Aging…..is it a disease? If so, should we take more of a preventative approach? What does it mean to “add life to one’s years versus just adding years to one’s life”?
These are some of the questions that presenters and delegates tackled at this year’s International Federation on Ageing’s 14th Global conference titled “A Decade of Healthy Ageing – From Evidence to Action” which was held in Toronto last week from August 8-10th.
The International Federation on Ageing (IFA) began operations in 1973 when the social and economic impact of an aging global population was just beginning to be understood by governments around the world.
Healthy aging. What does it mean and how do we achieve it?
The IFA’s vision is a world where the health and rights of older people are respected and protected and whose goal is to be a global point of contact for experts to influence age-related policy such as addressing health inequities among older people, designing age-friendly environments, fostering healthy ageing, creating decent work for older adults, and developing systems for long-term care.
This hugely important when you consider the latest estimate that there are 7.4 billion people on the planet, 600 million of whom are 65 or older, and that number is expected to increase to 1.6 billion by the year 2050.
The IFA’s initiatives are crucial as the variables that affect how we age; those that ultimately affect our overall health are non-communicable diseases. Measles and mumps are less concerning as are the issues that affect our emotional, physical and psychological health as a result of living longer such as chronic diseases (diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cognitive and vision health), social connection, mental health (depression and anxiety), having purpose, and financial security.
So how can we add life to our years and not just years to our life? How can we improve our “healthspan” as medical science continues to increase our lifespan?
As a dietitian and nutritionist, I was of course interested in all things food and diet related but health, including ageing well, is, and needs to consider, a more holistic approach that embraces mind, body and spirit including our own views and attitudes on ageing, in addition to personal choices and lifestyle.
Here are 9 things you can start today to age well
1] Adopt a positive attitude towards ageing. See growing older as a gift and not as a negative experience and start to reflect on ageism as an under-recognized form of prejudice that permeates all facets of society from the cultural norm to value youth to how we design our environment and products.
2] Get adequate sleep; it is vital to brain health including cognitive function. Did you know that the metabolic waste products build up throughout the day as the busy does it’s cognitive work? Sleep is the brain’s opportunity to do a little housekeeping whereby it clears out the waste; preparing us to face the next day with clarity. Sleeping between seven to eight hours each night is related to better brain and physical health in older people.
3] Keep your vaccinations up to date. While infectious disease rates are largely well-controlled, they are still a concern for older adults. Many will need to stay current with diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis and will also want to consider shingles and pneumococcal vaccinations.
4] Get physical. Purposeful activity and exercise has a positive impact on brain health, as well as, physical health including muscle strength, agility, better bone health and metabolic health including lower blood pressure and blood sugar control all of which will improve quality of life and independence. Being active also reduces the risk for depression and anxiety.
5] Engage your brain; it is dynamic and constantly changing. Throughout the lifespan, the brain continues to develop new neurons and new neural connections when you actively participate in cognitively stimulating activities. However, not any old activity will do. It needs to mentally challenge your ability to think such as learning a new skill, language, memory training exercises or a new hobby. Novelty is also important so try to find new ways to stimulate your brain and for greater impact, don’t go solo; engage your brain with someone else, the social connection enhances the effect.
6] Human beings are social by nature, it’s in our DNA. Not only do social connections help to reduce depression, evidence indicates that it helps to lower the risk of cognitive decline. Ways to be more social include joining a group with others who have similar interests, teaching someone a new skill, volunteer or help others and yes, use technology to stay connected with others. It’s worth noting that connection doesn’t just mean person-to-person, having a pet has its benefits too by fostering purpose, empathy and socialization especially if your pet need regular walks gets you outside.
7] Get an eye exam. Vision is linked to other determinants of health including risks for falls, social connectedness/isolation, depression, anxiety and even the ability to shop and cook. Unfortunately, the eyes take a back seat when to comes to monitoring our health but the good news is, many of the common eye challenges we face as we age such as glaucoma, cataracts, or diabetes-related eye damage are successfully treated when caught early.
8] Check-ups. Many, but not all, older adults have close, long-standing relationships with their family physician whose role has changed somewhat which not only includes direct medical care but also being able to connect older adults with community resources. Having regular contact with your family doctor is a vital connection for optimal health throughout the lifespan.
9] Nutrition not only impacts overall health, it impacts the brain as well. It should be no surprise that the same less-healthy, high-processed foods that are not good for your body are not your brain’s best friend either. The main take away is that no one food has it all when it comes to health; you have to consider all of your choices and ask yourself “are those choices moving me towards, or way from health”? The benefits of eating more plants is well-understood and kicks in long before going vegan which is good news; for most, it’s not about radically changing their diets but being more conscientious and consistent in their choices. A few take ways include:
- Eat a variety of plant foods everyday and seek out green leafy and dark orange vegetables, berries, nuts & seeds
- Include fish or seafood, that is not deep-fried, at least once a week
- Include legumes weekly
- Aim for more whole grains
- Limit alcohol
- Where possible, prepare as many of your own meals and snacks and limit highly processed and fast foods.
Healthy aging is not simply the absence of disease later in life but rather having the physical and cognitive ability to engage, as fully and as possible, in the things that you love in spite of any possible disease, disorder or limitation that you might be facing.
It’s true, aging is a part of life and while we can’t slow down the clock, we can control how we face the future. This is not a bad news story but rather an opportunity to shape how your personal journey unfolds. Successfully aging involves a blend of nourishing your body while fostering a healthy, future-oriented outlook while maintaining a sense of community and connection, acceptance of change and purpose in life.
Doug Cook RDN is a Toronto based integrative and functional nutritionist and dietitian with a focus on digestive, gut, and mental health. Follow me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.