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Aging better, aging well
The ways in which you view the aging process, and the choices you make based on that viewpoint, can directly affect “how well” you age. So why not make it better?
To learn more, BeWell spoke with Joyce Hanna, MA, MS, associate director of the Health Improvement Program.
How should we be thinking about the aging process?
We are living longer than any previous generation, and that means we need to find new ways to think about aging. How we age is a not only a function of our years, but it’s also about our attitude and the choices we make.
There are many outdated stereotypes and discouraging myths about aging that can make it become a self-fulfilling prophecy. We are all aging, and yet there is much each of us can do to discourage negativism surrounding the idea of aging.
The biggest myth of all is the “Misery Myth”
This one tells us that older people are miserable, lonely, sad, dejected, and depressed. Researchers and public surveys, however, tell us that there is a U-shaped curve of happiness. It reaches a low point in mid-life and climbs back in older age. Older people are actually happier than younger people! Interestingly, this U shaped curve of happiness shows a similar pattern all over the world. Studies from the Stanford Longevity Center tell us that as we age, we are actually more optimistic, realistic, resilient, and self integrated. As we get older, we realize that the remaining time is more precious, so we appreciate experiences and friends each day more than when we were younger.
Here are some tips that not only ensure our good health, but will also make our later years more deeply rewarding:
- Keep walking, but be sure to add some strength training
I’ve always liked the statement that exercise for the young is important, but for older people it is imperative. Here are some facts about keeping strong and independent, as we get older. Starting at about age thirty-five, both men and women begin to lose about 10% a decade of lean muscle mass. This loss accelerates to 15% after 45 and hits about 30% by the time we are 80. So at 80, we will have one-third the muscle mass we once had!
This loss means that unless we are doing some kind of strength training, we will become weaker and less functional as we get older. Walking is important, but it is not enough. Aerobic exercise, such as walking, helps us live longer; strength training helps us enjoy those added years. It can benefit our muscles, bones, and balance. Don’t forget that HIP has many classes that include strength training.
- Pay attention to nutrition
Most of us already know that it is important to eat vegetables, fruit, and whole grains. We also need to remember to include beans, nuts, seeds, legumes, olive oil, fish, herbs and spices. Have fish at least twice a week. Cut down on saturated fat, sugar and highly processed foods. These food choices have proven easy to follow, can help with short- and long-term weight loss, and are low in environmental impact. They also reduce risk of cardiovascular disease, some cancers, diabetes, and minimize cognitive decline.
As we get older, we need to focus a little more on what we’re eating and be sure to eat the foods that we know will give us good health for the long run and energy to do the things we want to do.
- Keep mentally sharp
What’s good for the body is also good for the brain — so keep physically active, follow a healthy diet, manage stress, and get seven to eight hours of sleep.
Probably the worst aspect of memory loss is the fear of it. Therefore, it is important to do the things that help our cognitive function rather than spend time worrying about any possible mental decline. We need to nudge ourselves to keep learning new things, to surround ourselves with provocative people, to seek challenges and welcome new complex problems to solve.
Since stress is one of the hidden enemies of memory, we need to explore some stress relief strategies and find the ones that work for us. Physical activities, yoga, meditation, and spending time with friends are all known activities that reduce stress. If we pick a few and make them a priority, we will more likely do them when we’re feeling stressed.
- Maintain social connections and make new friends
We need to pay attention to our exercise, diet, and mind… but we don’t want to forget to nourish relationships. Study after study shows a strong connection between social support and good health. Socialization modulates our stress and slows its progression. If we have friends we can turn to for affirmation, empathy, advice, and affection, our risk for disease is lowered. Research tells us that as we get older, it’s the depth of those connections that is important, not the number.
There are always losses that are difficult to replace, but there are also opportunities for making new friends and connections that can give us a network that can sustain us with strong emotional ties. It is also important to get out of our comfort zone, and make connections with people who have different backgrounds and interests than we have.
- Be necessary and useful
Studies suggests that people who feel they are making an important difference to someone or somewhere may live longer than those who feel less effective or valuable. Having a sense of purpose in life is an important contributor to good health. I believe it is one of the keys to aging well.
As we get older, there is often a natural tendency to make a shift from our own self-preoccupation and problems and make a shift to others. This shift is an important thing to embrace as we get older. Altruism, compassion, forgiveness are good for others, but also good for us.