentally engaging pursuits.
Protect your skin: Take preventive measures to protect your skin by limiting sun exposure, using sunscreen, hats and protective clothing, and avoiding sun beds and tanning salons. If you want your skin looking healthy for as long as possible, get enough sleep each night (sleep is important for cell repair and regeneration, and lack of essential sleep can impair these processes), use Vitamin A and C in a concentrated form, drink water, and adopt healthy habits.
Limit your exposure to toxins. Look for non-toxic alternatives to household cleaners, paint, soaps, bug spray, lawn pesticides, and air fresheners.
Manage your stress. Stress is bad for your heart, which affects your blood pressure, nervous system, and—in general—is hard on your body.
Be appreciative of what you have. According to David Leonhardt “The happy guy” of www.thehappyguy.com, “It’s time for each of us to take pride again in everything we are.” He suggests saying something like this: “I am pushing 60 (or whatever age applies to you). I have lived 60 years of happiness. I have survived 60 years of challenges. I have experienced 60 years of personal growth. I have learned so many life lessons from 60 trips around the sun. I am aging gracefully. I have thrived, mostly, during 60 years. And I am proud of every one of those years.”
How to know when an aging parent needs more care
An older person’s health can change without warning. Seniors camouflage difficulties; adult children struggle with guilt and fear. Denial is common.
“In my opinion, most people fear a loss of independence even more than they fear death when they reach a certain age,” says Dr. Ken Kephart, medical director of Geriatric Services at Fairview Healthcare System. “Most of them know that when their time comes, they’ll be ready for it. They have a greater fear of being put in a nursing home, losing their license, or being dependent on others.”
Whether it’s loss of a physical function, or a loss of memory, it’s not a good strategy to wait until after Dad gets in a serious car accident or Mom is hospitalized because she can’t remember to take her meds before people are willing to have the conversation that a loved one needs more help. Here, we offer some clues that may signal it’s time to step in.
• Notice if conversation changes. This could be a sign that your loved one is anxious (or confused) about what he/she was going to say.
• Monitor medications. This could be a red flag.
• Are they paying their bills on time?
• Check the kitchen. Look for spoiled food. Notice what’s on the counters.
• Notice if they’re wearing the same (or soiled) clothes. Doing laundry is a huge task.
• Check for vehicle dents or scrapes or traffic citations. Examine the condition of the car on a regular basis.
• Talk to neighbors and friends. They might notice things you don’t.
• Notice changes in lifelong habits. If someone who always loved parties stops going to them, he could be afraid he won’t remember the names of longtime friends. If a person who always reads directions before starting a project stops doing that, she might have trouble reading or comprehending.
• Stress, hearing loss, grief or side effects from medications can also cause changes in behavior. Geriatric pharmacists can review medications to make sure drugs aren’t reacting together in harmful ways.
If your parent(s) appear to need help, make an appointment with a health care professional who is trained in evaluating the medical, emotional, and lifestyle needs of the elderly (a doctor, home care nurse, or geriatric social worker). The goal is to identify risks and determine what assistance or preventive measures could improve your parents’ quality of life.