As we age, we experience normal changes in our physical and mental health. Some of these changes are just that—normal. However, there is a self-fulfilling prophesy at play here too. Some changes are a result of a fatalistic thought process of accepting certain symptoms as an inevitable part of aging. The only thing inevitable about aging is that if you accept poor health as normal, then you will develop poor health. On the other hand, fighting this notion and being proactive will result in living your best life. You might not recognize that many symptoms are not inevitable at all but rather can be reduced or reversed! Aging healthfully means continually reinventing yourself and developing new habits rather than sitting back and waiting for a slow decline. There are many ways that you can age happily and healthfully. Let’s take a look!
Eat Whole Foods:
Eating nutrient-packed foods that are unprocessed will give you the most bang for your buck in terms of health. If you’ve spent any time reading our blogs, you know that food is very powerful and has the ability to prevent and even reverse a myriad of diseases and health conditions. Every time you eat food you are either building your body up or tearing it down. And this is true throughout our lifetime, not only in our aging years.
As much as it can be difficult, it’s imperative to avoid refined carbohydrates if you want to improve your health. Refined carbohydrates are also called simple carbohydrates and indicate that a grain has been stripped of fiber, bran, and nutrients through processing. Such carbohydrates not only include pastries and other desserts, but also pastas, white bread, sugary cereal, instant oatmeal, white rice, and anything classified as fast food. These foods flood your bloodstream with sugar, creating insulin resistance over time. They also help zap your energy levels, effect changes in mood, lead to weight gain, and contribute to high blood pressure and heart disease risk.
Instead, choose whole foods consisting of fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, lean proteins (such as beans, fish and poultry), whole grains (eg. quinoa, oats, amaranth, millet, rice and buckwheat), organic dairy or dairy alternatives, and healthy fats (avocado, olives, coconut oil, walnuts, wild caught salmon, etc).
These foods provide the vitamins and minerals your body needs to remain strong both physically and mentally. A whole foods diet can improve your immune system, reduce your risk of cancer, manage diabetes, prevent heart disease, strengthen bones, improve mood, enhance memory, and many other benefits!
Getting sufficient fiber in your diet is very important. Fiber is an aspect of our diets that we often overlook. In fact, only 5% of Americans meet the recommended amount of fiber per day (25 grams for women and 38 grams for men). This is a sad statistic because fiber is vital to the optimal functioning of your digestive system and offers a variety of health benefits.
We all know that fiber helps to keep us “regular” but it also has other benefits, such as decreasing your risk for developing diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and stroke. It also helps maintain a healthy weight, build good gut bacteria, lower inflammation, and promote the elimination of toxins. Detox cleanse anyone? In addition, fiber helps you live longer in general by reducing risk of death from any cause.
Fiber is only found in plant-based foods, notably those that are unprocessed. For example, there is a lot more fiber in sprouted grain bread than in white bread. Consider adding whole grains, beans, legumes, fruits and vegetables to your daily diet. Of the fiber-rich foods, beans, split peas, and lentils offer the highest amount, over 10 grams per cup. If a food has a nutrition label, the amount of fiber listed should be at least 3-4 grams as a general rule. But the more the better!
As humans, we need water as our bodies consist of 60% water. There are many benefits to staying hydrated.
Drinking enough water can help your brain to perform optimally and help you to concentrate properly. Studies show that even mild dehydration can affect many aspects of brain function, mood, memory, and even increase the incidence of headaches.
In fact, headaches are one of the most common symptoms of dehydration. Studies have shown that nearly 50% of people who drink more water find relief from their headaches.
In addition, staying hydrated, especially with mineral water, can help relieve constipation. Low water intake actually increases the risk for constipation in older adults, but the electrolytes in water, particularly magnesium, improves bowel frequency and consistency.
Staying hydrated also helps prevent kidney stones for those who have not had kidney stones in the past. The increased amount of urine output helps flush out and dilute mineral concentration in the kidneys, making it less likely for minerals to crystallize and form stones.
Lastly, water aides in weight loss. It contributes to satiety (the feeling of fullness) to the point that the feeling of hunger may actually be your body telling you to drink more water! Hunger pangs are often eased after drinking water, so grab a glass before grabbing a fork and see if it makes a difference! Even before hunger strikes, drinking water 30 minutes before meals will increase your fullness. This fullness will help you eat less calories per meal. Water for the win!
Exercise in your older years is highly beneficial and more important than ever. Physical activity is a large contributor to longevity, even if you don’t begin exercising until your senior years! Exercising has many physical as well as mental health benefits.
It naturally increases your metabolism, which tends to slow down as we age. An increased metabolism allows us to burn more calories, leading to weight loss. Exercise also improves the immune system, digestive system, blood pressure, and bone density (bone density specifically improved with strength training). Further, it decreases our risk of Alzheimer’s disease, obesity, heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, and some cancers!
Other physical benefits of exercise are the improvement of flexibility, mobility, coordination, and balance. These all lead to a lower risk of falling for older adults and helps them remain independent for longer.
What about mental health? Exercise helps this too! It improves sleep and helps you feel more refreshed in the morning. It also uplifts mood and self-confidence due to the endorphins that are released, which reduce feelings of depression or anxiety. Lastly, exercise does wonders for brain function. It improves multitasking activities, creativity, memory, and cognition. Getting moving also helps slow the progression of cognitive decline, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Exercising in older age doesn’t mean you have to be soaked in sweat or have intense muscle aches for days afterwards. Walking your dog, taking a fitness class or senior sports, doing water aerobics, going window shopping or mall walking, lifting hand weights, or simply stretching are all wonderful ways to exercise! See what works for you and remember to modify as necessary for medical conditions or physical limitations.
We would be remiss if any discussion on healthy aging didn’t include a discussion on mental health. Loneliness and depression affect older people at high rates. But the good news is that you are more resilient than you may think and poor mental health is not an inevitable part of aging. There are several preventative measures you can take:
- Express gratitude and focus on things you’re thankful for
- Pick up a new hobby, take a class, join a book club, learn a new skill, or start a DIY project
- Challenge your brain with puzzles, strategy games, memory games, or brain training apps
- Stay connected with supportive friends and family
- Get a good night’s sleep
For an expansion on these topics and more, see our previous blog on combating loneliness for older people, here.
Get Good Sleep:
Sleep is vital to both our physical and mental well being, especially as we age and our normal sleeping patterns change. The proper amount of sleep will vary from person to person. A good gauge is whether you wake up feeling rested and refreshed. If not, then you’re not getting enough sleep. A good night’s sleep helps our minds remain strong and active and helps the body repair cell damage and clear byproducts and debris. Sleep can also help us recover faster from illnesses.
Getting good sleep has many health benefits. It lowers the risk of heart disease and stroke, lowers obesity risk, reduces inflammation, reduces stress and depression, refreshes your immune system, and even improves focus and concentration.
If you struggle with insomnia, try to identify the cause. It could be a side effect of a medication, a symptom of an unaddressed medical condition, psychological stress, a poor sleeping environment, or even lack of sunlight during the day (aim for at least two hours of sunlight to help regulate melatonin).
If you suspect you have a poor sleeping environment, try avoiding backlit devices (it your phone or a TV screen) for one hour before bed. You can also turn off the blue light setting on most phones, or purchase blue-light blocking glasses (I use the brand, Cocoon, and love them!). Create a bedroom that is dark, quiet, and cool. Light-blocking curtains, white noise machines, ear plugs, and sleeping masks can all help! Train yourself to keep a consistent sleep schedule by going to bed and waking up the same time each day. Avoid caffeine late in the day, remembering that caffeine is also found in chocolate. Drinking chamomile tea instead will help increase sleepiness. Lastly, create a calming bedtime routine to help you wind down. This can be taking a bath, playing calming music, diffusing lavender essential oil, journaling, or deep breathing.
Aging gracefully is a choice and requires active participation. It will not happen on its own! Each of these tips for healthy aging requires making new habits, trying new processes, and learning new skills. This is no different than the way you have lived all your life, as you’ve had to adapt to thousands of changes over the years. Let us not make excuses or accept all our limitations as normal. Let’s instead commit to establishing these new habits and discover how your physical and mental health will improve!