As the first waves of baby boomers arrive at retirement years, maintaining health and wellness is likely to resonate for a growing number of people. So what are the adaptations and changes that can increase the chances of enjoying life while growing old?
The big ones are cardiovascular disease, including heart attack and stroke, osteoporosis and fractures, dementia, depression, and some cancers. The single most influential factor for healthy longevity is genetics, and we're pretty much stuck with the hand we've been dealt. But by making a few simple lifestyle modifications, we can significantly reduce some risks for most of these conditions.
In his book on longevity, Dr. Bradley Wilcox reports on the residents of Okinawa, Japan, who are more likely to live 100 years and less likely to experience cardiovascular disease, cancer, and mental deterioration than people in North America. This research suggests that balancing a low-fat diet, exercise, and stress reduction with meditation and spiritual activity seems to slow the aging process.
People are biological-psychosocial organisms. Our needs are not only physical, biochemical, and nutritional, but also social and spiritual. If we neglect our social, spiritual, and psychological needs, we harm the physical organism.
Participation in support groups has been shown to increase both quality and quantity of life in people with terminal illnesses. In a randomized, prospective study on the effect of prayer on coronary care unit patients, Dr. Randolph Byrd reported a significant positive health effect.
Exercise: While at least 150 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity per week is optimal, recent studies have shown that women who walk as little as an hour per week cut the risk of heart disease in half. Whether exercise can replace bone lost to osteoporosis is controversial; however, it does reduce the rate of bone loss and associated risk of fractures while making you feel better.
Nutrition and weight: We are meant to be grazers and not gorgers. Eat small, frequent meals with lots of fruit and vegetables. Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish and fish oil, and flavenoids found in many fruits and vegetables, fight atherosclerotic heart disease and cancer. As our metabolic needs decrease with age, it is important to reduce intake of calories, even if our appetites lie to us about our needs. Choose more soup and less dessert. It's easier to stay slim than to lose weight, so start today with the goal of no further weight gain.
Social: Work on developing and maintaining at least one emotionally intimate relationship. Join a group or an athletic club. Build a relationship with a mentor, someone you admire and whom you can trust enough to share your plans and worries. Read or listen to something funny, tell a funny story, and set a goal of one good belly laugh every day. From your valuable store of wisdom and experience, start volunteering your services in the community.
Prayer and meditation: Discover the value of prayer and meditation for you. Learn how to sit in a pleasant, quiet spot - breathe deeply and don't think, just be. If you haven't yet begun to solve the mystery of your place in the universe, talk to people and read about spirituality. Once you decide where you fit, find the group of people with similar beliefs so you may learn and share your ideas with them.
Stress: Although a certain amount is essential, prolonged and unrelieved stress can be fatal. Balance is everything. Work out your "pie of life" - give all things important to you a proportionate piece, then modify your activities and time accordingly. Stay engaged in new learning.
Other: The best investment a person can make for their health is to quit smoking. Within 24 hours of stopping there is a significant decrease in cardiovascular risk, and many more health benefits follow with time. Next time you see your doctor, have your blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglycerides checked; discuss prostate, breast, and bowel cancer screening; and ask about acetylsalicylic acid (ASA; e.g., Aspirin®) for heart disease prevention. If you drink alcohol, careful moderation is essential. Aim for less than 3 drinks on any one day and no more than 12 drinks per week.
It may sound like a lot of work, but here's the secret: if you gradually work all of these things into your life, the rewards are huge and immediate. You will have more energy, more joy, and more healthy time to enjoy those precious senior years.
Dr. Ray Baker, MD
in association with the MediResource Clinical Team
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