Older, Wiser and Healthier: 7 Guidelines for Healthy Aging

By Ronald Glick, M.D., and his colleagues from the UPMC Center for Integrative Medicine, UPMC Senior Care and the Benedum Geriatric Center

We all know that the older we get, the more likely we are to experience health problems.  These days, you can’t turn on the news without finding a plethora of articles on aging, caring for older adults, hip replacements, or dementia.  So how do we sort through all of these messages and know what’s really important?

Below are seven key guidelines for aging healthfully, both physically and mentally:

  1. Diet: eat plants! Perhaps you’re familiar with author Michael Pollan’s well-known quote, “Eat Food, Not Too Much, Mostly Plants,” which sums up the simple guidelines for a plant-based diet: lots of fruits and vegetables. Recent studies show that the Mediterranean diet, which centers on fish, whole grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and olive oil, can also help prevent cardiovascular disease and stroke.  Avoiding saturated fats (meat and whole fat dairy) and trans-fat (hydrogenated oils) is also key, as is cutting back on the salt shaker.
  2.  Exercise: for physical as well as mental health. Regular exercise helps maintain bone density and muscle strength. It is useful for heart health, and studies show that those with healthy cardiovascular systems are less likely to develop dementia. In addition, exercise can have benefits for depression and anxiety that rival those of medications and therapy.  Thirty minutes per day of moderate level aerobic activity provides a general health benefit for heart and lungs.  Check out smaller classes or programs geared for seniors such as Silver Sneakers.
  3. Stress management: find ways to cope.  Stress is part of life, and challenges arise for everyone. But stress levels that are high or persistent can contribute to common health problems as we age. Fortunately, there are many ways to cope with stress such as meditation, which can reduce anxiety, distress, and pain, and has even been found to improve memory. Set aside about 20 minutes per day, find a relatively quiet space, and allow yourself to focus gently on some aspect of your present moment experience. This can be the sensations of breathing, or other physical sensations in your body, or sounds, or even gazing at a photo or candle flame. When the mind wanders, simply turn your attention back to the sensations, without judgment or blame. Engaging in simple, pleasurable activities is also a wonderful way to manage stress!
  4. Addictive substancesdon’t poison yourself!  While it turns out that a little red wine can be health promoting, science has yet to find any benefits from smoking. Rather, it leads the list, followed closely by obesity and sedentary lifestyle, as a cause of premature aging, raising the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. While there is a tendency to look for medical solutions for addictions, the other guidelines in this article may be helpful for habit control, particularly taking steps to increase aerobic activity, eat better, and manage stress.
  5. Stay limber: keep your body stretched out. An erect posture takes the load off of our back, hips, and knees. As we become sedentary, it’s automatic that muscles accommodate to a seated position. This puts additional stress on our bodies. Along with the start of arthritic changes many of us experience with age, this additional stress tends to snowball problems. Tight muscles cause poor posture, further loading joints, increasing discomfort, and leading a person to become more sedentary. Ask a physical therapist, athletic trainer, or chiropractor for stretches you can do at home, though participating in a class such as gentle yoga or tai chi may be more fun.
  6. Embrace your spiritual side. With the awareness that time is no longer unlimited we begin asking questions about how we want to be remembered and what is the meaning and purpose of our lives. If we begin to ask these questions the answers may surprise us. They may or may not fit neatly into the religious systems we were exposed to as a child. However, they may give us a peace of mind and an inner sense of contentment that we didn’t know was possible.
  7. Stay connected and engaged. Staying connected often positively reduces the risk of memory changes and physical decline. On the other end of the spectrum, feelings of isolation and loneliness place an individual at risk for depression and could negatively impact all aspects of their health. Staying connected becomes more difficult as we age with loved ones dying, extended families relocating, limited finances, and declining physical health and mobility. Yet with creativity and flexibility, the options continue to expand. Staying connected means something different to each person, whether it’s spending time with family, volunteering, taking classes, or chatting with neighbors.  Increasingly, older adults are also taking advantage of the explosion of options in technology such as Facebook and Skype, to stay connected.

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