Aging is a fact of life — it’s happening to each of us every day. We can’t control the fact that we age, but we do have some control over how we age.
Chronological vs. Biological Age
Not all of us age the same way. “We all have our chronological age, but some people at the age of 75 may be biologically like someone much younger because their health behaviors may have been different over the years, or because they have particularly good genes,” says Kathleen Cameron, Senior Director of the Center for Healthy Aging at the National Council on Aging (NCOA).
“Some people in their fifties develop chronic diseases — such as diabetes or arthritis” — she says, “while others going into their seventies or eighties are still in good health. At NCOA, we don’t tend to look at age as just a number. We look at the whole person to figure out what they need to do to age in a healthy way and to prevent and/or manage chronic conditions.”
There are many ways we can help maintain good physical and mental health during our senior years, says Cameron. For starters, having a healthful, well-balanced diet low in fat and high in fiber while staying as active as possible will help to maintain a healthy weight, which is key to reducing the risk of chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Maintaining a healthy body weight also reduces the stress on aging joints, which helps us have greater mobility. Good mobility and flexibility are important for preserving our independence, as well as for preventing accidents and injuries.
According to NCOA, one in three Americans ages 65 and older falls every year, and falls are the leading cause of fatal and non-fatal injuries for older Americans. Every 11 seconds, an older adult is seen in an emergency department for a fall-related injury.
“Some people develop a fear of falling and they will limit their activities, which in turn makes them somewhat functionally impaired. They lose strength, they lose balance and then they’re actually at greater risk for falling,” says Cameron.
The NCOA website (ncoa.org) includes tips for taking steps around the home that help prevent falls — such as good lighting, removing tripping hazards (such as loose carpets or objects on stairways) and installing grip bars in the bathroom.
Exercise helps to build balance, strength and flexibility.
And, of course, the more physically active we are the longer we can retain our independence, which is good for both physical and mental health.
How we include physical activity in our lives may vary, but including it in some fashion is vital, Cameron says. “I really think starting it before your fifties, making sure that physical activity is a routine part of your day and your week, is so important. Unfortunately, a lot of people haven’t done this so now it’s something new.”
For people who don’t already have a regular workout routine, Cameron recommends joining a supervised class, such as those offered at a senior center or YMCA, and bringing a friend. She suggests looking for activities that provide strength training or weight-bearing exercises. “Tai chi is particularly good for people at risk for falls because it helps with balance and strength,” she says, adding that, “it’s important to check with a doctor before starting a new exercise program.”
“How engaged we are — with our communities, with friends and family, work or hobbies — is really the key to successful aging,” says Cameron. “Those who do age successfully tend to have a passion for something that keeps them going.” In contrast, people who isolate themselves are more prone to inactivity and depression, she says.
Don’t Skip Health Checks
Keeping up with regular healthcare provider visits and health screenings is also an important part of warding off health issues as we age. Early detection of problems such as hearing or vision loss and elevated blood pressure or blood glucose levels can help prevent bigger concerns later.
Drink to Your Health
Finally, Cameron notes that hydration is an issue many people forget about as they get older but one that should not be ignored: “Dehydration can lead to falls and also impact the management of chronic conditions, so drinking small amounts of water throughout the day is very important.”