Aging well

Riding the crest of the first wave of baby boomers, I find that my latest interests and concerns soon become the focus of many others. So, my current preoccupation with maintaining my health well into the retirement years is likely to resonate for a growing number of people. It's not that I'm afraid of dying, I don't think I am, but I dread getting older and being sick, miserable, or a burden to others.

The "Serenity Prayer" offers a practical approach to this problem: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." So, what do we have to accept and what can we change if we want to increase our chances of enjoying life while growing old?

Common health problems

The big ones are cardiovascular disease, including heart attack and stroke, osteoporosis and fractures, dementia, depression, and some cancers. The greatest single influencing 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.

Dr. Bradley Willcox, in his book on longevity, reports on the residents of Okinawa who are more likely to live 100 years and less likely to experience cardiovascular disease, cancer, and mental deterioration than North Americans. This research suggests that balancing a low fat diet, exercise, and stress reduction through meditation and spiritual activity seems to slow the aging process.

People are bio-psycho-social 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. By changing how and what we think, through talking therapy, such as cognitive therapy, we can bring about demonstrable changes in the biochemistry of our brains, elevating serotonin levels and decreasing depression. By exercising, we reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke through altering levels of serum cholesterol and developing collateral coronary circulation while increasing brain levels of essential neurotransmitters. By continuing to use and challenge our brains, the functions, and probably the corresponding structures of this most important organ are preserved. Participation in support groups has been shown to increase both quality of life and longevity in people with terminal illnesses. Dr. Randolph Byrd, in a randomized, prospective study on the effect of prayer on coronary care unit patients, reported a significant positive health effect.

A cookbook for healthy retirement

Exercise

Although 30 minutes exercise 3 or 4 times 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

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 God. Once you decide where you fit, find the group of people with similar beliefs so you may learn and share your ideas with them. Discover the value of prayer for you. Try to live according to your values.

Stress

Although a certain amount is essential, prolonged, unrelieved stress can be fatal. Balance is everything. Work out your "pie of life" giving all things important to you a proportionate piece, then modify your activities and time accordingly. Stay engaged in new learning.

Other

The best single investment a person can make in 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 aspirin for heart disease prevention. If you drink alcohol, careful moderation is essential, staying under 3 drinks on any one day and no more than 12 drinks per week.

It sounds like a lot of work, but here's the secret: if you gradually work all of these things into your life, the dividends are huge and immediate. You will have more energy, more joy, and more healthy time to enjoy those precious senior years.

The contents of this health site are for informational purposes only. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition.

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