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Building Blocks for Living Well and Aging Well

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Question: I am part of a discussion group of about 12 women. We all are in our 60s and early 70s.  Each month we select a topic to discuss. Our next topic is “How to Stay Young Forever.”  Can you give us some pointers to get us started?    

Answer: You’ve identified a question that is in the hearts of many, one that suggests that we can avoid aging.

The largest organization that has placed aging on the enemy list is The Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine, a not-for-profit medical society.  Established in 1992 by Dr. Ronald Katz, it has a membership of 22,000, consisting of physicians, health practitioners, scientists and government officials representing over 100 nations.  The Academy defines anti-aging as a clinical specialty that not only stops aging, but reverses it.

Not everyone agrees.  Researchers S. Jan Olshansky, Leonard Hayflick and Bruce A. Carnes state in a frequently quoted 2002 Scientific American article, “No current marketed intervention – none – has yet proved to slow, stop or reverse human aging,” It’s a statement endorsed by 51 internationally recognized investigators.

The two warring factions debate one another, point by point on subjects such as hormones, organ replacements and lifestyles.  Rather than arguing whether aging can be stopped or reversed, let’s discuss eight building blocks for a good old age, all supported by research.

The community: The cultural norms of a community can encourage or discourage healthy choices of its residents.  Much has been learned from The Vitality Project in Alberta Lea, Minn., based on the work of Dan Buettner, author of “The Blue Zones” (National Geographic Society, 2008). By engaging stakeholders and increasing opportunities for exercise, nutrition, social relationships and volunteering, participants in the Vitality Project gained an average of 3.1 years in life expectancy, lost an average of 2 pounds and had less depression, while health-care costs of city employees  decreased by 49 percent.

(Note: Through the Beach Cities Health District‘s Vitality Project,  Hermosa Beach, Redondo Beach  and Manhattan Beach make up the new Vitality Zone and are being transformed into a community where healthy choices are made easy.)

Physical activity: In addition to helping to prevent heart disease, obesity and a number of other conditions, physical activity has been linked to maintaining the length of telomeres.  A telomere is the tip of a chromosome that influences the number of times a cell can divide. Shortened telomeres have been associated with shortening the life span.

Mental activity: As part of normal aging we tend to lose neurons, which are nerve cells in our brain.  Mental activity, socializing, eating a healthy diet and being physically active have positive effects on cognitive functioning.  The best news is that leaning- learning anything new-can stimulate new neural pathways.

Personality: Personality traits can affect how we cope with stress.  Centenarians seem to demonstrate the point.  They share common characteristics such as a positive attitude, extroversion, being trusting and being low on neuroticism.  They also have a sense of humor and often are charismatic.   People like to be with them. There’s a message here.  If you are miserable in your older age – you may be alone.

Attitude:
Positive attitudes help people cope with critical events.  A combination of attitude and life satisfaction was found to be a strong predictor of survival and higher quality of life in older age.

Relationships: They are important.  Isolation and loneliness tend to create a response in the body similar to stress responses that affect the immune system.  And women respond to stress differently than men.  When women gather together, the hormone oxytocin is released, producing a calming effect.

Nutrition: Nutrition plays a role in disease prevention.  However, there is little research that relates diet to living to be 100, except for calorie restriction.  In a study, restricting calories of fruit flies and rodents increased their life span.

Purpose: Having a sense of purpose was significant for participants in a study by the MetLife Mature Market Institute.  Among those ages 45 to 74, 85 percent reported that having a sense of purpose was part of their good life.

Thank you for your important question.  Hopefully, these building blocks can lead to a rich group discussion about ways to be the best you can be – so that each member of your group can enjoy every bit of life.  Some may translate that into being young, but not all.

Copyright 2011 Helen Dennis. All rights reserved.

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