By Allison Bredemeyer
Photography by Beth Dukes
I remember the first time I noticed that my grandmother’s skin was different than mine. I pulled up the top of her hand and asked, “Why do you have elbow skin on your hand?” At 43 years old, I am horrified that I asked her that question, and I now have my own “elbow skin” hands.
Abilene Scene met with three experts in the business of healthy living to get a professional opinion on how to assist our bodies in the aging process. The most obvious influencers were easy to spot: nutrition, exercise, and brain health. But the unexpected fourth piece of the aging puzzle is an “X” factor that may be the most important piece of them all.
Disclaimer: This article will highlight a few things within our own power that we can do to help us age better. This does not replace medical advice from a real visit with a trusted primary care physician. Also, stay current on your cancer screenings. Get yourself checked on time, every time.
Nutrition is the backbone of good health. As children we are taught to feed our bodies in the most simple way: there are five food groups, and you should eat from each group every day. But as we get older is it still this simple?
“It is THAT simple and it is THAT boring,” said Marka Riddle, instructional clinical dietitian at the Hendrick Diabetes Clinic.
It’s not glamorous, but it is backed by science and it works. Whether you are 8 or 80, what we put into our bodies steers the ship.
Fruits and Vegetables: Mom was right; we need these at every meal, every day and as snacks in between. The nutrients in these garden harvested goodies cannot be duplicated by any other means and should be eaten with gusto.
Protein and Portion Control: Protein is the hero of the plate in most homes in America and is often given the most thought in its preparation and most excitement when consumed. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but keep a close eye on portions. The recommended amount of lean animal protein in one meal by many reputable sources is around three ounces. Overeating at any age adds excess calories that can’t always be burned off with exercise. This leads to weight gain, arterial damage, gastric distress, poor sleep, hypertension and declining overall health. Portion control becomes even more important the older we get as our metabolism slows and we become more sedentary.
Water: The standard recommendation is (8) 8-ounce glasses per day. However, listening to your body is critical. You’ll need more water if you are working your body more vigorously or are outside. You may need less if you are sedentary and inside. As we age, our body loses the ability to recognize thirst, putting us at greater risk of dehydration. Water intake should be purposeful and monitored to make sure that you are getting enough.
Processed Food: In our teens and 20s eating fast and fattening food is a forgivable sin. The occasional over consumption of soda, fried food and rich desserts is efficiently processed away with little notice. Aging ends this luxury. By the middle of life, metabolism begins to slow down and years of poor choices start to show up in varying forms of damage to the body. So what is a safe amount of processed food that we can consume without further damaging the body? Zero. Processed foods are filled with additives, sodium, fat, sugar, and chemicals. Our bodies simply don’t know what to do with all of that.
Fad Dieting: Just as aging ends the luxury of eating fast food, it also ends the ability to hop on the latest diet bandwagon to lose a few pounds.
“Anything that eliminates one or more of the food groups or only allows for a few specific types of food, should be avoided,” Riddle said
She specifically referenced the phenomenon of eliminating carbohydrates from your diet. Cut out the simple carbohydrates found from sugar and processed food, but complex carbohydrates from whole grains and starchy vegetables are critical to our health. As bodies age, fad dieting has even greater potential to cause long-term damage.
West Texas Rehabilitation Center
Exercise goes hand in hand with good nutrition. In fact, a healthy habit with one will often improve the relationship with the other. Exercising during childhood is simple and fun. It is called “play.” In our 20s and 30s exercise can become a chore. We limit ourselves to boring, repetitive workouts. Then we get busy and tired and quit. By your 40s, if you don’t have a good exercise regimen, it can become overwhelming and frightening to even think of where to begin again. On this same path by your 50s, the damage to the body may become noticeable and have begun to accelerate deterioration. The good news is you can get off this path and begin again. Tyler Hicks, fitness trainer at West Texas Rehabilitation Center, shared tips for exercising well into your golden years.
Weights: You will not look like Sylvester Stallone if you start to lift weights. No matter your age, weight-bearing exercises are critical to good bone health, strengthening the entire body and assisting with overall endurance. Weights don’t have to be kettle bells and gym equipment. Hicks recommends using “anything that you are comfortable lifting that adds extra weight.” Many at-home items work just as well, like soup cans and water bottles.
Balance: A number of factors contribute to poor balance as we age, such as weakening muscles and joint flexibility, poor vision and arthritis. Deteriorating balance puts you at a greater risk of falling. Falling puts you at greater risk for bone breaks and long-term damage that will accelerate aging. Find some way to engage your core muscles and work on maintaining good balance every day. It can be as simple as repetitively standing from a seated position or balancing on one leg at a time.
Cardio: You don’t have to be a runner to get your cardio exercise. But you do have to do some activity that gets your heart rate up for 30 minutes a day. Swimming, dancing, walking, jumping rope, trampoline, riding a bike, playing sports….the list goes on. Move your body and get that heart pumping!
Stretching: Stretching is good for your body and essential for your muscle and joint health. It also helps relieve stress. However, this is one area you should not take on without guidance.
“As we age, sometimes there is damage that can be made worse if stretching is done incorrectly,” Hicks said. “Have a qualified trainer, physical therapist or physician evaluate your body and assist you with the stretching exercises you need before trying anything new on your own.”
Dementia is frightening and heartbreaking. Much like cancer, Alzheimers and dementia are sometimes unavoidable and seemingly a bad cut of the cards. But just like with the heart, there are things within our control to help the brain age as healthily as possible.
Stress Management: Chronic stress puts damage on the entire body.
“Elevated levels of cortisol and decreased levels of serotonin put our bodies on the wrong upside of a see-saw that can cause a long list of harmful ailments,” said Dr. David Belcher, **** at Oceans Behavioral Hospital.
Learning to manage the stress in our lives is essential at any age. It becomes even more critical as we get older. Tools like meditation, guided imagery, and therapy can help manage stress. Always discuss your feelings with a loved one and with your physician.
Puzzles and Games: Use it or lose it! The brain needs to be worked out as much as any other part of our body. Dr. Belcher recommends working a variety of puzzles and playing games to keep the brain sharp. He adds, “iPhone games and puzzles are OK. But working puzzles by hand or playing board games with a partner are far more beneficial to your brain health than tablet or smart phone games.” Don’t have a partner available every day? Work crossword puzzles, riddles or math games with pencil and paper by hand and put together traditional jig-saw puzzles.
Learn Something New: You can teach an old dog new tricks, and it is never too late to learn a new skill. Using your fine motor skills along with your mind packs the biggest punch for a brain boost. Learn to knit, sew, paint, a new dance, how to sculpt, a musical instrument, or maybe jewelry making. Anything that connects your body and your brain is going to help keep you sharp for many years.
Nutrition and Exercise: Nutrition and exercise are major players in maintaining good brain health. The brain is made of mostly fat and water, so it needs both to stay healthy. Healthy fats like Omega-3, coconut oil, nuts, olive oil and avocados should be a part of your daily diet. And just 20 minutes of rhythmic exercise a day has the same affect on your brain as one dose of Prozac.
Medicine: Often the older we get, the more daily medicines we take. In order to avoid over medicating and potential dangerous interactions, Belcher advises that you always communicate with your physician exactly what medicines and supplements you take and that you’d like to take the fewest amount of medication at the lowest dosages to still be helpful.
Mental Illness: There is no advisable reason to delay treatment for mental illness at any age. Even if it is explained to you as “mild” or “slight,” it is real and you should get help. Do not assume that because you are getting older that it’s simply a result of life changes. Reach out to someone you trust. If you are diagnosed with mental illness, treat your diagnosis as critically as any disease and actively seek treatment.
The X Factor
Searching for the magical “Fountain of Youth” proved once again to be futile. But there was one facet of aging that emerged as a key in all of the above areas of health. And the advice from the experts on the matter began to paint a clear picture of what may well be the primary key to aging in the best way we can.
The integral factor in aging is loneliness versus connection. The connection forged between taking care of people who need help and accepting help when it’s needed is the human factor of healthy aging and part of truly enjoying a whole life.
Loneliness happens when social circles gets smaller or disappear. Grown children and grandchildren move on and away. Spouses and friends die. Over the course of our lives, we go from living within a booming tribe of loved ones to living alone. Sometimes loneliness is self-imposed. Older people may become less ambulatory and require a walker or wheelchair or have difficulty speaking. These obvious indicators of age can create embarrassment and even depression, which causes them to retreat to avoid interaction with people. Or, physical immobility or exhaustion may be the reason for isolation.
Taking in to consideration the aforementioned recommendations on proper nutrition, look at it now from the eyes of someone living alone. Cooking for one is daunting and can result in a lot of waste. Eating alone every meal can cause you to ignore physical cues of hunger, fullness and thirst, as well as encourage bad eating habits like mindless grazing and meal skipping. Also as we age and physically weaken, the act of cooking an entire meal and cleaning up afterward is physically exhausting. To combat this, Riddle recommends meal sharing. Gather two or three friends and plan a few meals together. Split the shopping and then cook together as many meals as you’d like. You can then share the task of cleaning up.
Reaching out to the people around you can help you and them combat loneliness and other health factors. The next time you have a big lasagna coming out of the oven for your family of four, invite your elderly neighbor over to share. Take the leftovers to your grandmother. Throwing a dinner party? Don’t forget your older friends when making that guest list.
Regardless of age, most people exercise better with a partner or a group. Recreational sports like golf and tennis are also extremely advantageous. Hicks said that one of the most popular group exercises at the WTRC is the water aerobics class. Water aerobics provides the same benefits of land aerobics while taking the impact off the joints. But what Tyler notices most about this class is their connectivity to one another. If someone misses a class, one of the group members will call to check in on them. This accountability and sense of being missed is comforting. In group activity, you also share experiences and engage in conversation that helps individuals continue to connect socially while benefiting their bodies.
Call your mother and go for a walk. Even those of us who speak with our aging loved ones regularly probably don’t see them as much as we could. Use that Sunday morning check-in to walk around the block with your mom and fill her in on how her grandkids are doing. Next time you check in on an older friend, toss a ball while you chat. Any activity is better than nothing.
“The only difference between you and an amazing specimen of physical fitness is just a few different decisions every day,” Hicks said.
The brain may be the aspect of health most affected by chronic loneliness. Left alone for long periods of time, people can become trapped within their mind. Thoughts can become paranoid, obsessive, aggressive, hopeless and harmful. This disconnection contributes greatly to a rapidly aging brain. We are social creatures, and human connectivity is essential for our mental well being.
“As uncomfortable as it is, we have to continue to seek new ways to socialize with people as we age,” Belcher said. He advises to stay connected as much as you can for as long as you can. Whether it’s through a church, a coffee group, an exercise class, or phone calls with friends and family, social interaction is sustaining fuel for the soul.
In the same way mothers tell their school aged children to look for the kid sitting alone at the lunch table, we should start looking for the lonely all around us. Perhaps it’s the newly widowed women at church. Or a regular customer you haven’t seen in the shop in a while. Regardless of age, it is important that we look for the lonely. Break bread together. Have fun together. Talk. After all, aging is inevitable. Humans are only given a finite time on this planet, and we must take care of each other as best as we can to make the most of that time.