6 Tips for Healthy Aging

Good genes help, but smart habits also make a big difference!

People have long aspired to live to “a ripe old age,” but these days many have a second aspiration: to maintain, in those senior years, an active, vigorous lifestyle. And with Americans living longer than ever—the 85+ age cohort is our population’s fastest- growing—it’s vital to maintain good health to keep the good times going. “It’s true that longevity and health have a genetic component, but we can have a significant impact on our aging by adopting certain basic habits,” says Theresa Redling, D.O., FACP, medical director of geriatric health and disease management at Saint Barnabas Medical Center. She offers six tips:

1. Work with your doctor. “To prepare for a healthy old age, you especially need to have a good relationship with your physician,” says Dr. Redling. Make sure you have a doctor with whom you can communicate comfortably, and one who has expertise in the medical issues facing the elderly. “You should feel better after visiting your doctor even if nothing is done except talking,” she says. “He or she should be your advocate and your partner in helping you achieve better health.”

2 Get checked for everything. Medically, most of us know the key screenings we need as we age, including colonoscopy to guard against colorectal cancer (see page 36), mammography to detect early breast cancer and digital rectal examinations for prostate cancer. But don’t forget to ask your doctor about less obvious preventive measures like vision and hearing exams and vaccinations. “Having your eyes and ears checked —and your vision and hearing corrected as necessary—helps you stay socially connected,” Dr. Redling says. “Poor eyesight and hearing loss can lead to isolation, and that contributes to physical decline and depression.” And vaccinations don’t end with childhood, she reminds us. Annual flu shots, one-time pneumonia and shingles vaccinations and the diphtheriatetanus- pertussis booster all help you avoid illnesses that can be devastating in older populations. Ask your doctor which vaccinations you need, and when.

3 Keep your brain stimulated. Research reveals that social connections are vitally important in preventing decline, and for many of us—much as we may gripe—full-time employment is an important source of both social interaction and intellectual challenge. “Studies show that people who work longer live longer,” Dr. Redling says. If you can’t or don’t want to work, volunteer for an organization or cause you like. Taking a class, starting a new hobby or embarking on a challenging project can also have salubrious cerebral effects. “You are never too old to learn something new, and doing so is good for brain health,” says the doctor.

4 Get off the recliner. “Becoming sedentary is a big factor in unhealthy aging,” Dr. Redling says. “Once you stop moving, that really contributes to the decline of both physical and cognitive function.” Studies show that 30 minutes of activity every day is best, but such a period even three days a week is beneficial. You should work on several aspects of physical health: endurance (aerobic activities), strength (resistance or weight training), flexibility (yoga or other stretching exercises) and balance (tai chi). Collaborate with your doctor to create an exercise plan that is right for your health history and particular challenges.

5 Eat like the Greeks—or the Italians, the southern French or others who live near the Mediterranean Sea. “We now know that the Mediterranean diet is probably the healthiest way to eat,” says Dr. Redling. This diet is sparing with red meat and generous with healthy fats such as olive oil and omega-3 fatty acids from fish and nuts, and it features lots of fruits and vegetables. “It’s a very colorful diet, and it avoids processed foods,” she says. Such an eating plan, particularly one that features large quantities of omega-3s, has been proven to shutterstock in good health help prevent or delay heart disease, dementia, macular degeneration and other age-related illnesses. Surprisingly, taking an omega-3 supplement has not been shown to have equal effects— that’s one reason Dr. Redling says she’s “not a big proponent of taking nutrition supplements.” Maintaining a healthy diet means you don’t need to take a multivitamin, she adds. But you should be screened for some common age-related vitamin and mineral deficiencies, such as D and B12. Your doctor will determine if a supplement is a good idea.

6 Get your Z’s. “Many people don’t realize that older adults need six to eight hours of sleep a night,” she says. “Proper sleep is restorative and necessary for good physical and cognitive functioning.” If you aren’t sleeping well, there could be any number of reasons why, including an undiscovered health condition, an adverse reaction to medication, inadequate exercise or nourishment, an emotional preoccupation or a sleep disorder. If you aren’t feeling rested and restored when you awaken, talk to your doctor about it. —D.L.

Learn more about aging in good health The Internet is a great source of information on healthy aging, says Theresa Redling, D.O., a geriatrician with Saint Barnabas Medical Center—if you know where to look. “Stick to trustworthy, reliable sources of information,” she says. She offers the following as good sites to bookmark:
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: cdc.gov/aging
National Institutes of Health: nihseniorhealth.gov
National Council on Aging: ncoa.org/improve-health
Women’s Health: womenshealth.gov/aging

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