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Your Health 5 Reasons to Care about Healthy Aging
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Healthy Aging & Lifestyle

5 Reasons to Care about Healthy Aging

By Dr. Martica Heaner, PhD
The time is now to prep for later: No matter your age, rethink what your future can be. The path to healthy aging can help you grow healthy, wealthy and wise — and stronger, smarter and sexier (really!) Here’s what to look forward to.

No one lives forever. But your life doesn’t have to end before it is time. And the time you have left doesn’t have to end on a down note. We sometimes view our future with slight dread at what we think lies ahead. A review in the Journal of Geriatrics noted that stereotypes of aging in contemporary culture tend to be negative and filled with expectations of ill health, poor physical and mental functioning, loneliness and dependency.1 But no one has to grow old. You can age, but grow stronger, smarter and sexier. The time is now to carpe futurum: seize the future. Your future. Here’s what’s possible.

GET STRONGER, NOT WEAKER

We’ve all seen our parents or grandparents — or other old folks, slow down and wither. It begins with a shuffling walking gait. They ask for help lifting heavy items and often struggle to have the grip strength to open a jar. Very frequently there comes a time where they avoid getting on the floor to play with the grandkids because they are certain that they will get stuck, unable to stand back up.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

And, for many, it is not. Jacinto Bonilla was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He went on to join in on some of the hardcore workout of Cross-fit and at 78 year’s young was featured on NBC's Today Show. Ernestine Shepherd is an 80-plus year-old bodybuilder who was interviewed by the BBC. Was she a lifelong athlete? Hardly. She didn’t start working out until she was 56.

Bottom line: Regular exercise works and working hard has even bigger dividends when it comes to healthy aging.

The pattern of the typical downward spiral begins when strength starts decreasing in a person’s 30s or 40s. The decline accelerates once they hit their 60s, with a 30 percent reduction by the time a person enters their 80s, according to German researchers.2

But picking up a dumbbell can change all that.

One study in the open-access academic journal known as PLoS put older adults whose average age was 68 years on a strength training program for 6 months. The study findings showed that lifting weights could reverse biological aging. Study participants performed 12 different exercises for their upper and lower body using resistance machines. They started easy and worked up to 3 sets of challenging weight loads. These workouts involved moving slowly using progressively heavier weights. Muscle biopsies that were taken from the study participant’s thigh muscles showed that 179 genes associated with age and exercise reversed their expression. The energy-producing components of their cells, the mitochondria, showed enhanced activity. Their strength improved by 50 percent.3

Other research has shown that power training is safe for older adults and can result in impressive physical improvements. One study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that working at a higher velocity with lighter loads using weight machines could help support muscle power and strength, thereby reducing fall risk.4 Bottom line: Regular exercise works and working hard has even bigger dividends when it comes to healthy aging.

YOU CAN REVERSE POOR HEALTH

Sometimes the body starts to break down. Poor joint health starts to manifest. You have trouble maintaining healthy blood glucose levels. Your tendency towards poor heart health, poor cholesterol and blood pressure levels as well as expanding waistline, turn from risk to reality. You start to feel the aches. You may even be diagnosed with a serious health condition.

More often than not, health conditions can be managed, if not improved dramatically.

Take your symptoms as a red flag. Now’s the time to look to behavior changes to see what might help. Regular exercise can be effective in managing arthritis, high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease, according to the National Institute on Aging.5

Even some conditions thought to be progressive may have more potential than you realize. Dr. Brooke Goldner, MD, has shown dramatic improvements in immune health in those who eat a raw, whole-food, plant-based diet, high in leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, omega-3 fats and water. A case study published in the International Journal of Disease Reversal and Prevention showed that patients who ate a whole food plant-based diet had improved kidney and joint health, as well as normalized blood biomarkers.6 A growing number of physicians, some board-certified in Lifestyle Medicine, are using nutritional interventions to dramatically improve risks for heart disease and diabetes.

YOU CAN STILL ENJOY SEX
Taking charge of your health now pays off later in many ways — including the bedroom. It’s common for men and women to experience a lower libido and less frequent sexual activity with age, often because the body starts to break down, affecting how well the “plumbing” works. One study in the journal Urology on over 27,000 adults who were up to 80 years old found that although the majority reported having sex within the last year, 28% of the men and 39% of the women had been affected by poor sexual health.7

There is an undeniable link between good overall health and sexual health. A cross-sectional survey in the British Medical Journal found that interest in sex, and the quality and frequency of sex was associated with good health in middle age and later life. So, those who stayed active and interested in sex reporting being in better health overall.8

Conversely, poor overall health can be an indicator of potential sex problems. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine looking at over 3000 US adults from 57 to 83 years old reported that sexual activity declined with age and those who rated their health as “poor” or “fair” had a higher prevalence of poor sexual health.9 Indeed, many of the conditions associated with aging such poor heart health and unbalanced blood glucose can affect sexual function10. But eating healthy foods and regular physical activity can promote good sexual health. And a number of medications can help common problems such as erectile dysfunction.11

Getting on — and staying on — the path to healthy aging is a recipe for being able to move and feel as good in older years as you did in younger years. A study in the journal Sexual Medicine surveyed nearly 7000 men and women between 50 and 89 years old and found that those who had reported participating in any sexual activity within the past year had significantly higher scores in a scale measuring enjoyment of life.12

STAY PRODUCTIVE
Some people fear that getting older means becoming irrelevant and losing those activities that keep everyday life interesting. Whether you have a business you want to flourish, a job you want to keep or simply quality time to enjoy when you will finally have the chance to travel, focus on a hobby or help your kids with their kids, you can continue to do all these things if you allow yourself to age healthfully. The AARP reported that adults 50 and older have been starting new businesses at rates that have accelerated over the last 10 years.13 A study in the Journal of Tourism and Hospitality Management found that older adults were less likely to find a lack of time or money as a barrier to travel, and they were especially motivated to explore new places if they could spend more time with their loved ones.14

Staying productive and active requires being in good physical shape and, optimally, staying mobile — or being able to walk without assistance. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association had over 1600 adults, who were between the ages of 70 and 89 and had some physical limitations, participate in either a regular exercise program that included cardio, resistance training and flexibility exercise, or health education that encouraged these behaviors but did not offer or enforce them. After two and one half years on either regimen, the exercisers were statistically less likely to experience a mobility disability compared to those who had simply received the health education. The exercise made participants more likely to be able to walk for 400 meters, or a quarter of a mile, without assistance and without resting.15

Productivity can be defined and measured in many ways, depending on the task at hand. Even though one would suspect that productivity worsens as we get older, in a report on aging looking at productivity in the workplace, the World Health Organization concluded that it does not.16 That’s because even if there are age-related losses present like a lesser ability to multi-task or lower physical capacity, they could often be compensated for by the life and work experiences of older people.

YOU CAN BEAT MENTAL DECLINE

Perhaps the biggest fear around aging is losing the ability to think clearly, focus and remember. The National Institute on Aging points out that taking care of your health, eating healthy foods, staying physically active, keeping your mind active and participating in social activities are all key to long-term brain health.17

Many of the risk factors for cognitive decline including poor glucose and blood pressure control, being overweight later in life, smoking and little or no mental and physical exercise are preventable.18 One randomized clinical trial in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise had older adults do memory tasks immediately after exercising for one session and also after 12 weeks or regular workouts. Working memory was boosted as was functional connectivity between areas of the brain.19

Brain games have also been shown to be exercise for the brain that improves its function. One study on healthy adults 50 and older found that doing jigsaw puzzles daily engaged multiple measures of cognitive ability and, over the long term could benefit cognition.20

The International Chess Federation sponsors the annual World Senior Chess Championship. The World Memory Sports Council sponsors the World Memory Championships that includes a senior group. You might not be inclined to rev up your brain competitively. But you can reap the benefits of healthy aging behaviors to stay sharp, focused and alert.

REIMAGINE YOUR LIFETIME

Whether you’re in your 30s or 40s, or 50s, 60s and beyond, the choices you make now, and in the future, will define how you age. Rather than have your last few decades be the least memorable, you have the power to stay sharp and active and create new memories with families and friends so that your last 20 or 30 years are your best. It’s time to grow young.

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