Older Athletes Have a Strikingly Young Fitness Age – The New York Times

Older Athletes Have a Strikingly Young Fitness Age – The New York Times.

For me this is an exiting and interesting story.  As I have said in earlier posts, exercise is important.  This just reinforces the notion that exercise, even if started later in life, does help health.  I won’t wax poetic about how exercise is a “veritable fountain of youth” as I try to avoid being overly dramatic with health care claims.

Surviving Old Age (AKA: Aging Well, part two)

One of my first posts in this blog was titled “Aging Well”. In that post I wrote mostly about staying healthy and how to (hopefully) age well and arrive at being an older adult being relatively healthy. In this post I’m  going to talk about things to think about or do once you get there  – and perhaps people to think about family members that are older. For the purposes of this post, the definition of older is 65 and above, despite the line that “65 is the new 40”.

Initially I would like to summarize a bit of what I said in the first post:

1) Be active! Both socially and physically (more on this later).
2) Control as best you can the health problems you do have.
3) Keep mentally active as well. Whether it’s taking adult education classes, daily crossword puzzles or playing cards with people often, do it!
4) Use a healthy eating pattern. For a fuller summary, go here to see the original post: aging well

For he remainder of this post I’ll talk about other things worth doing.

Firstly, if you haven’t already, sign a health care proxy form, and give copies to your primary care physician as well as a friend/relative. You may never need to use it but it is important to have if you develop a health issue that prevents you from making decisions about health care.  I have seen too many people admitted to the hospital with dementia that is so advanced that they were unable to make competent decisions for themselves in any capacity and did not have any family or friends who could speak on their behalf (legally I think family is given precedence over friends unless noted in the health care proxy or other similar legal document). There is a form called “five wishes” that not only, once filled out and properly signed, acts as a health care proxy but also gives your health care proxy and physicians more knowledge about your wishes regarding your wishes/goals/etc should you not be able to speak for yourself. Find the link here : aging with dignity – five wishes 

Secondly, take a good look at your finances. Long term care is expensive and if you have a lot of assets, such as owning your own home, medicare/medicaid might not pay for living in a nursing home should that be what you need. Long term care at home might also be out of your reach. Hence it is important to talk to a financial planner or lawyer with experience in elder affairs or elder law respectively. If you have a disorder like dementia , it’s even more important to do this because you’re more than likely to need someone to make decisions for you at some point.

Elder abuse is also a concern, especially if there are cognitive or  severe mental health issues. This also makes it important to have someone to talk to or know where to go (for more information, go here: National Center on Elder Abuse ).

Thirdly, as I mention above and in my earlier post, be socially active. This is potentially helpful in a number of ways. one is that people are social animals. There are likely multiple benefits to mental and cognitive health by having a lot of social interaction. Also, being part of a community means there are people who could be called upon to help with food shopping, transportation to and from doctors offices (among other things), and so forth if you happen to be unable to do these things yourself – even temporarily such as due to an illness.

Motion is Medicine

If there was a medication that you could take that would help reduce weight, reduce the chances of developing disorders such as diabetes, dementia, and  osteoporosis, I think most people would take it. If the side effects of this medication (even in the absence of dementia, depression, fatigue, etc) were a better mood, a better ability to concentrate, less fatigue, even more people would probably clamor to take it.

There is such a medication: exercise. Some medical societies, such as the American College of Sports Medicine state that “exercise is medicine”. The current recommendations for the minimum amount of exercise is 150 minutes a week of moderate exercise. This comes out to 20 minutes 7 days a week or 30 minutes 5 days a week. Walking is an example of moderate exercise often used to give people an idea of what the effort level of moderate exercise is. One should be walking slowly enough that one could talk and not be out of breath, but fast enough that one couldn’t sing. When my patients state they can’t find the time to do 20 minutes a day, I encourage them to find 10 minute periods through the day to walk. Obviously for some forms of exercise (swimming, playing a game of basketball, etc), this would be impractical to do.

Some research indicates that exercise has an anti-inflammatory effect in the body. Other research seems to indicate increased sensitivity to insulin, increases in various other hormones (or decreases in others), it is likely the mechanism for the beneficial effect of exercise is due to more than one pathway. That is to say that rather than, say deceased inflammation is the cause for improved mood or a decreased risk of dementia, it is likely that improved insulin sensitivity, anti inflammatory effects, etc all act in concert to improve health in people who exercise regularly. When talking with my own patients I tend  to avoid talking about why it works  and prefer to talk about the kinds of exercising they could/should be doing.

Though I encourage people to do weight bearing exercises such as walking, jogging, basketball, etc, I also realize that there needs to be some accommodation. For someone who’s morbidly obese or has severe arthritis that limits, at least initially, how much they can walk I might suggest stationary bicycles, water aerobics or something like tai chi (which is a weight bearing exercise, but because one isn’t jumping around as much as with things like basketball) the stress on joints is lower. I also realize that if someone doesn’t like a particular form of exercise, that person’s less likely to do that than a form of exercise they enjoy doing. Prescribing exercise isn’t a “one size fits all” solution to promoting health.

For people who’ve read many of my earlier posts, have probably noticed that I’ve focused less on medication and more on lifestyle issues such as diet. This post is no different. Many of the most common diseases I see in the office are most commonly caused by, for lack of a better word, poor lifestyle choices.By this I mean having a poor (read “western”) diet and not exercising enough. Once one has hypertension, type two diabetes, obesity, etc, lifestyle changes might not be enough to totally reverse  or cure a particular problem in a specific patient. However even if one needs an antihypertensive, diet and exercise don’t become less important.

Aging Well

I think that when most people think of aging well, they think of what adults do to become healthy older people. Another line of thinking, which I happen to like, is that successful aging starts  in childhood (may be even in utero) as many things that occur in childhood can affect health as adults. Think of people whose mothers had rubella while pregnant with them. For those of us old enough to have gotten chicken pox rather than the vaccine, we’re at risk for shingles as adults. Severe iodine deficiency can lead to hypothyroidism and developmental delay (a more politically correct term for mental retardation). Growing up bilingual seems to protect against developing dementia, as well as having other beneficial effects on growing brains. The list goes on.

Though many people associate older age with disability and frailty, it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. One thing I was taught throughout my training is that the older old (people in their 80’s and 90’s) are healthier than those in their 60s. At first this might sound counter intuitive. However, if one considers that those who are sickest die sooner, then it makes sense. The person whose only health issue is well controlled diabetes or well controlled hypertension is much more likely to reach his or her 80s than one who is overweight, diabetic with a glyco-hemoglobin of, for example, 9.5%, high cholesterol and has poorly controlled hypertension.

However, as I am assuming most if not all people reading this are adults, and as a time machine that would let people go back and vaccinate themselves against chicken pox, or somehow convince their parents to make them grow up bilingually (unless they did already)does not exist, I will limit myself to what an adult can do to age successfully. Nothing is guaranteed to prevent illness or frailty but what I suggest below does seem to help protect from or delay such things.

1. Stay Active. Our ancestors did not sit in cubicles all day earning enough money to buy food. They had to do any one of the following to get food: hunt animals, gather food, tend/harvest crops in the field or herd cattle/sheep etc. Only in the past few millennia was it possible for farmers to support a population where everyone didn’t need to be involved with procuring food/housing/etc. Not that getting food was a 24/7 job, but took more physical effort than driving to a supermarket. Even then people walked or rode horses to get places on land. Now it seems like to go more than 50 feet people drive their cars. Our bodies were made to be used. We should all be taking at least 10,000 steps a day (this comes out to walking approximately 5 miles/day).

2) Avoid bad behaviors. By this I mean, don’t do things that can shorten your life. Avoid smoking (not only is it bad for your lungs and increased your risk of lung cancer and of COPD, it raises your risk of bladder cancer, kidney cancer, esophageal cancer, raises your blood pressure and risk of heart disease). Drink in moderation (no more than 1 drink/day). Avoid any street drugs and sharing needles.  If you are sexually active and not in a monogamous relationship, use condoms. Having a discussion about your partners(‘) HIV status isn’t a bad idea either.

Don’t forget to embrace good behaviors. By this I mean not just those things I mention above and below, but also keeping any chronic diseases you have under control as best you can.

3) Be part of a community. Whether it’s a church (or synagogue or mosque), club for a hobby you enjoy, volunteering or any other activity that regularly gets you out with people, do something where you interact with people. The more positively the activity affects your community, the better. Humans are a social species. It helps keep your mind active if you remain part of a community.

4) Watch your diet. Eat healthy. What constitutes a healthy diet could (and likely will) take up a whole other blog post or two. Eat more vegetables. Cut back on meat – processed and otherwise. Eat more fish. Don’t drink to excess.

5) Be curious and educate yourself throughout your lifetime. Whether it’s people with more neural connections that end up in college and graduate school (and that is what makes people with college degrees less likely to develop dementia) or whether the education helps the neural connections stay healthy isn’t known. It could also be that the more educated someone is the more likely it is they will maintain doing healthy behaviors. In any case,  your brain is like a muscle, use it or loose it. If you have the time and inclination, learn another language. Take up a new hobby. Take a course in something you don’t know anything about. Take a refresher course in Italian (or spanish, or multivariable calculus, whatever floats your boat). If it’s another language, try and get good enough you can go to a foreign country where that is the official language and use that without having to speak English.

6) I realize not everyone has as much money as Warren Buffet or Donald Trump, but watch your financial health as best you can. If you retire, you don’t want to have to choose between a co-pay for medication or rent +/- food. If you can afford it, consider getting long term care insurance. If you need long term care, it can mean the difference between being at home with help or needed to go into a nursing home (policies are different, some might pay for nursing home stays as well).

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