Get Better with Age
No one relishes the thought of growing older, but it helps if you think of it as an opportunity to practice better health. Experts say the age-related changes your body and brain undergo can be mitigated with positive thinking and a bit of effort. When you understand the links between physical and mental fitness, the years ahead start to look rosier!
We may not always consider how physical activity affects mental health as we age, but the connection is very real, says Jessica Phillips of The Exercise Coach St. Louis. “Being physically active reduces stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol and stimulates production of brain chemicals like endorphins, which act as natural painkillers and mood elevators,” she explains.
Phillips, a certified exercise coach, says many adults think of physical activity as simply a weight loss tool, but they should view it more broadly as a way of supporting overall quality of life. “When we talk about the benefits of physical activity, we also should discuss self-image, self-confidence, mood, energy and all of the other factors that feed into mental health,” she notes. “Good brain health also keeps your heart, kidneys and other organs functioning properly, and it affects memory, reflexes, sleep patterns and more. And if you’re not getting enough blood flow to the brain, it may play a role in depression and anxiety. All of these things add up.”
never too late
Older adults may feel there’s no point in beginning an exercise regimen late in life, but Phillips says that’s a misconception. “It doesn’t matter when you start,” she stresses. “Seniors sometimes are told that they only need to walk for exercise, and that’s beneficial, but it’s not enough. If walking is the only thing you’re doing, you are still losing muscle.” Phillips says older adults should get an assessment from a qualified fitness professional and find out what kind of strength training is appropriate for their age and physical needs. “Don’t wait for your doctor to tell you to be more active,” she says. “You only get one body, so you should take care of it now.”
what is strength training?
It’s a general term for weightlifting and resistance training—exercises that make your muscles work against some type of force. Strength training can help build and maintain bone and muscle tissue in seniors. It also may alleviate issues like arthritis, osteoporosis, fatigue and pain.
food for thought
It’s no secret that healthy eating is key to a healthy mind, especially as we age. Anthony Lyons, food and beverage director at McKnight Place retirement community, says generational differences present dietary challenges because many residents grew up in ‘meat-and-potatoes’ households with little focus on fresh, natural foods. Still, there are ways to cook what they love and provide the nutritional support their minds and bodies need. “Older adults may not want to hear about plant-based proteins because it’s not what they’re used to,” he explains. “Rather than a hamburger, we can suggest alternatives like a veggie burger and then talk about why it’s better.”
Lyons offers residents healthy cooking demonstrations to reinforce nutritious thinking. Variety is key, and an emphasis on whole grains, fresh produce, natural seasonings, and lower fat and sodium helps round out a healthy menu, he notes. Fresh herbs replace salty condiments, beans and other legumes offer protein, grains add carbs and fiber, and vegetables of different colors provide a rainbow of vitamins and minerals.
Stay Hydrated. Water is an important nutrient! Drink small amounts throughout the day.
Eat Whole Foods. These can be found in the produce, meat and dairy sections of the grocery store. Keep processed, packaged foods to a minimum to avoid excess fat, sugar, sodium and preservatives.
Don’t Forget Fiber. Fruits, vegetables and whole grains are the best natural sources.
Think Dietary Diversity. Check out the USDA’s MyPlate program at choosemyplate.gov. It explains how much of different foods your body needs.
There is plenty of evidence that social activity supports brain health in seniors. According to the National Institutes of Health, studies show that older adults who are involved in volunteering, hobbies and active social gatherings say they feel happier and healthier than those who don’t. These activities can help the brain establish ‘cognitive reserve,’ a buildup of knowledge and experience that allows it to be more resilient and compensate for age-related changes. A number of organizations like the Jewish Community Center, Area Agency on Aging and AARP can help seniors find opportunities to stay active and engaged.
■ About one-third of U.S. adults over age 45 report feeling lonely, and that figure is rising.
■ People who are lonely and socially isolated are more likely to have physical health problems.
■ Older adults who volunteer, participate in clubs, travel and attend religious services are less likely to feel lonely.
■ The health risks of prolonged social isolation are equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
“The aging of skin is both intrinsic (based on genetics) and extrinsic (affected by environmental factors like sun and pollution),” says Dr. Caroline Mann, a Washington University dermatologist. “Your skin loses moisture and elasticity over time, so it’s important to do things to protect it. In the past, people used tanning beds and sunbathed all day without sunscreen.” Results of ultraviolet exposure include wrinkles, discoloration, texture changes and even skin cancer, according to Mann. “Sun damage actually causes cells to mutate, leading to skin cancer,” she notes. “The three different types are named for the types of cells and the skin layer affected.
prevent and treat
Yearly skin checks with your doctor are a good defensive strategy against skin cancer, Mann says, especially if you are over 40, have a family history of it and/or skipped sun protection when you were younger. “We recommend applying a good lotion, cream or gel with at least 30 SPF every day, even if you’re not planning to be outdoors,” she says. “If you are, it’s important to remember that sunlight is most intense between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.; still, exposure can happen anytime. UV radiation is coming through the windows as you’re driving, and it’s there even when the sky looks cloudy.”
According to Mann, it’s important to apply sunscreen not just on commonly exposed areas like the face and arms, but also on your chest, neck and legs. She says there are some dietary supplements—B vitamins and Heliocare, an antioxidant formula—that may help prevent damage to skin cells. A simple moisturizer like Cetaphil, CeraVe or Neutrogena is a good idea as well. Mann adds that there are ways for older adults to address some effects of past skin indiscretions, including retinol-based creams and treatments using ablative laser energy, intense pulsed light and other technologies. These methods can help smooth the skin and reduce the appearance of wrinkles and discoloration.
what happens to skin as you age?
Thinning: Skin doesn’t look or feel as smooth or plump as it used to. Veins and bones become more visible, especially in the hands and feet.
Prolonged Healing: Bruises and cuts may happen more easily and take longer to resolve. Some medications may make bruising worse.
Texture Changes: Sun damage and other exposure can contribute to wrinkles, dryness and even cancerous growths. Liver spots and skin tags may appear.
the 3 types of skin cancer
Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma are slow-growing cancers that rarely spread to other parts of the body. They can appear anywhere on the skin but usually are found in areas most exposed to the sun—head, face, neck, hands and arms. Melanoma is a rarer, more dangerous form that can spread to other tissues.
what is your skin saying?
Check moles, birthmarks and bumps for the ABCDEs of skin cancer:
Asymmetry (one half of the growth looks different from the other)
Borders that are irregular
Diameter greater than the size of a pencil eraser
Evolving characteristics like size, shape, itching, tenderness or bleeding
If you see any of these signs, consult your doctor for a screening.
Source: National Institutes of Health