The Art of Aging Well
Living well into old age is about much more than money. The good life means not only having the financial means to pursue it, you also need to have the physical and mental well being to be able to enjoy it.
At one time people talked about aging gracefully. Not today. With the oldest of the baby boomers starting to sign up for seniors’ discounts, old age is undergoing a major makeover. As they have done with just about every other life phase, baby boomers are setting out to redefine old age. Today, the latter part of life is not about growing older, it’s about aging successfully and that means being active, connected and engaged.
Still, if your bones creak in the mornings and your muscles ache as you get out of bed, it’s easy to have a negative view of aging. But it’s this negative view, the experts say, that is one of the barriers to aging well. Dr. Elaine Dembe, a Toronto-based chiropractor, life coach and author of Passionate Longevity, 10 Secrets to Growing Younger, urges people not to let the number of candles on their cake dictate what they can do in life. She’s found in her work with seniors that those who dwell on what they used to be able to do miss out on what they can do today. Dembe, a former Canadian-ranked marathon runner now in her early 60s, does not lament that she no longer runs marathons. Instead, she celebrates that she’s still running today.
Several studies support the importance of taking a “glass half full” view toward getting older. One in particular, the Harvard Study of Adult Development, followed more than 800 men and women from adolescence to old age. Beginning in the 1930s, the study sought to uncover what behaviors and attitudes led to healthy and happy longevity. The researchers found that actual good health was less of a factor than how you viewed your physical state. If you had health issues but didn’t think of yourself as sick, your health was unlikely to affect your happiness. Relationships also figured heavily in the findings – a strong marriage, having good, supportive people in your life, the ability to forgive and heal damaged relationships and gaining younger friends as you lose older ones were common to those who enjoyed their later years. In addition, the study found that learning to play and create in retirement could enhance life’s enjoyment more than retirement income.
New research from Brigham Young University supports the connection between social relationships and longevity. By combining the results of 148 studies that followed more than 300,000 adults from around the world for seven years, they found that your relationships can improve your odds of survival by as much as 50%. “People need to feel love and give love,” explains Dr. Dembe. “And the quality of your relationships is also important. Ask yourself whether they are life enhancing or life diminishing? Give yourself permission to edit out those relationships that no longer enhance your journey.”
An optimistic attitude and can-do spirit can only take you so far. In her practice, Dr. Dembe has seen first-hand how the right diet and proper exercise can give people a new lease on life. She advocates for strength training and a sensible diet to give you the energy to enjoy life. “If you want to manage your weight and increase your energy, strength training will do much more for you than easy-paced cardiovascular exercise. Plus it has benefits that spillover into other areas such as better posture and balance. When it is intense enough to increase your metabolism, strength training can help you burn more calories.” Carrying extra weight has been linked to a whole host of conditions from heart disease and diabetes to some cancers and joint deterioration.
Preserving your mental capacity follows the same “use it or lose it” approach for physical fitness. The ability to focus and multi-task seems to deteriorate with age as does certain types of memory. You can no longer read the newspaper with the television on and you have trouble recalling the name of the movie you saw last week. But other types of memory remain strong – you don’t forget how to ride a bike or dance the tango, and your knowledge of facts and figures stays with you. New research has shown that the neural networks that make up the brain are not hard-wired in childhood as was once thought. Work with stroke victims has demonstrated the brain’s “plasticity” or ability to draw upon other areas of the brain to compensate for weaker or damaged ones. This plasticity can help our brains work smarter as we age, not harder. Learning something new can boost your cognitive fitness – activities that involve both mental and physical process, such as dancing, have been shown to be particularly effective. In addition, there are plenty of strategies you can employ to aid memory as you age. Organizing tasks into smaller sub-tasks to complete also seems to aid the preservation of mental capacity.
One central theme to aging well is taking an active approach. Getting older shouldn’t be something that just happens to you. By deciding how you want to life your later years and taking charge of your health and well being, you can make positive change. Dr. Dembe urges people not to credit the changes they may be experiencing, including sleeplessness, memory loss and various physical discomforts, such as arthritis, to old age. Instead, people need to find out what’s the root cause and seek out solutions. “You may not be able to fix everything but you won’t know if you don’t try. Even a modest improvement can have a positive impact on your enjoyment of life,” observes Dr. Dembe.
While aging itself is a complex physiological process, the art of aging well seems to come down to three simple rules: keep your mind active, your body fit and your relationships healthy.
At a recent T.E. Wealth event themed “Preserve,” Dr. Elaine Dembe talked about how to preserve your health as you age. To learn more about Dr. Dembe and her practice, visit www.elainedembe.com.Print PDF