The Keys to a Long and Healthy Life
Healthy aging: Smart steps you can take to keep body and mind vital
Baseball great Satchel Paige once asked, “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you was?” In terms of the keys to healthy aging, Paige was very much on the right track. “Your chronological age is just a number that need not dictate your wellbeing or your outlook on life. By making appropriate lifestyle choices and being proactive about finding new ways to optimize your health, you can grow older gracefully and healthfully,” says Dr. Michael Scott, PinnacleCare’s Director of Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
According to a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report, “The State of Aging and Health in America, 2007”, the number of Americans age 65 and older will double in the next 25 years with 71 million older Americans making up approximately 20 percent of the country’s population by 2030. If Americans eat a less than healthy diet, continue to smoke and fail to get enough exercise, that population could be one beset with a wide range of serious chronic health problems including heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, lung disease and cancer.
But by making a few wise lifestyle choices and ensuring you work with your physician to get all appropriate preventive screenings and care, you can lower your risk of health problems and look forward to a more positive aging experience.
The foundations of healthy aging
While researchers who focus on aging have learned that there is a genetic component to longevity, they have also discovered that what you eat, whether you smoke and how much you exercise affect your health as you age and your expected lifespan. A study by researchers at the University of Cambridge found that men and women who did not smoke, ate a healthy diet and exercised regularly lived an average of 14 years longer than people with the least healthy habits.
Another study conducted at the Pacific Health Research Institute which followed more than 5,000 Japanese-American men for 40 years showed that the men who were not obese, did not drink heavily, did not smoke and did not have high blood pressure had a 69 percent chance of living to the age of 85 compared to just a 22 percent chance of reaching that age for men who didn’t follow these behaviors or had other risk factors. In addition, several studies have found that obesity in middle age nearly doubles mortality rates while those who are obese as young adults lose eight to 13 years of life expectancy.
Not just a long life but a good life
But it is not simply the number of years you live that matters, it is the quality of life you enjoy in those years. Some of the key health concerns that can arise as you age include cognitive decline, a waning of physical strength and ability linked to loss of muscle mass and the development of arthritis and skin that shows the signs of aging such as wrinkles, loss of elasticity and discoloration.
There are a number of strategies that can help you maintain cognitive function as you grow older. Diet is one important factor. Some studies have found that people who eat a typical Mediterranean diet rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains and monounsaturated fat, especially in the form of olive oil, are at decreased risk for developing dementia. One study reported that those who followed this diet closely had a 28 percent lower risk of developing cognitive impairment compared to people who only loosely followed a Mediterranean diet. The diet even helped people with mild cognitive decline. Those who closely followed the diet had a 48 percent lower risk of progressing to acute cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease.
Lifestyle choices can also play a role in protecting your cognitive health. Preliminary research discovered that taking part in group exercise had a positive effect on cognitive function including reaction time and memory span in older people and a British study found that walking also shortened reaction time. So-called “mind exercises” can also be beneficial. Experts suggest taking part in a variety of challenging activities. Possible activities include taking a class, using computer-based or video game system-based “brain fitness” programs or joining a book or discussion club. The science behind these suggestions is that neurogenesis or the creation of new neurons continues throughout our lives. By continually taking part in mentally challenging activities, more neurons are produced and form the connections needed for brain activity. In addition, these challenges also promote the creation of nerve growth factor which keeps neurons healthy.
Some research also suggests that there are nutritional supplements that can help improve cognitive functioning, including acetyl-L-carnitine and vinpocetine. Supplementation with Ginkgo biloba has also been found to be beneficial in several studies. “If you are considering nutritional or botanical supplementation to improve cognitive functioning, it is essential that you work with a physician with expertise in this area to ensure you are receiving the most appropriate supplements and dosage,” adds Dr. Scott.
Keeping muscles strong and joints limber
When you do not exercise your muscles regularly, over time muscle mass declines. Some experts estimate that without proper, regular strength-training, people can lose up to seven pounds of muscle tissue every ten years once they reach adulthood. Not only does that loss diminish your strength, it can also have a negative effect on balance, making falls more likely, slow down metabolism and increase the likelihood of weight gain and lower immune function. One recent study also found that higher levels of muscular strength are associated with a lower risk of death from both all causes and cancer in men. In addition, exercise has been linked to a reduction in risk for some forms of breast cancer in women over 50.
Researchers suggest resistance training that targets all muscle groups in the body two to three times a week to build and maintain muscle health. Before starting a weight training regimen, consult with your physician and to prevent injury and ensure that your training is appropriate for your level of fitness, consult with an experienced trainer. In addition to exercise, some studies have found that supplementation with the amino acid beta-alanine can increase muscular endurance and aerobic power.
Arthritis, which can limit physical mobility, is another concern as we age. Development of the disease has been linked to a number of factors including being overweight, joint injury or stress, a family history of arthritis and weak muscles. To combat the development of arthritis, strive to maintain a healthy weight and take part in regular activities like walking, biking, swimming and yoga. Exercise not only strengthens the muscles around your joints which decreases the friction that contributes to bone loss, it also helps replenish joint lubrication.
Smart ways to protect your skin
The most effective way to protect the health and appearance of your skin throughout your life is to take proactive steps to prevent damage. The key strategy is to consistently use a broad spectrum sunscreen with a minimum of SPF15 whenever you are outdoors, whether the day is sunny or cloudy. It’s also wise to avoid exposure to the most intense sunlight between 10 am and 4pm, though that’s difficult for most people to achieve. When you are outdoors, wear a hat, sunglasses and clothes that protect your skin.
Some research also ties a lifetime of over-consumption of sugar to a dull complexion and the development of wrinkles. Through a process called glycation, sugar in the bloodstream attaches to and damages proteins including collagen and elastin which help the skin maintain its tone and elasticity. A diet high in sugar also transforms the more resilient form of collagen into a form that is more susceptible to damage and lowers anti-oxidant enzymes making the skin even more vulnerable to sun damage.
While eating a healthy diet, remaining active and making wise lifestyle choices can have a positive impact on your wellbeing as you age, there are also a number of anti-aging treatments that are not effective and may even cause problems. Among these ineffective approaches to slowing the aging process are the use of hyperbaric oxygen chambers and human growth hormone in programs including one known as Cenegenics which combines lifestyle modifications and exercise with growth hormone treatments. According to Dr. Thomas T. Perls, Associate Professor of Medicine and Geriatrics at Boston University and founder of the New England Centenarian Study, there are no scientifically rigorous, unbiased studies to support the claims of anti-aging benefits from human growth hormone.
As a PinnacleCare member, you can work with your health advisor to build an evidence-based plan designed to help you live a healthier life at every age. “When you take the proactive steps needed to improve your wellbeing and lower your risk factors for the development of diseases, you’re on the path to a more vital and vibrant life no matter which birthday you’ve just celebrated,” says Dr. Scott.
“Outgoing Nature Could Get You to 100.” This recent article from the online version of Forbes explains research that shows how personality may affect longevity. http://www.forbes.com/feeds/hscout/2009/04/20/hscout625846.html