Posts Tagged ‘Healthy Aging’

Eat Less, Live Longer?

April 2nd, 2014 at 10:58 am by timigustafson

Finding ways to extend the human lifespan by observing certain diet and lifestyle regimens has been a centuries-old quest. Indeed, our average life expectancy has dramatically increased over time, at least in the wealthier parts of the world, due to improvements in hygiene, health care, and food supply. Yet science has still not been able to provide definite answers to what we can do to live longer.

Studies on longevity in connection with diet and lifestyle have been undertaken as early as the 16th century, most notably by one Luigi Cornaro, a Venetian who was known for his hard partying until his health failed him before he reached 50. In his autobiographical book, “Discourses on a Sober and Temperate Life,” which is still in print today, he claims that a radical change from unrestricted indulgence to Spartan simplicity not only restored his health but also added many more years to his life. He died at 98 – an exceptionally old age at his time.

A more systematic approach to studying the effects of diet on longevity was taken in the 1930s when scientists noticed that lab mice put on a calorie-restricted diet lived up to 40 percent longer than their abundantly fed counterparts. But still nobody knew the exact causes of the dramatic lifespan increases, let alone whether the findings were applicable to humans.

Two relatively recent studies tested independently from each other the impact of calorie restriction on health and mortality in rhesus monkeys. Both came up with opposite results.

In 2009, a study report issued by researchers from the University of Wisconsin claimed that a calorie-restricted diet regimen did actually favor longevity in the monkeys. But three years later, scientists at the National Institute of Aging laboratory in Baltimore who conducted similar studies found no evidence that providing their monkeys with less food made any difference in terms of lifespan, as they documented in their own report.

A subsequent dispute between the two research teams over their differing study results continues today.

Regardless of what animal tests are (or are not) able to show, it remains unclear how the outcomes can be made useful for humans.

To understand the effects of calorie restriction, one has to be careful to distinguish between undernutrition, in which all the essential nutrients the body needs to function properly and stay healthy are provided – albeit by using fewer calories, and malnutrition, where at least some nutrients are missing, potentially resulting in harmful deficiencies over time. The latter is certainly not recommended and is not likely to have any health benefits, including for longevity.

In the light of what we know about the health effects of diet to date, we can say with reasonable certainty that moderate calorie restriction in support of weight control is healthy and in any case preferable to excessive weight gain, one of the largest health threats looming today. To what extent that implicates life expectancy remains to be seen. More important to realize, however, is the fact that health-promoting diet and lifestyle choices contribute to the quality of life at any age and become even more significant as we grow older.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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Those Pesky Wrinkles, Inevitable or Cause for Concern?

March 14th, 2014 at 5:21 pm by timigustafson

The skin is the body’s largest organ, and because it is the most visible, it usually gets the most attention. Like every other part of us, our skin changes as we grow older, but nothing shows the signs of aging as much, perhaps with the exception of graying hair.

In fact, we routinely judge not only a person’s age but also general state of health and vitality by the appearance of his or her skin.

“The first sign of wrinkles strikes terror into the hearts of many people,” says Dr. Leonard Hayflick, professor of anatomy at the University of California, San Francisco, and author of “How and Why We Age” (Ballantine Books, 1994). This, he says, is not because skin wrinkles are a disease – “no one dies of old skin” – but rather because of society’s obsession with youth and devaluation of old age.

Besides wrinkling, aging skin is associated with discoloring, thinning, dryness, and lessening ability to heal from wounds. But these are not inevitable characteristics, according to Dr. Hayflick.

“Most skin lesions afflicting the elderly are preventable,” he says. “With few exceptions, they are not the result of normal aging but represent an accumulation of environmental insults.”

For example, exposure to sunlight is considered a major cause of skin damage (photoaging), especially for fair-skinned people. But so are air pollution and smoking.

Besides environmental assaults, some scientists believe that skin wrinkles may also be caused by an age-related loss of a protein called “collagen” and/or an overgrowth of another protein known as “elastin,” which seems to take place in both sun-damaged and aging skin.

Other possible causes are habitual facial expressions like frowning or laughter, or how someone sleeps at night, resulting in imprints and creases.

But there can be hidden, more serious health issues at play as well. Studies have shown that elevated blood sugar, high blood pressure, and heart disease can leave their mark on the body’s surface. For instance, velvety brownish patches can be a sign of diabetes; dull, dry skin can come from nutritional deficiencies, including lack of certain vitamins or omega-3 fatty acids.

Fortunately, there are a number of steps one can take to mitigate skin degeneration. In addition to avoiding excessive exposure to sun light (or UV rays in tanning studios), and applying sunscreen before going outside, experts recommend eating certain foods that are deemed especially helpful for preserving healthy skin.

Generally speaking, any balanced diet regimen is good for the skin, as it is for all organs. One of the most important nutrients for skin health is vitamin A, which is found in dairy products like yogurt and cheese. For obvious reasons, it is advisable to stick to low-fat versions and to keep serving sizes in check. Also, beta-carotene, richly present in carrots, sweet potatoes, yams, and dark, leafy greens, adds to the package.

Fruits and vegetables in general are always good choices, and for multiple reasons, among them their high content in antioxidants and phytochemicals. These are chemical compounds able to fight so-called “free radicals,” which are molecules known to attack cells and believed to contribute to aging. Especially berries seem to have high antioxidant capacities.

Essential fatty acids are considered skin-friendly nutrients as they can help protect cell membranes. They are found in numerous sources, including fish (especially salmon and herring), walnuts, flax seed, and canola oil. Most oils are beneficial for the skin, but be sure to use them sparingly because of their relatively high calorie content.

The mineral selenium seems to play a crucial role in the healing process of damaged skin. It is present in a variety of foods, including whole-wheat breads and cereals, turkey, tuna, and some nuts.

But nothing is more important for healthy skin than sufficient hydration. Water is the obvious choice. Green tea is also thought of as a beneficial beverage because of its anti-inflammatory properties (polyphenols).

Lastly, it deserves to be mentioned that too little exposure to the sun can cause problems of its own, specifically a deficiency in vitamin D. If your lifestyle keeps you indoors most of the time, or if you live in an area with few sunny days (as I do), you may want to consider taking a supplement – just to be safe.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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A Good Night’s Sleep Gets Harder to Come by with Age

February 19th, 2014 at 1:47 pm by timigustafson

In our busy lives, getting enough rest can be challenging at any age. But for older people it becomes even more difficult, perhaps not so much because of stress-related sleep deprivation but because of changing sleep patterns. As we age, we not only need less sleep, we also don’t sleep as deeply and wake up more often during the night.

While these changes are not always cause for concern, they can become problematic if they lead to persistent sleep disorders with potentially serious health effects.

As younger adults, we typically spend much of our sleep time in a state called “deep sleep.” Closer to the morning hours, we enter a different phase named “REM” (rapid eye movement), a lighter form of sleep where the eyes move rapidly behind closed lids. Usually, there are several back-and-forth switches between deep sleep and REM periods throughout the night, but the latter gradually dominate and let us eventually wake up.

Not so with older folks. Deep sleep phases become shorter and turn more often into lighter REM sleep and actual awakening, possibly three to four times per night.

It is this repeated awakening that can do long-term damage. Deep sleep is the most restorative phase when both body and mind can heal from their daily wear and tear. If it is interrupted or cut short too many times, these necessary healing processes are prevented from taking place. On the outside, you may just feel groggy and tired in the morning, but on the inside much of the repair work meant to keep you healthy remains undone.

There can be a number of causes for sleep disruption. Besides age-related changes of sleep patterns, you may be dealing with the effects of late-night consumption of food, alcohol or caffeine, interference from medications, chronic disease like high blood pressure and heart disease, sleep apnea, need for frequent urination, and others.

According to the National Institutes of Health, the health consequences from sleep-related disorders are far from benign. Studies have shown associations between disturbed or insufficient sleep and unhealthy weight gain and other diet-related ills. For older adults, the results can be even more dire. Researchers have found that frequent sleep disruption in the elderly is a leading cause for depression and other detrimental effects on mental health.

Regrettably, sleep disturbance, especially when it affects older patients, is not taken seriously enough by many healthcare providers. The fact is, it is not an inevitable part of aging.

Helpful steps to prevent sleep interruptions during the night are:

• Avoiding heavy meals, alcohol, and caffeine close to bedtime
• Avoiding large amounts of water and other liquids late at night
• Avoiding strenuous exercise and other physical activities shortly before sleep
• Avoiding stimulating or aggravating interactions (like problem solving, arguing, watching movies, listening to loud music, etc.)
• Practicing good sleep hygiene (like keeping bedrooms dark and at low temperature)
• Using relaxation practices (like meditating, yoga, massage, etc.)

Many people with sleep troubles are tempted to take sleeping pills or supplements containing melatonin and the likes, and that may indeed be part of the solution. But there can also be a risk of addiction. Be advised that most of these remedies have side effects and should not be taken without consulting a physician. For these reasons, most experts recommend not to take sleep medicines for extended periods of time.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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Being “Over the Hill” Can Have Its Upside, Too

February 15th, 2014 at 5:40 pm by timigustafson

Despite the fact that people live longer and are more active in their later years than ever before, aging is still associated with decline, loss, and debilitation. That’s nature’s way, like it or not. But does that mean older folks should despair over their impending fate? Perhaps, but few actually do, according to a series of studies on age and happiness. In fact, feelings of happiness, or at least contentment, seem to be most common among the maturing crowd.

That happiness can peak late in life is nothing new, but no systematic research was conducted before to explain why that is the case. A possibility may be that older people find it easier to derive pleasure from relatively ordinary experiences such as taking a walk, sharing a meal with loved ones, or pursuing a hobby. By contrast, younger generations are more likely to seek satisfaction from extraordinary, exciting experiences, e.g. at work or in sports. But these unique and rare moments are harder to come by and require greater efforts and also expenditures. That could be one reason why, on balance, the aging are better off in terms of finding their rewards.

Another explanation may be a little bit more complex. In his milestone publication, “A Theory of Human Motivation” (1943), the psychologist Abraham Maslow introduced his now classic theory of “Hierarchy of Needs,” where he distinguished between a number of human needs, reaching from basic survival to self-actualization when nearly all human potential can be realized.

To illustrate the hierarchical relationship between the different kinds of needs, Maslow famously used a graphic depicting the shape of a pyramid. More basic needs – like food, shelter, health, safety – support higher ones – like self-esteem, respect, creativity, etc. Higher needs cannot be met if there is significant deficiency among the more basic ones, e.g. confidence or self-esteem will not likely grow without a degree of material security.

Although he does not explicitly use the term, we can assume that Maslow would consider the quest for happiness as part of the higher needs, perhaps on par with self-actualization, a level that requires a lot of fulfillment in many other areas. It is easy to see that this can only be achieved with time – in other words, with age.

But what’s also important to see is that the hierarchical structure of our needs is not static but rather is made up of constantly changing priorities. What seems to matter most today, may be forgotten tomorrow. What once counted as must-have, eventually becomes an afterthought. The importance we lend to most things tends to have a short shelf life.

That doesn’t mean everything is relative and therefore meaningless, not even when we look back from long distance. In my own life, I continuously revisit my needs in multiple departments to see if they are sufficiently attended to. Whether it concerns my physical health, my emotional well-being, my work, my relationships to family and friends, they all matter equally, and if one is neglected for too long, I know that others will eventually suffer as well. But I have also enough experience to realize when to be patient, when to relax, when to set priorities, and when to find pleasure and comfort in simple things – like taking a walk.

That doesn’t mean I have no longer any ambitious goals to pursue or dreams to chase. But I also know how to take a break when the chase is over. And that has its rewards, too.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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Despite of the increasing prevalence of chronic diseases, a majority of older Americans find ways to manage life’s challenges and keep their independence, according to a study recently published in the American Journal of Public Health. Unlike most previous studies of this kind, this one tried to take a more nuanced approach to issues of age-related disability and dependence of assistance.

Age-related disability is commonly defined as a reduced capability of performing everyday activities like maintaining basic hygiene, getting oneself dressed, moving around without help, or other routines like shopping and cooking.

According to the study, which looked at 38 million older adults enrolled in Medicare, including residents of nursing homes, about 12 million (31 percent) were fully able to manage on their own without any assistance; 9 million (25 percent) successfully learned to cope with limitations by using devices like electric wheelchairs, walkers, canes, hearing aides, and by making other adjustments to their homes; about 2 million (6 percent) were unaware of or failed to acknowledge their diminishing independence; 7 million (18 percent) found it hard to keep functioning without support but tried anyway; and nearly 8 million (20 percent) relied on caregivers, with about 1 million living in nursing homes.

Those who took precautionary measures like downscaling their households and simplifying their living environment were considered “successful adapters,” while others who either struggled to get through their day or depended at least part-time on outside help were found at the greatest risk of losing their independence.

Most seniors fear the loss of independence and having to move into a nursing home more than death, according to several studies on the subject. A vast majority (89 percent) hope to die in their own home, and more than half are concerned about not being able to do so. Most also don’t expect or desire to receive support from their children or other relatives. Only 1 percent reported wanting or actually receiving financial aid.

On the other hand, especially now retiring baby boomers are very keen on utilizing technological advances like computers and other devices and appliances in their homes to maintain an independent lifestyle.

But despite of such unprecedented opportunities, health concerns do weigh heavily on today’s seniors. Because of rising rates of chronic illnesses such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and others, older Americans are actually less healthy than the generations that came before them. This may have potentially devastating consequences for how well they age, and so far the signs are not encouraging.

Other leading health concerns for the elderly include arthritis, osteoporosis, respiratory problems, and of course, cognitive decline like memory loss and Alzheimer’s.

The good new is that at least some of these trends could be turned around through better diet and lifestyle choices, and for implementing those, it is never too soon or too late. It would be surprising if Americans who have the most to lose could not find ways to protect what’s dearest to them.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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Outlook on Life May Influence Longevity, Study Finds

January 22nd, 2014 at 2:07 pm by timigustafson

That staying physically and mentally fit is important for healthy aging is old news. But how our attitudes can also influence how long we live is not as well understood. Now, a new study from England concluded that being happy, enjoying life, or at least having a sense of contentment may play a much larger role in the way we age than previously thought.

For the study, researchers from the University College London monitored physical and mental functions and also the emotional states of 3,200 male and female participants, all over the age of 60.

Those who reported having fun, doing things that gave them pleasure, maintaining an active social life, etc. were found to develop fewer impairments and showed slower declines compared to those who were less upbeat.

In fact, differences in attitude seemed to produce remarkable results. People with a lower sense of well-being were three times as likely to end up with health problems as they got older than those whose outlook remained positive.

Not surprisingly, those suffering from chronic illnesses like heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and depression tended to enjoy life the least, which obviously did not help improve their condition either.

The study also found that the happier people were not necessarily younger, richer, or even free from illness. The influence of their state of mind on their aging process persisted independent of these other factors, although financial security did apparently play a role, but only to a certain extent, according to Dr. Andrew Steptoe, director of the Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care in the Faculty of Population Health Sciences, and British Heart Foundation professor for psychology in London, England, and author of the study.

These latest findings confirm those of another study he published in 2011. Back then, researchers found that participants who considered themselves the happiest could reduce their mortality risk by an astounding 35 percent compared to their least happy counterparts.

Five years into the study, the differences in terms of health status and mortality rates already showed. The happier people were overall healthier and aged better, even when taking other factors into account like gender, education, marital status, and financial situation.

What was methodically different in these two studies compared to others on the subject is that the researchers asked participants to rate their happiness level several times on one particular day, instead of having them answer general questions about their usual state of mind. By focusing on concrete situations and events and by observing specific responses, the researchers say they were able to discern attitudinal differences much better than they would have been by conducting surveys on a wider range of issues and relying on recollections of participants over longer periods of time.

While it remains undetermined whether positive emotions play a key role for longevity or are just one factor among others, there seem to be clear indications that how people feel about their lives at any given moment can have a significant impact.

Of course, what constitutes happiness is not easily defined. Some may say that people who seem outwardly grumpy or melancholic may not necessarily be devoid of pleasure or satisfaction. It could be just a matter of individual personality or how they behave socially. How emotions are expressed can also depend on cultural particularities.

One study from Austria found that more than momentarily occurring feelings, a deeper and lasting sense of contentment and gratitude that comes with growing maturity may produce the greatest benefits, including in terms of health and longevity.

The least we can take away from these findings is that people should take their moods more seriously, said Dr. Laura Kubzansky, a professor for social and behavioral sciences at Harvard University.

“I think people sort of undervalue emotional life anyway. This highlights the idea that if you are going through a period where you’re constantly distressed, it’s probably worth paying attention to how you feel – it matters for both psychological and physical health,” she said.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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For Healthy Aging, Just Keep Moving

January 8th, 2014 at 2:50 pm by timigustafson

The healthier and more physically fit you are, the better your chances will be to live a long and active life. While that may be true to a large extent, researchers now say that you don’t need to be a senior athlete to reap benefits from your physical condition. It may be enough to do just a little bit every day to keep you going. The rest is just icing on the cake, but it won’t make a decisive difference in how well you age.

A recent study from Sweden found that a generally active lifestyle, even without regular exercise sessions, can promote heart health and longevity. So-called “background activity,” the usual wear and tear your body undergoes as you navigate your day, has all too often been disregarded or underestimated in clinical studies on the importance of physical exercise in older people, the researchers said.

Whether someone exercises rigorously for half an hour or runs errands all day doesn’t make that much of a difference. What matters more is that there are no long periods of time sitting near motionlessly while watching television, reading, or doing work on the computer. A lifestyle that is excessively sedentary for whatever reason is the real culprit when people age badly, not only in physical but also in mental terms.

The difference in likelihood of dying from a heart attack or stroke between the most and the least active participants in the study was roughly 30 percent, which is substantial.

“These are fascinating findings,” said Dr. David Dunstan, head of the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne, Australia, who was not involved in the study. “But [they are] not really surprising since other studies have looked at […] the detrimental relationship between excessive sitting and mortality outcomes,” he said to Reuters in response to the study’s publication.

What makes sitting so detrimental is that it prevents the muscles from contracting and causes decrease in blood flow, which reduces the efficiency of many body functions, including nutrient absorption, he added.

Even moderate exercise such as walking up the stairs, cleaning house, or carrying grocery bags across the parking lot can help strengthen muscles, including the most important of all, the heart muscle. For this reason, healthcare providers should encourage especially their older patients and those suffering from heart health problems not only to exercise regularly but also to sit less and move around whenever they have the chance.

Heart health is not the only concern scientists have when contemplating potential damages from lack of exercise. Prolonged sitting itself increases the risk of all causes of mortality, independent from activities like running or visits to the gym, another study found. Researchers from Harvard University concluded that sitting for several hours daily can contribute to chronic diseases like diabetes and certain forms of cancer, especially colon cancer in men.

People, like office workers, who have little choice but spending much of their time sitting should at least take regular breaks to walk around the building or office park to stretch their legs. Retired folks who have more control over their schedules should not sit at home reading or watching television but get out in the fresh air as often and as much as possible.

The good news is that increasing one’s activity level can be done at any stage in life. Numerous studies have confirmed that staying both physically and mentally engaged not only can extend life expectancy but also improve the quality of people’s later years. At any rate, it’s an investment worth making.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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Healthy Aging: To Stay Physically Active, Better Start Early

December 4th, 2013 at 1:32 pm by timigustafson

Unlike their predecessors, baby boomers will remain as physically and mentally active as ever, even as they retire from their day jobs. 60 and 70-year-olds will continue to push boundaries, explore and experiment, travel the world, play sports, and stay healthy and fit far longer than what has been considered possible only a generation or two ago – or so we are told by an onslaught of literature, advertisements and workshops for active retirement, declaring the twilight years as the best of all times.

The truth is that many retirees find it hard to stay active at all after having lived sedentary lifestyles for most of their lives.

How active people will continue to be largely depends on the kind of jobs they are retiring from, according to Dr. Stephen Kritchevsky, a professor of gerontology and geriatric medicine and director of the Sticht Center of Aging at Wake Forest Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

For most people, retirement is a very important change in life, which can bring about new opportunities but also pitfalls. Retirees have more time on their hands to take care of their health needs, which can yield important dividends long-term, he said to Reuters Health. But it’s not a given that everyone will begin a healthy exercise regimen if he or she has not done so before.

study from England examined differences in physical activity habits between working and retired participants and found that most of those who lead a sedentary life continued to do so after retiring, and that those who were more active in their younger years usually kept to their routines after they stopped working.

Although it seems that sedentary working conditions and lifestyles prime many people for lack of movement as they grow older, the slower pace of retirement can also be a “critical window” for encouraging older adults to become more active, according to Dr. Alan Godfrey, a researcher at the Institute for Ageing and Health at Newcastle University and lead author of the study report.

One of the most important things retiring people must do is to plan carefully how they intend to fill their days. Pursuing old dreams, developing new interests, taking up new sports and other activities may sound wonderful, but some of those projects may be unrealistic for a number of reasons, including physical limitations and other health concerns.

Naturally, the healthier and fitter you are by the time you get to your golden years, the more you will be able to accomplish. But acting age-appropriately should also be a consideration, no matter how well you have (or think you have) been able to preserve your vigor.

But regardless of personal history, physical exercise is a crucial component of healthy aging. Whether you just want to feel better and have more energy, or whether longevity is your goal, age-appropriate exercise can be beneficial on multiple levels. It helps you control your weight, strengthens your immune system, enhances mobility, promotes better sleep, keeps your sex life going, and may even protect you against age-related memory loss and dementia. But the earlier you start a regular program and stick with it, the better your chances will be that it will do you a lot of good.

If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading “Adjusting Diet and Exercise to a Slowing Metabolism” and “Healthy Aging: Exercising the Body Benefits the Mind, Too.”

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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Walking, a Simple Yet Highly Effective Health Measure

November 30th, 2013 at 5:33 pm by timigustafson

At a time when extreme sports are all the hype, mundane activities like walking don’t get much attention. It’s just too basic, too boring to even think about it. Yet walking can be a great indicator of both physical and mental wellbeing. In addition, walking is considered by health experts as one of the most effective ways to stay fit and fend off illnesses like high blood pressure, heart disease, and even dementia.

A recent study from England found that taking a long walk every day can help decrease the risk of stroke, especially in older men. It doesn’t seem to matter as much how fast someone walks, just how often and for how long.

“Our study suggests that maintaining an active lifestyle, specifically by spending more time on all forms of walking, could be an important part of stroke prevention strategies in older people,” said Dr. Barbara J. Jefferis, a epidemiologist from University College London and lead author of the study, in an interview with Reuters.

According to her findings, men who walked four to seven hours each week were 11 percent less likely to suffer a stroke than those who walked three hours or less. Participants in the study who walked the most – more than three hours daily – had a 60 percent lower risk than those who spent the least amount of time walking.

Although this particular study included only men, there is no reason to assume that walking wouldn’t benefit women in similar ways.

Walking seems to provide other advantages as well. A number of studies have found that losing the ability to walk at a reasonably brisk pace can be an indication not just for physical but also mental decline. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic looked at stride length, cadence and velocity of older adults and concluded that gait changes and slowing pace can be early signs of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of age-related dementia. Some of these effects may be delayed, if not prevented, in people who maintain a regular walking regimen.

Of course, there is no need to wait until old age to take up walking as a form of exercise. At any time in life, going on hikes or just strolls around the block can help with overall fitness, weight management, bone and muscle strength, balance and flexibility, and also stress management, sleep, and emotional wellbeing.

Unfortunately, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Americans are notoriously averse to walking and prefer driving even for short distances. This is especially true in rural areas and cities that lack a walkable infrastructure. Nevertheless, in its recommendations for greater public health, the agency urges everyone to get a minimum of two and a half hours moderate exercise per week. It may take some creativity and rethinking of lifestyle, but the sooner you start, the better the results will be, now and long-term.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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Not Getting Enough Sleep May Contribute to Mental Decline in Later Years

October 26th, 2013 at 4:47 pm by timigustafson

Chronic sleep deprivation and poor sleep quality have been linked to a number of health problems, but now a new study has identified one more potential risk, namely cognitive decline at old age, including Alzheimer’s disease (AD).

While it has not been determined yet whether people who don’t sleep well are more likely to suffer from dementia as they get older, or whether it is a symptom of mental illness already on its way, scientists have long known that both sleep hygiene and mental well-being are closely connected.

For the study, the researchers scanned the brains of 70 participants, ages 53 to 91, looking for clusters of beta-amyloid plaques, proteins that when building up in the brain may cause the kind of damage associated with AD.

This is not the first time scientists have investigated the role of sleep, or lack thereof, for mental health. Studies on lab animals have suggested that the damaging effects can work both ways, meaning that sleep deprivation and sleep fragmentation can increase the levels of beta-amyloid, which in turn may be a factor in further sleep disturbance. The result may be a vicious circle with potentially dire outcome.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between 50 and 70 million Americans are chronically sleep-deprived. In surveys conducted by the agency from 2005 to 2006 and again from 2007 to 2008, 23 percent of participants reported having difficulties with concentrating and 18 percent with remembering. 11 percent said they sometimes had problems driving safely due to insufficient rest.

The effects of sleep deprivation and sleep disorders may be less apparent in younger people, but they are nevertheless real. Besides being more prone to engage in hazardous behavior when overtired, even young adults increase their risk of developing chronic diseases like hypertension, heart disease, diabetes as well as emotional and mental illness if they remain in a prolonged state of sleeplessness.

A person’s circadian rhythm, the cycling of sleep and wakefulness as well as body temperature and metabolism throughout the day and night, can get progressively unbalanced when sleep needs are neglected. In older adults, difficulties to maintain regular rest periods may increase. Especially the deep sleep stages, when the body does most of its healing and repair work of tissue, bones and muscles from daily wear and tear, lessen with age.

While, generally speaking, aging is often associated with shorter and lighter sleep, it doesn’t have to be this way. Older adults can benefit from the same sleep hygiene as everyone else. Eating a light dinner, avoiding alcohol consumption late at night (nightcaps), creating a calm, sleep-conducive environment before bedtime, lowering temperatures in the bedroom, and shutting off the lights are all part of it. For more information on how to improve your sleep pattern, see these recommendations.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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About Timi Gustafson, R.D. As a clinical dietitian, health counselor, book author, syndicated newspaper columnist and, as of late, blogger, she has been able to reach millions of people, addressing their concerns about issues of health, lifestyle and nutrition. As Co-founder and Director of Nutrition Services for Cyberdiet.com (now Mediconsult.com), she created the first nutrition-related interactive website on the Internet in 1995. Many of the features you find on her blog, www.timigustafson.com, are based on the pioneering work of those days. Today, her goals remain the same: Helping people to achieve optimal health of body and mind. She received a Bachelor of Science degree in Clinical Nutrition and Dietetics from San José State University in California and completed a Clinical Dietetic Internship at the University of California Medical Center in San Francisco. She is a registered dietitian and Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, an active member of the Washington State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a member of the Diabetes Care and Education, Dietitians in Business and Communications, Healthy Aging, Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrition, and the Vegetarian Nutrition Practice Groups. For more information about Timi Gustafson R.D. please visit: www.timigustafson.com

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