Staying Young When You Are Getting Old(er)
We celebrated my father’s 85th birthday earlier this year. Just about everyone who meets my dad makes the same remark: “He is a really GOOD 85.” (My mom also gets frequent, well-deserved props for being an equally impressive eighty-something!). We all know them when we see them, but what makes someone “good” for their age? More importantly, what is their secret? If you’re looking for the “CliffsNotes” version of this blog, the answer is, “Use it or lose it.” For those of you hoping for a more detailed explanation, read on to learn what we can be doing now, in our 40s, 50s, and 60s, to increase the likelihood that we, like my parents, will remain as active and mentally sharp as many people half our age.
My parents get dressed in real clothes – no hanging around in bathrobes or house coats – and get out of the house every day. They go to church and walk at least 2 miles a day, chat with friends they meet along the way, and take detours to bring in newspapers and garbage cans from “older” neighbors’ driveways. They don’t walk if the roads are icy, a policy that has also contributed to their longevity. Highly competitive games of Rummikub, Wordle, and “7 Little Words” round out their mornings. The remainder of their day involves some combination of reading (at least a couple of books a week for each of them), socializing with friends and family, doing errands, and participating in church and community organizations. If you’re feeling a little exhausted just thinking about all of that, read on to see why routines like this are so important, and how you might incorporate some of these habits into your own life.
It is hard to overstate the physical, mental, and psychological benefits of exercise. Regular exercise – even walking at a moderate pace – is associated with improved cognitive function and decreased risks of dementia, heart disease, and several types of cancer. People who engage in regular physical activity are not only less likely to fall, but they are less likely to be seriously injured if they do fall. While current recommendations endorse 150 minutes of moderate activity per week (about 22 minutes per day), some recent data suggest that just 11 minutes of moderate physical activity per day may provide significant health benefits.
In addition to engaging in aerobic activity, mix up your routine with attention to balance, flexibility, and strength-training—those become even more important (particularly in terms of fall prevention) as we age. Although it’s generally safe for most individuals, exercise involves some risk if performed incorrectly or to excess. Before initiating or significantly changing your exercise routine, consult your physician or other healthcare provider to discuss adopting an exercise regimen that is appropriate for you.
If you are interested in learning more about all aspects of exercise, visit www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/.
Many people find it more difficult to remain mentally and socially engaged when they stop working, but higher levels of mental and social activity are associated with a decreased incidence of dementia. Strong social connections are associated with a longer lifespan and decreased rates of depression, anxiety, and cardiovascular disease.
Taking up a new hobby (e.g., learning to play an instrument or speak a new language), reading, playing word games, or doing crossword puzzles are common strategies for staying mentally active, but find any activities you find interesting and enjoyable, and do them! Make an effort to see existing friends, and consider volunteering or joining a club, or a religious or community-minded organization to meet new friends.
My father was hospitalized for nearly a week last year and despite multiple complications and significant pain, he didn’t wallow in his misfortune or even complain. When I told my dad I was amazed by his attitude, he shrugged and said, “I have to go through this no matter what. I can either complain and make myself and everyone around me miserable, or I can be positive, and make this better for all of us.”
Before he could be discharged from the hospital, my father needed to walk up 2 steps. I watched him walk up 2 steps, look at his physical therapist, and ask, “Can I do 2 more?” And then he did 2 more. 💪🏻
Many of us (myself included) have probably rolled our eyes at the corny bumper stickers and billboards extolling the virtues of positive thinking. Even Ted Lasso was disparaged for his unwavering optimism. (If you haven’t watched Ted Lasso, it is well worth the $6.99/month cost of AppleTV). I’m sorry to break it to all of you cynics out there, but there is some evidence to suggest that optimism and positive thinking are associated with increased lifespan and decreased rates of depression, cardiovascular disease, and death from infection, cancer, and respiratory disease.
If optimism isn’t your default mode, there is hope for you. (See what I did there?). Positive thinking is a skill that can be learned and practiced. Something as simple as putting in writing, every day, 3 good things that happened during the day, or 3 things for which you are grateful, can begin to shift your outlook. If coming up with 3 things sounds overwhelming, start with one and work your way up; it gets easier with practice.
(My parents quit smoking in the early 1960s, and that’s the last thing I’ll write about them today.)
Most people associate smoking with lung cancer, but the negative health impacts of smoking reach beyond our lungs. Some of the less well-known complications of smoking include an increased risk of cardiovascular disease (like heart attacks and strokes), and at least a dozen types of cancer. People who smoke are more likely to develop osteoporosis (decreased bone density) and to sustain hip fractures, which are a source of significant morbidity and mortality in older adults.
Smoking cessation is extremely difficult for many people, but there are several effective treatments for those who want to stop smoking. Please contact your physician or other medical provider to discuss which options may be the most appropriate for you, or dial 1-800-QUIT-NOW to access a network of state quit lines that offer counseling, free medication, and referrals to local programs.
Most older adults experience some degree of hearing loss, which is associated with social isolation, depression, and more disturbingly, cognitive decline and dementia. The good news is that there are many options for addressing hearing loss; a variety of hearing aids are available both with a prescription and, recently, over the counter. Some types of hearing loss can be treated with a surgical procedure (i.e., cochlear implant). Because even mild hearing loss may be associated with negative health consequences, it is important to be evaluated for these symptoms.
Excessive noise exposure is one of the most common causes of hearing loss. Take advantage of phone settings or mobile apps that limit maximum allowed volume. Use hearing protection (e.g., earplugs, noise-canceling headphones) when you are in a noisy environment. These are very easy, low-cost ways to minimize hearing loss and its associated complications.
For more information on hearing loss, visit hopkinsmedicine.org/heatlh/wellness-and-prevention/the-hidden-risks-of-hearing-loss/.
Anticipate Future Challenges:
As you get older, begin to limit or outsource the activities and chores that are potentially dangerous (e.g., climbing ladders; carrying heavy or bulky objects on the stairs). Assess your home for conditions that increase your risk of tripping or falling. (Click here for specific tips: www.trendhealthadvocacy.com/post/your-loved-one-is-getting-older-now-what).
If you haven’t already done so, please identify health proxies, create an advanced directive, and discuss your wishes with your loved ones. If you have adult children, have these discussions when you are all present (even if via conference call or video) to ensure that everyone hears and understands the same information. A candid discussion while you are healthy and capable may prevent major disagreements and even estrangements down the road.
Although good, clean living does not guarantee health or longevity, staying active, making informed lifestyle choices, and anticipating potential challenges remain our best strategies for maintaining a rich, enjoyable experience well into old age, whatever your definition of “old” may be.
This blog is for informational purposes only. In her role as an independent health advocate, Dr. Trend does not provide medical care or medical advice. Clients are advised to seek the advice of their personal physician(s).