Posts Tagged ‘Healthy Aging’

Creative People Age Better, Study Finds

July 25th, 2014 at 1:30 pm by timigustafson

Do creative and artistically inclined people have advantages over the rest of us mere mortals who can barely draw a stick figure or whistle a simple tune? There are indications that individuals who are able to use their talents also tend to fare better in other ways, including their physical and mental health, compared to others whose existence mainly consists of repetitiveness and routine. Still, scientists have never been able to prove that creativity is indeed a contributing factor to humans’ wellbeing.

Picasso was undoubtedly one of the most creative persons one can think of, and he maintained a zest for life and work well into his 90s. But so was Mozart, who tragically died at 35 years of age. Hemingway, perhaps the greatest writer of his generation, couldn’t pen a single word for long periods of time – mostly because of drunkenness. Some famous artists have looked upon their gift as a curse rather than a blessing. So, should we assume any connection between creativity and wellbeing at all?

One study that looked into the health status and life expectancy of creative people found that creativity may indeed be associated with delayed decline in cognitive and physical health at an advanced age. While it remains unclear whether engaging in creative activities or the use of creative energies actually contribute to the slowing of the natural aging process, it is conceivable, according to the researchers, that creative people find better ways of coping with their diminishing capabilities than their less resourceful counterparts. On the other hand, there are highly creative persons who only function superbly in a specific area of their interest and are not better equipped for problem solving beyond their expertise, for example when it comes to their health needs.

Prior research, including a landmark study from Seattle on the “Relationship Between Personality and Cognition,” has shown that attitude and outlook on life were important components for maintaining the mental health of seniors in their 70s and 80s.

Experimentation, openness to new ideas, and flexibility in dealing with changes are the essence of creativity, and they are also crucial ingredients for healthy cognitive aging, the researchers say.

Thankfully, you don’t have to be a genius or maestro yourself to stay healthy and vital. Even just loving to read, attending art performances, and keeping stimulating social ties can yield enormous benefits throughout life, according to a study on creativity and aging, which was sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts. Seniors between the ages of 63 and 103 who participated in a variety of weekly art programs were found to be in better health, had fewer doctor visits, and used less medication in comparison to a control group that attended no such activities. They also showed better results in mental health tests, and were overall more involved in their communities.

Creativity can find fertile ground anywhere. But it takes a personal decision and commitment to openness to change as well as acceptance of risk, including risk of failure. Conservatism, hunkering down in the hope that things will remain the same, is not helpful and hampers any creative process. That doesn’t mean everything from the past has to be overthrown and redone from scratch. But it can require rethinking of some old traits that may no longer serve us well. Or, what has been overlooked for some time may regain relevance when seen in a different light.

The beauty of aging is that there is room for new perspectives based on hindsight and greater appreciation for the preciousness of time. It is also a most humbling phase in life when we realize how little, if anything, we are able to accomplish beyond the narrow horizon of our short existence. And yet, it is up to each of us how our days, up to the last, continue to unfold.

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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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That regular exercise is important for good health is old news. From controlling weight and staying in shape, to fending off disease, to aging well, being physically active is a central component of wellbeing. As much as this message is considered to be self-evident, surprisingly, there has never been actual scientific proof that it is true.

For instance, while countless studies have suggested that exercise can be beneficial in many ways, including for slowing the aging process in older adults, it can only be said with certainty that most people who are healthy do in fact exercise – but not that their exercising makes them healthier. Now, a new study tried to show just that.

Unlike other research projects of its kind, this one specifically sought out participants who were not especially fit but adhered to a mostly sedentary lifestyle and even showed signs of age-related physical decline.

“For the first time, we have directly shown that exercise can effectively lessen or prevent the development of physical disability in a population of extremely vulnerable elderly people,” said Dr. Marco Pahor, the director of the Institute on Aging at the University of Florida in Gainesville and lead author of the study report, to the New York Times.

For the study, the researchers recruited 1,635 men and women between the ages of 70 and 89, who were mostly sedentary but still able to walk independently a distance of at least 400 meters (a quarter-mile). Then they split the participants up in two groups, assigning one to a regular exercise regimen, the other to a health education program that did not include exercising.

Over a period of about two and a half years, the exercising group showed 18 percent fewer incidences of temporary physical disability and 28 percent reduced likelihood of long-term to permanent disability compared to their non-exercising counterparts. But still, both groups had about the same number of periodical impairments. Also, more of the exercisers had to be hospitalized at one or more times, perhaps due to underlying medical conditions that were discovered over the course of the study. And some of the participants who underwent health education started exercising on their own account as well, which makes the distinction between the groups less clear.

Still, the findings of the study are valuable. For starters, they show that it is never too late to become physically more active and reap the benefits. Second, they demonstrate that even low-impact exercise like walking can be effective if done regularly. For seniors, in particular, it is important to focus, besides weight control and muscle and bone health, on flexibility and gait – not only to maintain physical fitness but to counteract mental decline as well.

As a number of studies have found, exercise can play a crucial role in the prevention of age-related dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease. That in itself should motivate everyone to take a few extra steps…

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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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How Dietary Needs Change with Age

May 20th, 2014 at 5:07 pm by timigustafson

Healthy aging entails multiple aspects, among them eating right, exercising regularly, and preventing mental decline. Achieving some of these may be easier than others. No matter how well we do our part, nature has a say in all of them, too.

While the outward signs of aging are usually quite apparent, the inner transformations our bodies go through as we grow older – e.g. slowing metabolism, diminishing muscle mass, thinning organ tissue, decreasing bone density – are less evident. Yet, these changes are very real and deserve close attention. Thankfully, their impact on our overall health and wellbeing can be mitigated with appropriate adjustments in diet and lifestyle.

Meeting altering health needs is not always easy for older adults, though. For example, due to reduced metabolic rates and sedentary behavior, most seniors use up significantly fewer calories than they did in their midlife. At the same time, the risk of malnutrition grows because of a lessening ability to absorb important nutrients, dehydration, lack of appetite, loss of taste, difficulty with chewing, and so forth. So, while reduced food intake is quite normal, it is crucial not to confuse the need for fewer calories with the need for fewer nutrients.

Energy requirements decrease with every decade, explains Dr. Connie Bales, a professor of medicine at Duke University Medical Center and associate director of the Geriatric Research, Education, and Clinical Center at Durham VA Medical Center to WebMD. But, while eating less overall, the challenge is to eat more nutrient-rich foods, which, calorie for calorie, pack more of a nutritional punch, she says.

Although maintaining healthy eating habits is recommended at any stage in life, it becomes even more instrumental in later years to prevent diet and lifestyle-related illnesses whose effects only worsen with age, including obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, and type-2 diabetes as well as mental decline, for as much and as long as possible.

The fact is that, as we grow older, our body requires the same amount of protein, vitamins, and minerals as it always has, if not more, says Dr. Bales. For instance, after the age of 50, the ability to absorb essential nutrients like vitamin B12 or vitamin D gradually diminishes due to reduced acidity in the stomach, which is needed to break them down from food. The solution is to add to one’s diet food sources that are especially rich in these components.

And it’s not just the digestive system that weakens. Aging skin is less able to convert vitamin D from sunlight, which also affects the absorption of calcium, a necessary nutrient to prevent bone loss. For these reasons and others, older adults are well advised to take daily multi-vitamin and mineral supplements, she says.

The danger of dehydration is another problem that gets worse with age. Older people tend to drink less not because they don’t need as many fluids but because they don’t sense thirst as well as they used to. Regulatory processes are just not as sharp as they used to be in younger years, says Dr. Bales. So, an older person may not feel thirsty, although he or she may already be borderline dehydrated. The solution is to make it a habit of drinking about six 8-ounce glasses of water every day, regardless of thirst sensation.

One of the greatest risks of malnutrition among the elderly stems from lack of access to healthy food sources. It may be too hard to get to a grocery store, especially when driving is no longer possible. It may be that cooking facilities are missing or too cumbersome to operate. It may be loss of appetite, forgetfulness, or lack of motivation due to loneliness or depression. But skipping meals for whatever reason has negative health implications and may backfire in terms of serious nutritional damages, Dr. Bale warns.

The best solution would be not to eat alone but to enjoy the company of family and friends while preparing and eating meals. That way, loved ones can also keep an eye on an older person’s eating regimen. Services like Meals on Wheels and the likes can be useful to fill in some of the gaps. Regrettably, for too many people, aging goes hand in hand with progressive social separation and isolation, which can have far-reaching negative consequences on multiple levels. It doesn’t have to be this way.

If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading “Seven Important Numbers You Need to Know to Protect Your Health” and “Eating Healthy Becomes Even More Important with Age.”

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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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Extreme Longevity – Progress or Worrisome Prospect?

May 10th, 2014 at 7:45 am by timigustafson

Alexander Imich is officially the oldest man alive. A few weeks ago he turned 111, still living independently in his apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He is not the currently longest-living human, though. 66 women surpass him, including the eldest, Misao Okawa, a 116-year-old lady from Japan, as recently reported by the New York Times. But despite of the noteworthiness of these examples, extreme longevity is no longer a rare exception but is becoming a growing trend.

According to the most recent data collected by the Census Bureau, over 53,000 people are now 100 years and older in the United States alone.

The “oldest old” – those who are 90 and beyond – are the fastest expanding segment of the U.S. population. Today there are nearly two million nonagenarians. That number will likely increase to 10 to 12 million by mid-century, a prospect that raises multiple concerns in terms of healthcare and retirement issues.

A study titled “90+,” conducted by the University of California, Irvine and sponsored by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), has followed this demographic since 2003. As reported by 60 Minutes, the news magazine on CBS, it is the largest study on the subject of old age to date, and includes clinical, pathological, and genetic research, involving more than 1,600 participants.

While the study is still ongoing, it has already produced some surprising results. For example, putting on a little extra weight late in life does not as much harm as previously thought and may even have some benefits. Eating right is still important, but adding more nutrients, e.g. by taking vitamin supplements, seems to have no noticeable effects. On the other hand, drinking moderate amounts of alcohol and coffee can indeed promote healthy aging and increase longevity, the researchers found.

Mental health, however, is less assured, no matter what action is taken. Over 40 percent of nonagenarians suffer from dementia, and about half of those are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. The causes are not fully understood yet, but experts say that lack of physical activity may be a contributing factor. Naturally, most 90-year-olds do not or are not able to exercise rigorously.

What we learn from the longest living among us is that they generally make healthy diet and lifestyle choices, but they don’t obsess over them. Education, access to healthcare, and standard of living are clearly important components, but so are good marriages, friendships, and an active social life. Purpose and meaningful work also play a role. Communities, neighborhoods, and even climatic and geographic differences seem to contribute to longevity. In other words, it is not one thing or set of rules people who age well live by – but usually a whole package that fulfills their needs and lets them thrive over long periods of time.

We are witnessing an extraordinary growth of aging populations throughout the world, and the current trends will likely accelerate in the future. How we handle the challenges that come with longer life expectancy, demographic changes, age-related disease, and many others, depends on how well we understand the natural aging process and meet its demands. Extending the human life span further and further, just because our medical and pharmaceutical advances enable us to do so, may not be the best way to go – it may not even be the right way.

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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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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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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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