Interested in aging well? It's easier than you think
Aging ... is it a disease? If so, should we take more of a preventative approach? What does it mean to add life to one’s years versus just adding years to one’s life?
These are some of the questions that presenters and delegates tackled at this year’s International Federation on Ageing’s 14th global conference titled “Towards a Decade of Healthy Ageing – From Evidence to Action” which was held in Toronto from Aug. 8 to 10.
The International Federation on Ageing (IFA) began operations in 1973 when the social and economic impact of an aging global population was just beginning to be understood by governments around the world.
The conference brought together some of the best minds from around the world who offered the most up-to-date advice based on the latest research focusing on how we can add life to our years and not just years to our life. How can we improve our “healthspan” as medical science continues to increase our lifespan?
Based on trends presented at the conference, here are things you can start today to age well:
Adopt a positive attitude toward aging. See growing older as a gift and not as a negative experience. And start to reflect on ageism as an underrecognized form of prejudice that permeates all facets of society from the cultural norm to value youth, to how we design our environment and products.
Keep your vaccinations up to date. While infectious disease rates are largely well-controlled, they are still a concern for older adults. Many will need to stay current with diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis and will also want to consider shingles and pneumococcal vaccinations.
Get adequate sleep. It is vital to brain health, including cognitive function. Did you know metabolic waste products build up throughout the day as the body does its cognitive work? Sleep is the brain’s opportunity to do a little housekeeping whereby it clears out the waste, preparing us to face the next day with clarity. Sleeping between seven to eight hours each night is related to better brain and physical health in older people.
Get physical. Purposeful activity and exercise has a positive impact on brain health, as well as physical health, including muscle strength, agility, bone health. Exercise also boosts metabolic health, including lower blood pressure and blood sugar control. All these things improve quality of life and independence. Being active also reduces the risk for depression and anxiety.
Engage your brain: it is dynamic and constantly changing. Throughout the lifespan, the brain continues to develop neurons and neural connections when you participate in cognitively stimulating activities. However, not any old activity will do. It needs to mentally challenge your ability to think, like learning a new skill, language, memory training exercises or a new hobby. Novelty is also important, so try to find new ways to stimulate your brain and for greater impact, don’t go solo: engage your brain with someone else, the social connection enhances the effect.
Human beings are social by nature; it’s in our DNA. Not only do social connections help reduce depression, evidence indicates that it helps lower the risk of cognitive decline. Ways to be more social include joining a group with others who have similar interests, teaching someone a new skill, volunteer or help others and, yes, use technology to stay connected with others. It’s worth noting that connection doesn’t just mean person-to-person, having a pet has its benefits, too, by fostering purpose, empathy and socialization — especially if your pet’s walks get you outside.
Get an eye exam. Vision is linked to other determinants of health including risks for falls, social connectedness/isolation, depression, anxiety and even the ability to shop and cook. Unfortunately, the eyes often take a back seat when to comes to monitoring our health. But the good news is, many of the common eye challenges we face as we age such as glaucoma, cataracts or diabetes-related eye damage are successfully treated when caught early.
Checkups. Having regular contact with your family doctor is a vital connection for optimal health throughout the lifespan.
Nutrition not only impacts overall health, it impacts the brain as well. It should be no surprise that the same less-healthy, high-processed foods that aren’t good for your body aren’t your brain’s best friend, either. The main takeaway is that no one food has it all when it comes to health; you have to consider all your choices and ask yourself if those choices are moving you toward or away from health. Eat a variety of plant foods everyday and seek out green leafy and dark orange vegetables, berries, nuts and seeds.
Include fish or seafood (not deep fried) at least once a week, include legumes weekly and aim for more whole grains and limit alcohol. Where possible, prepare as many of your own meals and snacks and limit highly processed and fast foods.
“The most important thing you can do to take care of your body as you get older is to eat right,” said Zannat Reza, holistic dietitian and founder of thrive360, a health promotion and communications company. “You’ve got to give your body premium fuel to run at its best performance. In other words, make half your meal fruits and vegetables, a quarter protein and the rest whole grains.”
Healthy aging is not simply the absence of disease later in life, but rather having the physical and cognitive ability to engage, as fully as possible, in the things you love, despite any possible disease, disorder or limitation that you might be facing.
Doug Cook is a registered dietitian nutritionist with a passion and practice that focuses on all things digestive and mental health, as well as longevity and aging nutrition.