- Aging & Longevity
How to Enjoy Healthy Aging Without Ailing
Many physical changes in seniors are signs of aging (becoming older), not ailing (suffering from illness). Therefore, seniors with healthy attitudes get excited about the physical abilities they still have despite loss of abilities they used to have.
Recognizing the physical decline is the first step; only death will stop it completely. That reality not only inspires contentment in the aging, it also increases their desire to take care of themselves as best as they can. They embrace their limits with the awareness that their body parts will not always function as ably as they feel.
There was no pain in my body when I started chopping at the branch on my sugar apple tree. However, every action of my arm bringing down the machete on the tree limb jolted the fibrous joint between the arm bone (humerus) and the collar bone (clavicle).
Fibrous tissue gets stiffer with age; it hurts faster. Eventually, I irritated the joint which is far less capable now to endure the pressure it handled 20 years ago. My shoulder pain took me to the doctor.
“Remember to act your age,” he told me. That was not a suggestion to start slowing down, but a reminder to respect my new limits.
Since then, I have read from several other doctors, and consider the following three cautions worthy of sharing. They point out some physical changes and recommend adjustment in three basic areas: activity, nutrition and sleep.
(1) Be Active but Not Excessive
Dr. John E. Morley, Professor of Gerontology and Director of the Geriatric Research at the St. Louis VA Medical Center, reminds seniors to remain active, but with caution. Here are some facts he wants the aging to remember:
- In youth, new muscle fibers develop from exercise; in the senior years, the remaining fibers merely increase in bulk.
- Exercise increases the size of the heart muscle in younger people, thus increasing the ability of the heart to pump blood and lower the heart rate. Exercise does not affect the size of heart muscle in older people to the same extent.
- Strength and endurance decrease in older people because there is a decline in the ability of the lungs to move air into the blood stream.
- There is also a decline in blood flow to the brain which results in a decrease in reaction time. It also affects the sense of balance.
- Changes in the body’s connective tissue contribute to a decrease in flexibility, which means that the joints—knees and hip, for example—bear greater stress than in the years of youth when they dispersed the pressure to surrounding tissues.
Having mentioned these and other warnings, Dr. Morley advises: “This is no reason, however, for older people to avoid physical activity. . . Almost all studies suggest that active, but not excessive, enjoyment of a variety of sports and exercise can give older people both a better and a longer life.”
(2) Eat Less Food but More Nutrients
Connie Bales, associate director of the Geriatric Research, Education, and Clinical Center at Durham VA Medical Center, adds her word of caution concerning nutrition for the aging.
- Seniors move less, have less muscle and a slower metabolic rate; therefore they need fewer calories.
- The aging body needs the same amount of protein, vitamins and minerals as previously; so while they eat less they need to include foods like whole-grain, nuts, beans, lean meat, fruits and vegetables which are rich in nutrients.
- Dr. Bales recommends Vitamin B-12 because after age 50, the body has less stomach acid to break it down from food sources.
- Aging skin is also less able to absorb Vitamin D from sunlight, which in turn affects the body’s ability to absorb calcium. Since Vitamin D and Calcium are necessary for bone health, it is wise for seniors to visit the nutritionist for personal advice on these and other supplements.
- Adequate intake of water is a good habit at any age, but older people are less likely to notice thirst. Andrea D’Ambrosio, RD concurs and explains that with a decrease in lean body mass, it is easier for older people to experience hydration, which can adversely affect brain and kidney functions as well as regularity of bowel movements.
Dr Bales vouches that all seniors are not set in their ways. She says, "I've found that most are really motivated about their health, and many of them are quite willing to try to change." That includes a change in focus from eating for growth and development to eating for repair and reducing the risk of chronic diseases.
(3) Get the Same Amount of Sleep (No but)
“One of the challenges to healthy aging” says Dr. Mark Stibich, Healthy Aging Expert, "is troubleshooting sleep to ensure that we are getting enough rest for good health.” He refutes the myth that seniors need less sleep; like all adults they need approximately seven hours. He explains some of the physical changes which may interrupt sleep and makes suggestions for sleep improvement.
- Aging bodies secrete less melatonin, the hormone which controls the sleep cycle; older people feel sleepy earlier and wake up earlier. Less secretion of the growth hormone also makes deep sleep difficult; and menopausal women experience even more hormonal changes. Professional medical, naturopathic or health fitness consultations may provide help in these situations.
- Health conditions as well as the medications prescribed for them may interfere with sleep. High blood pressure and other cardiovascular conditions may cause breathing difficulties and changes in heart rate; as a result, individuals wake up suddenly. Seniors can discuss these incidents with the doctor and discuss alternative medications and dosages. Their sleep is their responsibility.
- Dr. Stibich suggests that seniors who have difficulty sleeping may have to change some lifestyle habits: nap for no more than twenty minutes during the day; avoid alcohol, nicotine and caffeine; and engage in some appropriate exercises. Two hours of sunlight or full-spectrum lighting daily will help.
Sleep problems are not to accepted as a part of the aging process. The older the body, the more time it takes to repair injuries which happen during the day, and research shows that some body repair happens during sleep. Additionally, people age 50 and older who get six to nine hours of sleep process information more readily. Seniors will enjoy their days better if they enjoy their nightly rest.
What is Your Attitude toward Aging?
Show me the senior citizens who appreciate their physical capabilities despite their limits, who focus on eating to maintain their health instead of just satisfying their appetites, who offer their bodies the satisfaction of adequate sleep. These are the seniors who embrace their changes cheerfully and adjust gracefully. They set the standard for healthy aging.
Boufis, Christina: How Nutritional Needs Change as You Age, WebMD, (August 2014)
D’Ambrosio, Andrea RD: Top Five Nutrition Changes as We Age, Dietetic Directions (January 2015)
Morley, John E. M.D.: Sports Injuries and the Aging Athlete, Doctor (September 2000)
Stibich, Mark Ph.D.: Sleep and Aging, About Health (December 2014)
© 2015 Dora Weithers