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
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
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.
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.
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.
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