4 Pronged Approach Can Contribute to Healthy Aging

By Wayne Mogielnicki

Wake Forest Baptist Healthwire

Want to live a long, healthy life? Of course!

But that will take some effort, especially if you’re already 65 or older.

“It can be hard for older adults to make lifestyle changes,” said Dr. Jo Cleveland, professor of gerontology and geriatric medicine at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. “It’d be a lot easier to take a pill. But there’s not a pill for this.”

There are, however, four areas in which seniors can take non-drastic steps to improve their chances of what Cleveland calls “aging optimally” – sleep, diet, exercise and social interaction.

1. Sleep

It’s a misconception that sleep needs decline with age, so seniors need seven to eight hours nightly. But sleep patterns do change, and older adults tend to have difficulty getting quality sleep.

“It’s often disrupted sleep in older adults; they wake up because they have to go to the bathroom or because they roll over on a hip that’s painful,” Cleveland said. “So it’s important to work with a primary care doctor to try to fix what is fixable. And that includes sleep apnea, which is rampant and under-diagnosed in the elderly population.”

Adopting some basic sleep hygiene measures – such as establishing a regular sleep schedule and creating a quiet, comfortable sleeping environment – also can promote healthy sleep.

2. Diet

The Mediterranean diet is widely considered the best way to eat for everybody, not just seniors.

The Mediterranean diet emphasizes fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, grains, olive oil (as opposed to butter), herbs and spices (as opposed to salt), chicken and seafood (as opposed to red meat), plus a glass of wine. Research has shown that this type of diet lowers the risk of heart disease and is associated with reduced incidence of cancer and other diseases.

What works best, Cleveland said, is trying to “lean more toward fresh fruits and vegetables and so on” instead of “trying to make a total change all at once.”

3. Exercise

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people over 65 get at least 2½ hours of moderate physical activity each week to promote endurance, strength, balance and flexibility.

“That can be walking, biking, swimming, dancing, gardening,” Cleveland said. “It doesn’t matter what it is as long it’s something you enjoy that gets your heart rate up.”

Before beginning an exercise program, Cleveland said, seniors should “consult a physical therapist to make sure what you’re doing is safe and right for you.”

4. Social interaction

“A lot of us think of staying healthy longer as meaning physically healthy, but the cognitive piece is just as important,” Cleveland said. Stimulating the brain plays a vital role in combating cognitive decline, but not all mental activity is of the same value, she said.

“If it’s crossword puzzles, Sudoko or whatever, if you do that a lot, you get good at that, but that doesn’t translate into preserving cognitive function,” Cleveland said. “Learning something new is better, and learning something new in a social situation is even better.

“Getting out, being around other people and doing what you can do is a big part of staying healthy.” 


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