Resist the idea that aging is a disease
At a cocktail party a few years ago, I was chatting about the economy with a woman maybe 10 years younger who said, “Drugs for baby boomers; that’s my investment strategy.”
She’s probably doing well. For 2007-2010, 49.4 percent of Americans ages 49-64 reported taking one to four prescription drugs and 16.8 percent took five or more.
While prescription drugs can be helpful, even lifesaving, their dramatic increase in use among aging baby boomers is largely due to marketing that is shaping an unhealthy cultural tendency to view aging itself as a medical condition.
I challenge my fellow boomers to join me in resisting that view. This is not about denial: We’re all going to die, most of us from a final disease that will result in hospitalization, drugs and other interventions before it’s all over. It is about preventing a long, slow descent to that point and doing all we can to truly live as long as we’re alive.
Research is proving that many of the chronic health problems we ascribe to aging per se are really the consequences of practicing bad habits for a long time. These include obvious unhealthy practices like smoking (anything) and living for dessert. But it also includes habits like eating the standard American diet (SAD) and simply sitting for many hours a day, like most of us do at our jobs, regardless of how much we work out.
We can look at that information as depressing: “Everything I do is bad for me — even the stuff that isn’t fun — so why bother?” But Successful Agers view it differently because it means we have more control over our physical and mental futures than we used to believe.
It’s also time to retire the joke that the best way to prevent chronic diseases associated with increasing age is to pick your parents well. Research is proving that we can exercise significant control over the expression of our genes. What we get from our parents may wire the system, but for many genetic risk factors — and protective factors — our lifestyle choices flip the switch.
Cardiovascular disease is one condition associated with aging that a healthy diet and exercise can prevent or mitigate and, in some cases, reverse. Drs. Dean Ornish and Caldwell Esselstyn have shown that a whole foods, plant-based diet can do more than drugs and invasive medical procedures to reduce the risk of a coronary event. Angiograms of trial subjects who have adopted their lifestyle advice show reductions in atherosclerosis.
Another fear in aging is general frailty, often characterized by osteoporosis and its resulting fractures. Dr. Miriam Nelson’s pioneering research in the 1990s showed that strength training can prevent and reverse this potentially disabling disease. Her team provided clinical evidence of exercise-induced increases in bone density, even among the “frail elderly.”
Recent discoveries in brain research are among the most exciting contributions to successful aging. Healthy diet and exercise habits protect our brains as well as our bodies. For example, the insulin resistance that characterizes type 2 diabetes increases our risk of dementia. One connection is that too much insulin in the brain can increase beta-amyloid plaques, a marker of Alzheimer’s Disease, which some researchers refer to as “type 3 diabetes.”
Scientists have known for decades that aerobic exercise helps improve oxygen delivery and capillary growth in the brain, but that is only part of the story. Physical activity helps create new cells in the hippocampus, the brain’s main memory center, and increases the production of BDNF, a chemical essential in higher thought processes.
We now know that neuroplasticity, the ability of our brains to repair and rewire themselves, does not end with childhood. Exercises based on neuroscientific principles (see lumosity.com and brainhq.com) can help us build new neural connections, but so can physical activity that challenges our sensory systems and balance.
Colorado’s population is younger than that of most states, but I can’t think of a better place to age successfully. We have a fitness culture and I’m regularly inspired by people in their 70s and 80s who are out there hiking, biking and cross-country skiing. But I’m equally inspired by the creativity and sense of community that define where we live.
Future columns will offer more how-to details, profiles of Successful Agers, my favorite references and maybe a little humor. Whether you’ve been doing everything right most of your life or need some serious help to adopt healthy habits, I hope you’ll join me in making 60 the new 40.
Angelyn Frankenberg is a wellness coach and writer living in Carbondale. She has a master’s in physical education and an undergraduate degree in music.
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