Prevention and the 6 Pillars of Healthy Aging

We all want to live long, but not get old. Stay young in body and mind. Research has proved beyond a doubt that if we pay some attention to our lifestyle choices, we can continue to live productive lives with peace and joy. Most of us go to our family physicians for an annual medical checkup, to make sure the internal mechanisms of our bodies are functioning optimally and not putting us at risk for any diseases as we age. Similarly, we have a dental checkup for healthy teeth and gums. However, we all need to become aware that if we do not take care of optimal physical functioning, then we may be putting ourselves at risk for a decline in mobility and function. Hence annual physical functional independence testing is of paramount importance for prevention of future problems.  

 Aging is highly individualistic. The conclusion of researchers of the Baltimore Longitudinal Aging Project concluded that there is no such thing as normal Aging.  It is not only different from person to person but also from organ to organ within the same person. Your eyes may show signs of aging at 40 and you need reading glasses, but your heart may be that of a 30-year-old if you are a runner. A person may take up running because they enjoy it and it keeps them fit. However, if the runner has not had their fitness levels professionally tested for age and gender matched norms, they may be potentially wearing out their joints or putting themselves at risk for muscle aches and pains. Maintaining pain free mobility and function requires a well-rounded exercise routine. Incorporating flexibility, strengthening, balance, endurance and posture.

The value of muscle strengthening cannot be stressed enough. Here I will briefly highlight some key reasons why it is of utmost importance to incorporate a strengthening routine. As we age our muscle to fat ratio changes in the wrong direction. Muscles start to deteriorate after age 30, after age 40 we lose an average of 8 percent of our muscle every decade. The good news is it is not inevitable and it is reversible. Maintaining good muscle mass, reduces our risk for all lifestyle diseases such as hypertension, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes and hence stroke and heart disease. Muscles are also inextricably linked to bone, so strengthening muscles also improves bone density and bone mass, thereby reducing fracture risk. Fractures are a common cause of morbidity amongst the elderly. Muscle strength in of itself provides core stability to joints thereby protecting them, decreasing the chances of wear and tear of joints and hence protection against joint pain. Strengthening the right muscles with guidance will also prevent the classic stooped posture associated with aging. The CDC guidelines recommend at least two non-consecutive days of muscle strengthening for major muscle groups.

Endurance activities such as walking, running, biking, tennis. Swimming etc build heart and lung capacity. The more you do, the more you can do. Siting is the new smoking, so every bit of activity counts. Taking the stairs in the office, short walks during the day. It all adds up to protect one from decline in overall function and prevent risk factors for age related deconditioning.

Falls are a common cause of a downward spiral for many seniors. Fall prevention is a science by itself. They are multi factorial and involve our environment and our fitness. Maintaining good balance is one of the key factors in fall prevention. As we go into our fifth and sixth decade of life, our balance begins to decline. Balance testing involves mechanisms in the inner ear, sensory input from our feet and our eyes, responses from our musculoskeletal system. Having it tested by an experienced physical tested can result in an objective measure comparing it to established evidence-based norms.

Flexibility of our muscles tendons and joints maintains natural alignment of our skeletal system. Just like in a car if the alignment is off, it pulls to one side, it is the same in the body. Therefore, putting stress on one side, in the process muscles get strained and painful, joints have abnormal torque and become inflamed and painful. Thus, incorporating a stretching routine, be it with yoga or from a therapist, is key to prevention of joint and muscle pain and osteo arthritis.

Cultivating happiness depends on our attitude gratitude and frame of mind which can determine how we age. The evolving field of positive psychology has numerous studies stating the importance of how we take care of our emotional health, has direct effects on our physical health. Many people think you need to be healthy to be happy, but really, it’s the other way around. Studies have shown that with practices like mindfulness meditation one can induce a parasympathetic response and which has a calming effect to reduce our blood pressure, just like stress can increase our blood pressure. Neuroscientists have studied that our feelings of well-being or distress correspond to changes in our brain chemistry and structure. It’s important to note that we can learn to redirect our brain towards positive emotions by adopting certain practices.

Nutrition plays an important role in preventing or promoting age related changes in our bodies. Centenarian studies have shown that eating a largely plant based whole food diet along with regular physical activity can decrease morbidity and mortality. In the days of the hunters and gatherers, man ate mostly fruits, vegetables, roots, nuts and occasional fowl or fish. They walked 6 to 22 miles a day looking for food, water and shelter. Genetically man is programmed to like sweet, salty and fatty foods to protect against starvation, but unfortunately there is no gene to protect against abundance. So, what was protecting us in the stone age now leads to obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. So, one can change eating habits in progressively small increments, to ultimately make a big change.

Centenarian studies have shown that 50% of centenarians live independently, though 20% maybe in assisted living settings. They are physically, emotionally and mentally intact. This is determined more by their lifestyle choices, than their genes. So it is safe to say that the pattern of aging is not set in stone. Exercise is medicine is a new initiative by the AMA and the ACSM. We need a paradigm shift in our thinking. Besides our annual medical and dental checkup, we need to have an Adult functional Independence test. Based on the results you can get a customized program in areas that you may have a deficit. So remember chronological age is just a number, healthy aging is in your hands.

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