One of my favorite quotes, especially now that I am in my early 50’s, goes something like this: “Growing old is mandatory; growing up, however, is optional”. With today’s Baby Boomers comprising nearly 20% of the American population, we need to recognize their presence in a variety of arenas, including the paradigm of wellness and self-care.
Since as early as 1998, there has been a growing amount of interest in the optimal manner in which this demographic might consider navigating their “Golden Years” as well as end-of-life issues. In particular, a number of researchers have argued that Baby Boomers are somewhat in denial regarding their own mortality. According to surveys conducted in 2011 by the Associated Press and LifeGoesStrong.com, 42% of individuals born between 1946 and 1964 are delaying their retirement, and an astounding 25% claim they shall never retire.
Economists may view these statistics as somewhat startling, from a purely financial and economic point of view; perhaps the denial of the aging process has caused Boomers to fail in adequately planning for their later years. However, those of us in the fitness industry see life differently. By refusing to accept growing older, this population is instead choosing to take steps to ensure their vitality well into their 80’s.
By the year 2030, it is predicted that approximately one in five Americans will be 65 years of age and older. Genetics does contribute somewhat to this population thriving longer and longer. However, neither heredity nor good fortune tells the complete story. There are steps we can take, as we approach our 70’s, to shore up our lifestyles, and give us the greatest possible chances of someday meeting our great-grandchildren.
The mind and the brain are very powerful tools in the fight for successful longevity. Within reason, what the mind can conceive, the body just may be able to achieve. By engaging the brain in stimulating activity, including stress-release techniques, cognitive processes will remain keen and alert. In order to maintain active neurological pathways as the years go by, the brain must regularly be given fresh challenges. Whether one chooses to learn a foreign language or to visit art museums to receive new visual stimulation, keeping the brain working will help to delay overt aspects of mental decline.
Lawrence C. Katz, PhD, a Professor of Neurobiology at Duke University, has developed a rather entertaining way to facilitate this. He coined the term “neurobic exercises” to describe these easy-to-perform tasks which can help the brain maintain connections between nerve cells-thereby improving the ability to preserve memory recall-and aid in developing new connections.
“The mental decline most people experience is not due to the steady death of nerve cells,” says Katz. Rather, it is the atrophy of connections between nerve cells in the brain. Contributing to such atrophy, he says, are routine behaviors, many of them almost subconscious, that require little brainpower.
Neurobics is based on two simple principles: embracing that which may be unexpected, and taking full advantage of the body’s five senses throughout your waking hours. One example might involve listening to a piece of music while engaging the olfactory sense by smelling a favorite aroma. It could also be as basic as taking a different route while driving to a regularly visited destination, and observing the changes in scenery. “Do something that challenges and engages your mind,” Katz tells us, “not because it’s difficult, but because it’s different from what you normally do.”
Along with challenging the mind in a biological sense as we age, the spiritual connection of well-being comes into play as well. Regardless of one’s religious beliefs, incorporating a sense of spirituality into daily life can help lessen pain and can lead to a feeling of internal happiness. The meditative practice of Kundalini Yoga has been shown to have a positive effect on individuals dealing with severe levels of stress and depression, which often accompany the aging process. The vagus nerve, which extends from the brain to all of the internal organs, possesses the unique power to slow down the heartbeat and induce a sense of inner calm. A recent study published in the International Journal of Cardiology noted that engaging in the practice of taking 6 consecutive 10-second-long breaths can lessen anxiety and heart palpitations. Above all, remember that attitude is always a choice; even something positive can usually be gleaned from an unpleasant experience if one chooses to make the effort to find it.
On yet another emotional plane, experts have indicated that a lack of sleep disrupts feelings of inner peace and may render one more prone to anger. Sicknesses related to viral infections also seem to be more prevalent among individuals suffering from prolonged lack of proper rest. Eight hours of sleep each night is vital when striving to maintain current physical health as well as encouraging longevity.
It should come as no surprise that multitudes of research studies demonstrate how exercise can combat the loss of stamina, muscle strength, balance and bone density that inevitably accompany old age. The American Heart Association advises incorporating a total-body strength training program into one’s schedule, performed at least two to three times each week. To achieve – or ideally, maintain – prime levels of well-being, the combination of strength training, endurance, flexibility and balance will serve a body well. Such activities as walking, bicycling, dancing or even swimming are gentle on aging joints and are highly recommended forms of endurance exercise.
With advancing years, we observe a natural decrease of circulating hormone levels in the bloodstream. In many individuals, this shift renders the body more prone to midsection fat deposits and overall muscle loss. Pairing a prudent diet with a dedication to increased activity and muscle strengthening can help stave off this condition as well as facilitating the maintenance of a healthy weight. Even while keeping active, an aging body’s basal metabolic rate often slows as the years pass. As such, daily energy needs gradually decrease, requiring the intake of fewer calories a day than in years past. A doctor and registered dietitian can be valuable allies in helping to calculate ideal caloric needs.
Recent findings point to an often overlooked aspect of successful longevity. Keeping a close eye on dental health, particular on flossing, can be surprisingly beneficial to overall health. Flossing at least once a day can aid in the remove both plaque and bacteria, which if left behind can lead to gum disease. Gingivitis is linked to inflammation within the body, a condition that may be associated with cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and Type 2 diabetes. Following up a thorough tooth-brushing and flossing with a cavity-fighting mouthwash is also a good idea, with the added benefit of minty freshness!
If experts believe that our genetic make-up is responsible for only 30% of healthy longevity, there still remains 70% which is largely under our control through the lifestyle we choose. By staying active, mentally and spiritually engaged, and minding our meals, we can feel confident in buying next year’s calendar….and celebrating another successful year of life!