Posts Tagged ‘Senior Health’

Healthy Aging: You Are as Old as You Perceive Yourself

November 5th, 2014 at 4:58 pm by timigustafson

How would you feel if you were given the chance to turn back the clock and return to the time and place of your youth? How would it be if you found the world exactly as it was then, and all the people and things you knew and loved just as you remembered them? For a small group of men in their 70s this fantasy became a reality as they participated in an elaborate experiment that placed them literally in a time warp, on par with what otherwise only happens in movies.

The scenario was set up by Harvard psychology professor Dr. Ellen Langer who has a long history of unusual study approaches. For this event, she had eight septuagenarians take up residence at a former monastery, which was transformed into a 1950s establishment, complete with vintage radio and black and white TV.

While the participants were in relatively good shape in terms of physical and mental capacity, some showed early stages of memory loss and other age-related impediments.

Each day of their stay, they socialized with one another, discussing sports and other “current events” they were reminded of, like the first American satellite launch in 1958.

The idea was not to make these men just reminisce about times long gone by but to relive them as authentically as possible, to the point where they became almost their younger selves again, Dr. Langer explained in a recent interview with the New York Times.

As it turned out, at the end of the experiment, the aging men felt invigorated, looked younger, acted younger, sat and walked taller, had better dexterity, and even their eyesight improved. While they were waiting for a bus to transport them back home, some even engaged in a spontaneous touch-football game, they were so jazzed about the experience.

“They put their mind in an earlier time, and their bodies went along for the ride,” Dr. Langer said.

She and her research team found similar results in a number of different studies on the subject of age perception. For instance, nursing home residents did better on memory tests when given certain tasks like caring for plants in their rooms, compared to their counterparts who had no such responsibilities. Or seniors who took on the role of airline pilots by taking the controls in a flight simulator, and who showed remarkable improvement of their eyesight over the course of the exercise. These are just two examples of the many imaginative tests those scientists came up with.

While Dr. Langer did much pioneering in her work, she is not the only one who found connections between aging and perception. A new study from Yale University and the University of California, Berkeley concluded that people who saw their natural aging process as a positive development – i.e. by becoming wiser, happier, less stressed, etc. – were able to preserve their physical and mental abilities better than others who harbored negative thoughts about old age.

“Negative age stereotypes that older individuals assimilate from their culture predict detrimental outcomes, including worse physical function,” wrote Dr. Becca R. Levy, a professor of epidemiology and behavioral psychology at Yale and lead author of the study report.

In other words, the way we think of ourselves as we grow older determines at least to some extent how well or how poorly we fare. If we perceive aging purely as a loss of vigor and vitality, nature will probably help us along on that path. If we see it as a chance to continue with life’s journey, albeit perhaps in different ways, we may reap unexpected rewards.

Nobody can claim that even the best prospects don’t come with limitations. Of course they do, that’s part of being mortal. But given the choice, I know where I’d put my money…

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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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Chronic Malnutrition May Cause Dire Consequences Later in Life

November 4th, 2012 at 1:09 pm by timigustafson

Large parts of the American population are diagnosed as overfed but malnourished, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It’s called the obesity paradox. While we have easy access to calorie-dense, highly processed foods, a balanced, nutritious diet is much harder to come by.

“The mistake is to think that if you eat an abundance of calories, your diet automatically delivers all the nutrients your body needs,” says Dr. Mark Hyman, author of “The Blood Sugar Solution” (Little, Brown & Co., 2012). “The problem is that the Standard American Diet (SAD) is energy dense (too many calories) but nutrient poor (not enough vitamins and minerals).” As a result, “Americans are suffering from massive nutritional deficiencies,” Hyman adds.

For years and years consumers were told by the food industry that it really doesn’t matter where calories come from. “A calorie is a calorie” is an often-heard mantra. Not so, says Dr. David Ludwig of Boston’s Children Hospital. In his studies, he found that from a metabolic perspective, all calories are not alike. Wholesome, nutrient-rich foods offer innumerous health benefits their high-fat, high-sugar, high-salt, highly processed and refined counterparts cannot match.

New research suggests that the adverse consequences of malnutrition due to calorie-dense but nutrient-poor diets become even more evident as we age. One study from Sweden concluded that the “consumption of fat laden foods can have huge implications for the risk of malnourishment in older age.” Participants in the study who had the highest fat intake during middle age showed the greatest risk of malnutrition as seniors.

Many of the symptoms of malnutrition worsen when people reach an age where they become more frail and vulnerable to diseases. These are not isolated instances. Surveys have found that about 25 percent of Americans age 65 and older suffer from some degree of malnutrition. Common results are unhealthy weight loss and diminishing muscle strength, weakening of the immune system as well as declining mental health.

Malnutrition also becomes of greater concern with age because of changes in body composition, according to studies by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). As muscle mass decreases, the percentage of body fat often rises, therefore elevating the risk of stroke, diabetes, heart disease and hypertension.

Involuntary loss of weight caused by dietary deficiencies may lead to negative energy balances. Low energy may be compounded by loss of appetite or inability to maintain a healthy diet regimen.

Other risk contributors can be a diminishing sense of smell and taste, gastrointestinal disorders (e.g. malabsorption), interactions with medications, physical disability and other inhibiting factors. Psychological components like suffering from social isolation, depression, bereavement and anxiety can make things worse. Lifestyle issues such as lack of knowledge about food, cooking and nutrition facts, reduced mobility and financial constraints may also play a role.

The key to prevention or treatment of malnutrition is early diagnosis and appropriate countermeasures, including adherence to sound dietary guidelines and regular physical exercise for muscle strength and enhancement of metabolic health. Implementing these cannot start too soon but is also never too late.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also be interested in “How Malnutrition Causes Obesity.”

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, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.”, and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

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Don’t Grow Old Alone

October 9th, 2011 at 3:23 pm by timigustafson

People who are lonely and isolated in their senior years tend to be in poorer physical and mental health than their contemporaries who are in loving relationships. These are the findings of a recent study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior that investigated links between social connections and health in older adults.

“Feelings of loneliness and isolation can affect older adults’ health in a number of ways. They can, for example, create stress, lower self-esteem or contribute to depression, all of which can have physical health consequences – either by affecting a person’s lifestyle choices or through direct effects on the body,” said Dr. Erin York Cornwell, a sociology professor at Cornell University and lead author of the study report.

Social isolation may even shorten your life expectancy, according to Dr. James Lynch, author of “The Broken Heart: The Medical Consequences of Loneliness.” Human beings are social creatures throughout their lives. As people grow older, their need for social interaction remains the same, but their ability to satisfy this need may become diminished: They retire and lose contact with former co-workers; their children grow up and move away; they become widowed or divorced; their circle of friends shrinks. As a result, many elders find themselves increasingly deprived of the important benefits of companionship. Life becomes less satisfying and loses its meaning. Consequences are often severe depression and lack of will to live.

“Suicide is more common among older Americans than any other age group,” according to Jane E. Brody, a columnist for the New York Times who writes on issues of personal health. “While people 65 and older account for 12 percent of the population, they represent 16 percent to 25 percent of the suicides. Four out of five suicides in older adults are men. And among white men over 85, the suicide rate – 50 per 100,000 men – is six times that of the general population.

Older widowers and divorcees are at the highest risk. When wives die or move away, their husbands’ social connections often cease as well, especially when the women did most of the social networking. “Men are poorly prepared for retirement and don’t know how to fill in the hours and maintain a sense of usefulness when they stop working,” said Dr. Martha L. Bruce, a professor of sociology and psychiatry at Weill Medical College of Cornell University.

“Many older people despair over the quality of their lives at the end of life. [We] think that sadness is a hallmark of depression. But more often in older people it’s anhedonia – they’re not enjoying life,” Dr. Bruce added.

Conversely, having loved ones to spend time with, making new friends and sharing experiences and interests with others can help decrease the susceptibility to loneliness, depression and illness. Nurturing new relationships and even falling in love again can bring back a renewed zest for life. Research has shown that seniors who remain sexually active enjoy better physical and emotional health than those who do not, according to Dr. Andrew Weil, professor of medicine and director of the Program for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona and best-selling author of numerous books on health and wellness, including “Healthy Aging – A Lifelong Guide to Your Physical and Spiritual Well-being.” “The youth culture would have us believe that sexual pleasure is the birthright of the young, that old people shouldn’t be thinking about sex, and that imagining old people having sex is distasteful. None of this is true. [Physical contact] is a basic requirement for optimum health,” he added. “This need does not diminish with age.”

Thankfully, the baby boomers are less inhibited in this regard than previous generations may have been. Today’s 55-plus crowd definitely does not think the party is over any time soon. And they know where to look for love in all the right places – via the Internet, of course. Memberships of dating sites are booming, and the older demographics are growing the fastest. “With so many older Americans unattached, living independently into their later years, and increasingly comfortable using the Internet, they too are logging on for love,” observed Stephanie Rosenbloom in an article for the New York Times (10/6/2011), titled “Second Love at First Click.” Not everyone is looking for true love, let alone marriage. But companionship and romance are in high demand and the dating industry is happy to help.

Living longer and healthier as we grow older through sound nutrition, physical exercise and mental activity is very important, but it’s only a worthy goal if the experience is enjoyable and gratifying – and that includes love.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” ( http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

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About timigustafson

Timi Gustafson, RD, LDN, FAND is a registered dietitian, health counselor, book author, syndicated newspaper columnist and blogger. She lectures on nutrition and healthy living to audiences worldwide. She is the founder and president of Solstice Publications LLC, a publishing company specializing in health and lifestyle education. Timi completed her Clinical Dietetic Internship at the University of California Medical Center, San Francisco. She is a Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, an active member of the Washington State Dietetic Association, a member of the Diabetes Care and Education, Healthy Aging, Vegetarian Nutrition and the Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrition practice groups. For more information, please visit http://www.timigustafson.com

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