In the first part of the 20th century, the average life expectancy was only 45 years. Today the average life expectancy has increased to 78.6 years. Our sense of control over our lives is the key in determining whether we just add years to our life or we add life to those years.
Eat for the long run
Physical activity and a nutritious diet are the cornerstones of healthy aging. In recent years, researchers have discovered that we have unique nutritional requirement as we get older. With age, the need for calories goes down but the need for nutrients goes up. We need to concentrate on having adequate fluids, fiber, healthy fats, calcium, and adequate protein. Eating a high-saturated-fat, high-salt, high-calorie diet has a range of long-term unhealthy consequences from obesity to heart disease and cancer. People who enjoy more nutritious diets increase the quality, as well as the quantity, of their older years.
Below is a list of 10 healthy foods. Of course, there are many other plant-based foods that we could call healthy foods, but these are some of the stars. Eating these healthy foods can be satisfying and help us avoid eating unhealthy foods loaded with sugar and salt.
- Sweet potatoes and other yellow, orange, and red vegetables
- Legumes: beans, split peas, lentils
- Broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables
- Whole grains
- Blueberries and other berries
- Garlic and onions
- Walnuts and other nuts and seeds
- Salmon and other fatty fish
- Oranges and other citrus fruits
- Spinach and other green, leafy vegetables.
Many older Americans do not get enough vitamin B6, B12, and folic acid. Low levels of these vitamins raise homocysteine levels. Some studies have shown that elevated homocysteine levels increase your risk for cardiovascular disease. It’s also been shown that people with very low levels of these vitamins may experience mental deficiencies such as memory loss and disorientation.
Saturated fats are found in foods from animal products, such as whole- or low-fat dairy products and red meats. Concentrate on keeping your fat from saturated products as low as possible. Be wary of products containing trans-fatty acids, found in fried fast foods and packaged products, such as baked goods and margarine. It’s equally important to include some “good” fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) found in nuts, seeds, avocados, fatty fish like salmon or tuna, and plant oils like olive and canola.
Calcium is an important mineral that most Americans, especially older adults, do not get enough of. Calcium, along with weight-bearing exercise, helps keep your bones strong. Try to get your calcium from food. If you have trouble getting enough calcium, which is primarily found in dairy products, almonds, some greens, and calcium-fortified foods, consult with your physician about taking a calcium supplement. Vitamin D, another vitamin that many older adults need more of, will help you absorb calcium and will help you reduce your risk for certain diseases.
Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are the “Stars” of nutrition that will keep your energy up and your weight down. These foods provide fiber, which many studies report protects against some cancers and heart disease. Emphasize a plant-based diet—these food choices have been proven to be easy to follow, can help with short- and long-term weight loss, are low in environmental impact, and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, some cancers, cognitive decline, and diabetes.
Stay mentally alert
If you ask men and women what their primary goal is when they get older, almost without fail, their answer is, “I want to remain mentally alert.” Physical, social, or economic power is pretty useless without intact mental faculties.
One of the most common myths about aging is that age inevitably brings a rapid loss of brain power. This fear of age-related loss is often unnecessarily exaggerated. In fact, probably the worst aspect of memory loss is the fear of it. We forget a name or where we put the car keys and we immediately think, “Is this an early sign of dementia? Am I getting Alzheimer’s?” Probably not. Current estimates are that only 10 percent of all elderly people ages 65 and over will get Alzheimer’s.
Thanks to advances in brain imaging, scientists have learned that brain loss with aging is not as severe as was once thought. Data from men and women who continue to flourish in their 80s and 90s show that in a healthy brain, any loss of brain cells is relatively modest and is pretty much restricted to specific areas, leaving the other areas functioning at an optimum level. There are certainly some changes that do occur, but like other characteristics of aging, much of the brain power decline is due to disuse rather than aging.
Memory is either short-term or long-term. Short-term memory is used for remembering something immediately after you’ve heard it (such as a name or phone number). This information is quickly forgotten unless you rehearse it so it can go into your long-term memory bank.
It is believed that there are three components to memory: registering, retraining, and retrieval. Registering involves focusing intently and coding the experience, name, place, and time into our short-term memory bank. Retraining requires rehearsal to secure the experience into our long-term memory banks. Retrieval involves recall and recognition so we can use that information.
Researchers report that what we think of as memories are ultimately patterns of connections between nerve cells. There are two things that help make that connection happen besides simply rehearsing: (1) if the event has emotional significance and (2) if it relates to something you already know.
Try to make these two connections when trying to remember names, events, or people.
Older people generally have different conditions required for optimal mental performance. Age seems to affect the part of memory that enables you to do more than one thing at a time. Studies show that older people are more distractible, less able to filter out outside stimuli, and less able to juggle two or more tasks that can be easily managed at a younger age. Practically, this means that for optimal working conditions, be aware what’s going on around you and make an attempt to minimize any distractions.
As we get older, absorbing complex new information may take more time, but our vocabulary and accumulated wisdom do not fade away.
Studies show that when the brain is stimulated, tiny branches of brain cells sprout new branches called dendrites. It might surprise you to know that some parts of memory loss among healthy older people are actually reversible with training.
A younger person can recall more words on a list than an older person can. But with training, an older person can triple their word recall. Not only do they do better than their pre-training scores, but they also do better than younger people without training. Lifelong learning may be the greatest antidote to mental decline.
Scientists from UCLA’s Brain Research Institute say the important thing is to be actively involved in areas unfamiliar to you. Anything that is intellectually challenging can serve as a kind of stimulus to growing dendrites and making connections.
The UCLA scientists suggest these ways to make and strengthen brain connections:
Play challenging games like Scrabble, bridge, chess, and crossword puzzles. People who do jigsaw puzzles show good spatial ability, which can be helpful when following directions.
Try a musical instrument and your brain will have a whole new group of muscle-control problems to solve. Then the brain has to correlate notes on a paper with the fingers to create tones.
Fix something. Learn to repair things that you’ve never repaired before. The actual repair is not the important thing; it’s the challenge of doing something new.
Try the arts. If your verbal skills are good, buy a set of watercolors and take a course. If your mechanical skills are good, take a writing class.
Or you could use your feet—exercise. Or you could surround yourself with provocative people. Or you could seek complex problems to solve.
Everything we’re talking about in this article will help you to remain mentally active and alert as you get older. And remember, it’s never too late.
Daniel J. Jachimiak, BA, is a life coach and life skills trainer working with teens, adults, and seniors in
the Toledo area. Dan can be reached
2036. ~You can have a better life~