Dr. Kevin Carlson is a board-certified internist and geriatrician and a member of CA’s Medical Advisory Board
Although some things that happen to us are predetermined by our genes, it may be a relief to know that our health can be improved by the choices that we make. In fact, in people ages 65 and older, lifestyle is a larger determinant of health than genetics. Aging well means living to old age and doing so with vitality of body and mind. Despite the advances of science and technology, our modern conveniences, heavily processed foods, and 24-hour news cycle may undermine our success.
Most of what our bodies need is common sense! To optimize our chances of healthy aging, the following concepts should be mastered:
- Sleep must be a priority. Important things happen to our brains and body while we sleep. Sleep has stages, and too many disruptions and not enough time will sabotage the process. Most of us need about eight hours per night. Going to bed and awakening at about the same times every day supports our natural circadian rhythm. Without optimal sleep, making the best lifestyle choices is much more difficult.
- Exercise cannot be ignored. We are built to move. Pain, injury, poor activity tolerance, and frailty are all not always due to aging, and can be consequences of neglect. That may sound harsh, but I hope to inspire optimism that disability is not predetermined and can be prevented or at least attenuated. The key is staying active or safely working up to increased levels of activity. The best fitness comes from a variety of activities, including cardiovascular, strength training, and stretching. Modifying exercise for any limitations and not overdoing it maximizes fitness and minimizes injury in the gym and in life.
- Food can be fuel, or it can be poison. We are made up of cells, which require macronutrients (healthy fats, proteins, carbohydrates) and micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, prebiotic fiber, essential amino acids, essential fatty acids including the omegas) to function optimally. A balanced diet with all colors of vegetables, dark leafy greens, berries, nuts and seeds accomplishes this goal. Taking a multivitamin and eating only heavily processed foods does not. Wild caught fish and grass-fed animals and dairy in moderation can be part of a good diet. Excessive sugar intake contributes to a multitude of problems contrary to healthy aging, including diabetes, inflammation and cancer. Artificial sweeteners aren’t better for you. Water is the healthiest drink.
- Stress can be deadly, and it is often insidious. It is best to avoid it altogether, but since that is not possible, having good coping mechanisms is essential. Exercise; yoga; meditation; music; religion; asking for help; taking vacation; working with a therapist, life coach or clergyperson; spending time with family; and supportive friends are all examples of quality stress management. Self-medicating with alcohol and tobacco are not. Try to be aware of the toxic exposures (dysfunctional relationships, unhealthy work environments, unsafe habits) in your life, and remedy or reduce your exposure to them.
- Choose happiness. Happy people have better health. Try to make the most of every age and every stage of your life. Keep learning, stay involved, give back. Do what it takes to add joy, productivity and a sense of belonging to your life.
If you have not had a thorough physical in a long time or if you are experiencing any symptoms that may be affecting your ability to live well, then please consider making an appointment with your physician.