Getting an Early Start on Living Longer
A funeral can teach you a lot about yourself, especially a family funeral where you see the toll of time on a room full of relatives you haven't seen in years. As the pews fill, the tremor of hands on canes makes you reassess your notion that no one in your family gets Parkinson's Disease. You look around the room and see case after case of arthritis, diabetes, and heart disease, and then you notice the faces that are missing.
Like Scrooge meeting the ghost of Christmas yet to come, you see what could be your future in the deck of genetic cards spread out before you. Then a spry 89-year-old walks by, followed by a cousin who is old before his time, and you wonder--is it the cards you are dealt or how you play them that will determine what your life will be like in the coming years?
What if we looked at wellness not as just something we start in January to get ready for swimsuit season, but as something we do as an everyday part of life to live and feel better every day we're alive?
"If you want to be a healthy 90-year-old, choose your parents carefully. If you can't go back and do that, make health a priority throughout life. A healthy older person comes from a healthy middle aged person, who comes from a healthy young adult, who comes from a healthy baby," Andrew Duxbury, MD, of UAB's Division of Gerontology, Geriatrics and Palliative Care, said.
"The most important thing in aging well is coming to grips with the understanding that aging is change," he said. "As we grow up, we're very adaptable until we are around 25. Then we have a sense we will always be the person we were then. But the years do have a physical and mental impact. By making wellness behaviors a habit and by learning to adapt as changes come, we can, at least to some degree, have a positive effect on our health and quality of life as we age."
Regular exercise may not keep you from eventually getting one of the diseases of aging, but it could affect how well you live with the symptoms.
"Use it or lose it tends to hold true for both physical and cognitive abilities," Duxbury said. "One of my patients who developed Parkinson's Disease had been a professional dancer and continued to be active. Unlike most Parkinson's patients, she didn't have a problem with falling. Her dance training had given her such a good sense of where she was in space along with strength and awareness of her muscles. She was able to compensate."
What and how much we eat also matter.
"The pace of modern life makes us think of what is convenient to eat rather than what is healthy," Duxbury said. "Having so much less-than-healthy food available may make it harder for boomers to live as long as their parents. The people who are now living into their 80s and 90s are the last of the generation that grew up in the depression and World War II. They had enough food to survive, but there wasn't a lot of extra to eat. We evolved as hunter gatherers who ate less except when the hunt was good, and then everyone feasted. New studies come out every week about different enzymes or nutrients that might help this or that. A simpler approach to nutrition is to eat enough, but not to overfill--and make sure it's real food. If grandma wouldn't recognize it as food, look for something better."
Another part of staying healthy through life is getting enough sleep.
"As we age, sleep gets harder for most people," Duxbury said. "You will probably need to be more mindful of things like when you drink coffee, getting exercise, and creating an environment that makes it easier to sleep."
Another important part of aging well is planning for retirement. You make financial plans. When you retire, you need to plan to retire to life, and not just to the couch.
"People who just sit and watch TV and 24-hour news don't tend to do well," Duxbury said. "Instead of waiting for your blood pressure to go up and anxiety and depression to set in, limit your news to half an hour a day. Then get up and get involved in living."
Social interaction is an essential part of healthy aging that are is too often lacking.
"We evolved to be part of a tribe," Duxbury said. "Until recently, we lived in extended families and everyone had a role to play. Now family may be spread across the country. If you no longer see friends from work as often, you need other friends. Stay active."
As you age, plan the life you want to live. If that means pursuing new hobbies, volunteering, going back to school, or even moving to a community where there are more people your age, go for it.
It could not only add more years to your life. It could add more life to your years.