I just returned from a high school reunion and I will say it has been more than 40 years since I have seen most of these people. As with the general population, there were people who gained weight, grew beards, went bald, wear glasses and developed chronic illnesses over the years including diabetes. Being a nurse/diabetes educator, I am always interested in how people age both physically and mentally. Of course, we all caught up about our careers, spouses, significant others as well as children and grandchildren. I also wanted to learn about how everyone was taking care of themselves and dealing with the aging process.
Most of us joked about the gray hair and extra pounds, but there were those who stood out as “aging gracefully.” It had nothing to do with their hair color but it did include their lifestyle choices and attitude. I want to share some of the practices that these 60 year olds are doing to keep as healthy as possible. Many of them have chronic illnesses which they have learned to live with and succeeded in aging well.
- Continue to learn – Many people were taking courses at their local colleges and high schools and continue to challenge their brains. According to a study in the journal of Health Affairs, “having more education lengthens your life span.” Learning allows you to become better informed, which can lead to healthier lifestyle practices. Challenging your brain keeps you sharp and helps your memory stay focused. Trying to learn a new language or a musical instrument is a great way to keep sharp as we age. Reading, doing puzzles, or journaling is also rewarding with benefits to your brain power and memory skills.
- Drink in moderation – If you do not drink alcohol, do not start, but if you do drink and you are permitted by your health care professional, drinking can thin the blood and reduce risk of blood clots. The research points to an improvement to overall heart health with moderate drinking. There are recent studies that confirm alcohol does increase your risk of cancer, so you must weigh your own risk and benefit profile. The bottom line is, if you drink, do it in moderation since too much alcohol can weaken the immune system, add unwanted weight, and mess with your blood sugars. Stick to one alcoholic beverage a day if you are a woman or man over 65. The literature recommends no more than 2 drinks a day for a man under 65. When you have diabetes remember to stay away from mixers including fruit juice, regular soda or sweet mixed drinks including Rum Runners, Pina Coladas, or alcohol punches.
- Lose a little weight – One of my friends had put on 25 pounds in the last year and developed diabetes type 2. She had been traveling for work, making poor food choices and doing little exercise. As stated in previous articles, just losing 5-10% of your overall weight can help your diabetes type 2 dramatically. The journal “Obesity” had an article stating that “being obese increases your risk of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes and could shave off 12 years of your life.” As we age, it is not recommended to be too thin either. Being too thin can increase your chance of osteoporosis and weaken your immune system. Older people do better during a hospitalization when they have a bit of extra weight on them. If possible try to stay in the acceptable BMI range (18-24% of body fat) for best health.
- Stress reduction – Stress and tension shortens our telomeres, which protects the ends of our chromosomes; this can reduce our life expectancy. Remember that stress will also raise blood sugars by increasing hormones in our blood stream. Many of my friends were practicing yoga, Tai Chi and meditating in the evenings to decrease stress. Even listening to your favorite music can help decrease your stress. We all have stress; learning how to deal with it is the most important part of everyone’s life. Even friends who are retired had stress, so coping skills are crucial.
- Volunteer – Research from the University of Michigan suggests “volunteering is linked to a lower risk of death.” The information says that simply helping a neighbor or friend on occasion, or committing to a weekly volunteer position offers benefits to your blood pressure and overall state of well being. It helps you focus on more than just yourself and makes you realize your good fortune. We did not have community service hours back then, but most schools now require volunteer hours for graduation.
- Skip or lower fatty / salty meat choices – We all laughed about how many mini hot dogs and bologna sandwiches we ate as kids. Now we know that processed meats including hot dogs, bologna, pastrami, corn beef, bacon, sausage and cold cuts should be eliminated or reduced due to the chemicals and additives – along with fat and sodium content. These meat products are known to increase your risk of colon cancer, diabetes, weight and heart disease.
- Exercise – It was so simple then and we all made time to ride our bikes on the boardwalk. There is less time when you are older and have so many responsibilities, but the people who are the healthiest have made time over the years to have a routine exercise program. It should be done on multiple days and include weight training for muscle mass as well as aerobics for heart and diabetes health. Some of them are tri-athletes or marathon runners, but many simply make time for an evening walk, which is proven to reduce blood sugars especially after dinner.
- No smoking. Wear sun screen with SPF 30 – Back in the sixties and seventies we did not know how damaging cigarettes were, but we certainly know now. Smoking increases your blood pressure, risk of cancer, heart rate, risk of peripheral vascular disease and skin wrinkles. According to research “Smoking can take off 15 years of your life. When you stop you can reverse the process over time.” Sunscreen really does help reduce brown or sun spots, reduces wrinkles and reduces your risk of the common skin cancers including basal cell cancer.
- Get your sleep – Study after study shows that lack of quality sleep adds to your risk of metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance, obesity, diabetes, inflammation, heart disease and lowers immunity. Sleeping between 7-8 hours seems to be the magic number. Sleeping more than 9 hours or less than 6½ could lead to health issues and early aging. There are many ways to improve your sleep naturally, including a warm bath, keeping your room cool and dark, and having a bedtime snack of a protein and carbohydrate – especially if you have diabetes.
- Understand your family history and health risks – Both my parents had diabetes, hypertension and heart disease, so knowing that has helped me to stay focused on preventative measures. If I do eventually get type 2 diabetes I know that I can continue to benefit from the lifestyle I have already chosen. Also, if you are lucky enough to have relatives living into their 90’s, you probably have better genetics than most and that is great to know. You can’t change your genes, but being prepared certainly helps. Lifestyle really makes a difference in spite of your genes, according to the Diabetes trials.
- Choose a well regarded eating plan – The Mediterranean diet has gotten a lot of positive attention lately. Stated in the Annuals of Internal Medicine 2013, “Women who followed a Mediterranean style diet were 40% more likely to live past age 70 without developing chronic illnesses as compared to less healthy diets.” This eating plan includes ample fruits, vegetables, fish and small amounts of nuts, whole grains, alcohol and low fat dairy. Consult with your health care provider or dietitian to choose your best eating program.
- Be social and do not isolate yourself – Having friends adds value to your physical and mental well being. Research in Australia states that “people with the most buddies live 22% longer than those with the smallest circle of friends.” Using social media is fine, but real life interaction is the best. A study done at Oxford found that “being married or in a committed relationship makes you less likely to die from heart disease.” It could be that the other person looks out for you, or that you are willing to take better care of yourself to please your partner.
Here are just a few tips to help you live a fuller and healthier life. There are many aspects of aging that we can’t change, but these simple things may improve your life as you get older. Age gracefully!
NOTE: Consult your Doctor first to make sure my recommendations fit your special health needs.