Enjoy productive aging with some simple lifestyle changes
Myths about the fountain of youth date as far back as the 5th century B.C., demonstrating our deep desire for easy aging. And although life expectancy is now much longer than it was for our grandparents, we still haven’t found the secret to eternal life.
The good news is that we do have control over lifestyle choices that can help us stay fit and youthful as we grow older. A few key building blocks to healthy aging revolve around maintaining strong bones, good balance, healthy brains and hearts, and getting regular check-ups.
Let’s break that down further.
As we age our bones become thinner and more brittle. This is especially true for post-menopausal women.
To combat this problem we need an adequate supply of vitamin D, calcium and phosphorus in our diet. In addition to the nutrients in a healthy diet, most people benefit from supplemental vitamin D3, which helps our bones absorb calcium.
We can get vitamin D from sunlight and can include it in our diet by eating seafood, eggs, shitake mushrooms and enriched foods. Calcium is found in green leafy vegetables, almonds, beans and fish as well as dairy and fortified foods. And we can get phosphorus from nuts, seeds, wheat germ, edamame and cheese.
In addition to a healthy diet rich in key nutrients, weight-bearing exercise is also essential to maintaining strong bones. This type of exercise includes walking, running, yoga, weight lifting (even light weights), push-ups, tennis and golf. You can have fun and build bone at the same time!
And, as you likely know, smoking and excessive alcohol consumption are both detrimental to bone health.
Balance is an undervalued skill and one that becomes increasingly important as we age. One in four Americans 65 and older falls every year, and falling is a leading cause of disability for seniors. Improving balance helps protect us from falling.
We can improve our balance by building core strength and working on flexibility. Yoga and Pilates are wonderful for helping with this goal, but there are simple exercises that most people can do anytime to improve balance.
For example, stand on one leg at a time while brushing teeth or washing dishes. Practice sitting down and standing up from a chair without using your arms for support. Or, walk across a room heel to toe as if you’re on a balance beam.
It’s also important to check your environment. Remove things that can throw you off balance or are tripping hazards, such as throw rugs and carpets with curled up edges. Install handrails and grab bars as needed in your home. Keep your environment well lit, and you may want to keep a flashlight near your bed in case you get up during the night.
Unfortunately, there’s no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, which is more common in women, or for most other causes of dementia. But, although we don’t know how to prevent all types of dementia, there are ways to control age-related memory loss and maximize brain health.
Exercise is important for brain health—both physical and mental exercise. You can incorporate mental exercise into your life with enjoyable pastimes such as reading, doing puzzles and playing card games. Staying socially engaged, working and volunteering are more activities to help you stay mentally sharp.
A healthy brain also requires you to keep blood pressure and cholesterol under control to protect the arteries in the brain and prevent strokes. If healthy diet and exercise are not enough, your doctor will prescribe medications to help maintain safe blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
Excessive alcohol consumption is a known cause of dementia. Drinking can also lead to falls and accidents that may cause brain trauma. And smoking damages the arteries in our brains.
Chronic conditions associated with aging such as high cholesterol, elevated blood pressure, elevated glucose levels (diabetes) and obesity are all controllable risk factors for heart disease. The first lines of defense are proper diet and exercise.
A healthy diet is high in good fats (avocado, fish oil, nuts, olive oil) and vegetables, includes adequate lean protein and is low in simple carbohydrates (bread, cake, cookies, chips, pasta, crackers, pretzels, French fries, etc.). Minimize your use of salt if you have high blood pressure. If you’re on medication for high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes, be sure to take all prescribed medication regularly and follow up with your physician.
In addition, stress elevates cortisol levels and raises blood pressure. Although stress can’t be eliminated, it can be managed with exercise, meditation, adequate sleep and maintaining social connections. Meditation can be as simple as stepping outside or closing your eyes and taking five deep breaths before returning to what you were doing.
If you feel overwhelmed, give yourself the gift of talking to friends, family or seeking professional counseling. It’s good for your heart!
In addition to eating a healthy diet and getting adequate exercise, have regular checkups with your doctor. Make sure you’re up to date with tests (mammogram, pap smear, colonoscopy, bone density scan) and vaccines (flu, shingles, pneumonia and others your doctor recommends).
A few final pieces of advice: wear a seatbelt—even if you’re only going to the grocery store. Practice safe sex. And don’t smoke—yes, it’s important enough to say that again.
Here’s to feeling young and living long!
Elana Kripke, M.D., practices internal medicine in Paoli. She’s a graduate of The University of Pennsylvania’s school of medicine and completed her residency at The New York Hospital, Cornell Medical Center. Her affiliation with the MDVIP network allows her to give each of her patients the time, attention and quality care that they deserve.