Is successful aging a myth? We don’t think so.
Research tells us that growing old doesn’t have to mean growing frail, tired or melancholy. However, when so many lived experiences are just that, it’s hard to believe successful aging is possible.
Sure, you hear stories about octogenarians running marathons, but those are presented as outliers — not achievable feats for the average retiree.
The reason for widespread disability and disease among older adults isn’t because the problems of aging are inevitable. Rather, it’s because so many adults resign themselves to the perceived “realities of aging.” The waning mobility, the shrinking social circle, the weakening mind; these aren’t guaranteed parts of aging.
By taking action to bolster their mental and physical health, older adults can avoid many downsides of aging. While the greatest results are achieved by starting young, it’s never too late to reap the benefits of healthy habits. CNN reports that seniors can continue to gain muscle into their late 90s, and lifestyle changes have been shown to slow the progression of cognitive decline in people with Alzheimer’s disease.
Successful aging focus
So, what are the keys to successful aging? All evidence points to lifestyle habits including exercise, diet, drug and alcohol use (including medication management) and social engagement as being the key to maintaining strong mental and physical health while aging.
Muscle mass tends to decline with age. Known as sarcopenia, this muscle loss not only decreases seniors’ strength, it also contributes to mobility problems, osteoporosis, weight gain, and fall risk. As the Alliance for Aging Research explains, the end result is declining physical function and independence. Seniors with sarcopenia are up to 4.6 times more likely to be disabled and end up institutionalized due to an inability to perform the activities of daily living.
While losing muscle mass with age is a natural consequence of hormonal changes, seniors can halt or reverse muscle loss by remaining physically active. Indoor exercises such as walking, stretching and strength training with videos make it easy for older adults to establish a healthy routine. By building strength, balance and endurance through exercise, seniors improve mobility and flexibility, reduce their risk of a number of serious health conditions and bolster their immune systems.
Exercise also holds benefits for mental health; physical activity is known to improve moods and strengthen cognition. Indoor exercises such as walking, stretching and strength training with videos make it easy for older adults to gain endurance and mobility.
When it comes to building muscle, diet plays a central role. Older adults require more protein than their younger counterparts in order to maintain and build muscle. However, that’s not the only way that nutritional needs change in old age. Because bodies become less adept at absorbing nutrients as they age, seniors must increase their intake of nutrient-dense foods including fruits, vegetables, oily fish, eggs and dairy. As caloric needs decrease, an increased intake must be balanced with reduced consumption of refined grains, added sugars, solid fats, and other sources of empty calories to prevent obesity.
Understanding their nutritional needs and eating accordingly prevents unwanted weight gain, protects against certain health problems, provides sustained energy throughout the day and improves sleep at night. A good diet also protects against depression.
Alcohol, Drugs, and Medications
Even the most physically fit of seniors is at risk of falling if they’re intoxicated by alcohol, drugs, or misuse of prescription medication. And because age-related biologic changes magnify the effects of drugs and alcohol, older adults become intoxicated more easily than when they were younger. Interactions with medications also have the potential to increase impairment.
Of course, falling isn’t the only reason to avoid drugs and alcohol. Substance use disorders are associated with a wide variety of health complications, from increased risk of cardiac events to poorer physical and cognitive functioning. When seniors abstain from illicit drugs, drink little to no alcohol and strictly follow medication regimens as prescribed by their doctor, they enjoy better health and functioning.
The effects of social isolation among the elderly are frightening: increased risk of long-term illness, cognitive decline, depression, pessimism, sedentary lifestyle, poor diet, and early mortality, to name a few. But if seniors don’t make an active effort to expand their social circle and form new bonds, their social connection inevitably wanes as friends, relatives, and spouses pass away.
Staying socially engaged is central to successful aging. A network of meaningful relationships not only brings purpose to a senior’s days, it also ensures that older adults have a support system when they fall upon difficult times. An elderly person who has friends, family and neighbors who can check in, provide short-term caregiving, or help run errands has an increased ability to age in place even when faced with health issues.
A healthy diet, adequate exercise, a supportive and meaningful social life and mindful substance use are the pillars of good health no matter your age. But the older you are, the higher the stakes. No longer are the worries limited to waistlines and energy levels.
In later years, failing to adopt a healthy lifestyle means the difference between healthy, fulfilled golden years and senior years marked by the gradual loss of health and independence. If that’s not the kind of aging you want to sign up for, today is the day to start making changes.