Quality of life is the key: our goal shouldn’t be just to live to a ripe old age. No one wants to be old and decrepit (or decrepit at any age, frankly). But old and healthy – now that’s an exciting goal.
Jeremy Walston, M.D., the Raymond and Anna Lublin Professor of Geriatric Medicine, has spent his career studying how we age. In addition to many studies on specific aspects of aging, he has looked at what healthy older people have in common – at what they eat and don’t eat, and how they live – and has come up with some practical tips.
The secrets of healthy aging, he has found, aren’t so secret after all. The best “fountain of youth” we have right now are some common-sense building blocks that can help everyone, at every age, live better.
If you do it right, just about everything you eat can help your body. This doesn’t mean you have to have an ascetic diet of nuts and berries, or be a food martyr who never eats birthday cake, macaroni and cheese, or a BLT with chips and a pickle. But comfort foods and flat-out junk should be the exception, not the rule, and you should make most of your dietary choices good ones.
Now, what does this mean?
“Fresh fruits and vegetables are very important,” says Walston, “particularly ones that are rich in potassium.” High-potassium fruits and veggies – including bananas, oranges, strawberries; dried fruits, like raisins, apricots, and prunes; spinach, tomatoes, avocados, beans and peas, and potatoes – are the best way for you to get potassium. Potassium is also found in dairy products, in whole grains, meat, and fish.
Exercise is important – not just cardio, but exercises that help with flexibility, balance, gait, and strength. And if you have an orthopedic issue, like knee or hip trouble, address it.
Here’s some of what potassium-rich foods can do for you: Blood pressure: When you get your blood pressure tested, you’re told it’s one number over another one. That number on the top is systolic blood pressure, and potassium can lower it by several points. Heart: Potassium helps your heart beat, which happens about 100,000 times a day. It can help regulate the heart rhythm, too. Cholesterol: Potassium, by itself, is not a designated cholesterol-lowering agent; however, if you are eating foods rich in potassium, this means you’re not loading up on saturated fat. Just eating this good food instead of junk can lower your cholesterol.
Fresh fruits and vegetables are also are anti-inflammatory. This is very important, because inflammation has been linked to many diseases, including several forms of cancer. When you eat these healthy foods, don’t blow it, Walston adds: “Don’t add salt and don’t overcook them.”
Protein is increasingly important; we need it more now than we did when we were younger. “Protein helps muscles function better, and it is also important to help maintain muscle mass.” True, you can get protein from a cheesesteak sandwich, but it’s better to “choose high-quality protein that is low in fat,” says Walston. Salmon, for example, is a great source of protein; so are chicken, lean beef and pork, eggs, beans, soy, and low-fat dairy products like yogurt. “We need about 30 grams of protein at a sitting to stimulate muscle growth optimally,” and the best time to take in protein is after exercise; this helps the muscles recover and grow. “You can also get it from a protein shake or energy bar.”
Vitamin D helps keep your bones strong. It also helps keep your muscles, heart, brain and immune system healthy, and can help prevent cancer. Having low levels of Vitamin D is bad: A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that people with the lowest levels of Vitamin D had more then twice the risk of dying from heart disease and other causes, compared to those with the highest levels. The researchers listed “decreased outdoor activity” as one reason that people can become deficient in Vitamin D. You can get it in milk, oily fish, mushrooms, eggs, and meat. You can also take a supplement. The National Institutes of Health recommends 600 IU (international units) of Vitamin D a day if you’re under 70, and 800 IU a day if you’re over 70.
And get some sun: “Your body needs direct sunlight exposure to activate the Vitamin D.” A pretty amazing reaction happens when the sun hits your skin: the UV-B rays activates Vitamin D into a form that your body can use best. You don’t need to bask in the sun for hours; just a few minutes – 20 or so – a couple of times a week is plenty of time to gain this benefit.
Lower your risk of getting the flu, or pneumonia, or shingles by getting a shot. Many pharmacies, grocery stores, and big-box stores like Walmart and Target offer these shots at a low cost. Take them up on it. The risks of getting one of these illnesses far outweigh the inconvenience and minor expense of a vaccine.
“Talk to your doctor about taking part in a clinical trial,” says Walston. “There are several that aim to preserve muscle function and cognition as people get older.” In addition to benefitting personally from such a study, “you would be helping other older adults learn how best to extend their health, function, and cognition, and maintain their independence.”
“Stay active as long as possible,” says Walston. “Don’t sit for long periods of time, especially in the late afternoon or evening. Studies show that those are low-activity times for many people, so it’s good to try to boost your activity during those times.” Go for a walk after dinner. Walking is good; in fact, you should walk a lot, or do some aerobic activity – there’s plenty to choose from. Just a few examples include taking a Zumba or Jazzercise class, riding a bike, swimming or doing water aerobics, hiking, jogging, or dancing. In addition to getting cardiovascular exercise, “it’s also important to do exercises that help you stay flexible, that help your balance and gait, and that help strengthen your muscles. Don’t forget your shoulders,” which are important for maintaining core body strength and higher levels of function. And if you have an “orthopedic issue,” like knee or hip trouble, address it. “It is essential to maintain your mobility as long as possible.”
However, while you’re staying active:
The body literally takes a hit when you fall. Many older people, who otherwise have been doing pretty well, take a turn for the worse after a fall. Just being laid up for a few days, or even longer, can be difficult for the elderly because they tend to lose strength quickly. The best way not to fall is to be aware of the risk, and do your best to prevent it, says Walston. “Things that can make you fall include not watching your medication; vision problems; weakness in the lower extremities; and balance and gait problems.”
Talking to people – volunteering, interacting with others in church, clubs, or other groups, being around family or friends – is good medicine.
One huge risk factor is easy to fix: “low lighting and a cluttered living area.” Make sure your rooms are well lit – that you not only have enough lamps or ceiling lights, but that the bulbs are high-powered enough so you can see where you’re going. And go after the clutter. It doesn’t take much – maybe a stack of books or magazines that slips over, or a puzzle left by a grandchild on the floor – to make a walkway treacherous. Sometimes, you’re so used to looking at clutter that you don’t see it. This is why Walston recommends bringing in an independent party – a friend or relative who is not used to your home, who can see potential trouble spots you haven’t noticed.
You can lower the odds of falling, as well, by working on your balance. Tai Chi is a great way to do this, and many community centers offer classes (another bonus: taking a class helps you stay connected – see below). Weights and exercises can also help your legs get stronger.
“Cognitive risk factors include diabetes, elevated lipids, and high blood pressure,” says Walston. Medications can keep all of these problems in check. Even if you are currently being treated for these, it’s good to go the doctor for “tune-ups” every so often, to make sure you’re still on the right dosage.
But other things can affect how well you’re thinking and functioning, too, and they may not be what you’d expect:
Poor hearing: If you don’t feel connected, you may tend to withdraw from the conversation, smiling politely, not engaging, because you don’t know what people are saying. This is bad. “Get a hearing aid if you need one.” It won’t just help your hearing; it will help your brain.
Physical inactivity: Being active affects every part of your body. It helps your heart work better, helps your lungs get more air, strengthens your muscles, and helps your brain work better. Many studies have shown that older adults who are active are less likely to get dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Depression: If you are depressed, you are going to be withdrawn, you may not eat or sleep very well, and you may not get enough exercise. All of these can affect your cognitive skills.
Addressing all of these risk factors is good “cognitive protection,” says Walston. And one of the most important ways to protect your brain is to stay active is to “interact with others more frequently.” Stay connected. Talking to people – volunteering, interacting with others in church, clubs, or other groups, being around family or friends – is good medicine. “Engaging in outside activities improves both physical and mental health in older adults.”