The Rewards of Aging

The passing years can result in more time for favorite
pursuits—and a wiser outlook.

October 2013

By Linda Melone

Don’t tell Sherman London that aging means slowing down and failing health.
After 20 years as the editor of a daily Waterbury, Connecticut, newspaper, London retired but quickly decided that lounging and taking it easy wasn’t for him. “I tried golf but was never a golfer,” he says.

Instead, London went to work as a spokesperson for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and covered major disasters including Hurricane Andrew and the Northridge earthquake in California. “That kept me going for three to four years, but I stopped taking assignments when I realized I was away from home too much,” he recalls.

London was then appointed to the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission, which, as he puts it, “fights for transparency in government.” He served 17 years, noting that “working on the commission was a great position for a retired newspaper man.”

After London’s wife died two years ago he entered an assisted living facility. There he quickly joined the residents council, a six-member group that fields complaints from the residents. Now 91, London has done more in his retirement years than many much-younger people accomplish in a working lifetime. “I’m happiest when I’m doing things,” he explains.

A Happier Old Age

Clearly, the adage “age is a state of mind” holds true for London, and he’s not alone. The physical and mental decline stereotypically associated with aging is being pushed back, often by decades. About 40 million Americans are older than 65, and those over age 80 comprise the fastest-growing segment of the population. Many remain active well after retirement.

Staying Safe at Home

Not only are falls painful, they can be deadly. The Centers for Disease Control reports that falls are the leading cause of injury-related death among older adults and may also result in often-disabling fractures and head trauma.

Regular exercise and eye exams can help reduce your risk of falling, and getting adequate amounts of calcium and magnesium along with vitamins D and K2 can make it less likely that you’ll suffer a fracture if you do take a tumble. But it’s also important to view your home with an eye towards increased safety:

• Eliminate trip-inducing clutter, secure electric cords and use double-sided tape to securely tack down rugs.
• Make sure there’s enough room between furniture to walk freely.
• Increase lighting as needed to reduce dark areas and shadows; having adequate light in stairwells is especially important.
• Install railings on both sides of staircases; make sure they’re strong enough to support your full weight.
• Place grab bars and nonstick strips in the tub or shower and use a shower chair; if you have vision problems place brightly colored decals on clear shower doors.
• Install grab bars around the toilet along with an elevated seat.
• Cover sharp corners to reduce injury risk in case of a fall.
• Keep smoke detectors in good working order.
• Place commonly used items, including kitchen gear, where they can be easily accessed; if you do need to climb, use a stepstool instead of a chair.
• Choose footwear with nonslip soles for use in the house.
• Have someone else remove snow and ice from sidewalks and driveways; install sturdy railings on steps leading from porches and decks.

Finally, take extra care if you’ve experienced significant stress, such as the loss of a loved one. A recent study in Age and Aging found that stressful life events raised one’s risk of falling in the following year by 41%.

In a recent New York Times essay, neurologist and best-selling author Oliver Sacks tells of his feelings on turning 80. He expresses gratitude for having had so many diverse experiences—“some wonderful, some horrible”—and expresses sorrow at having wasted so much time and not traveling as much as he believes he should have. Sacks views his old age as a time of leisure and freedom, with the ability to explore. Studies show that’s a perspective shared by many others his age.

In fact, several studies show people become happier as they grow older. In a 2012 Journals of Gerontology study, more than 340,000 Americans ages 18 to 85 answered questions about health and other issues, including happiness. In general, people felt good about themselves at about age 18, before things went downhill. They typically felt worse and worse until they reached 50. At that age, people began getting happier until at 85, people were more satisfied with themselves than they were at 18.

Reyes and George Perez, both 77, of Cliffside Park, New Jersey, couldn’t agree more. They say taking care of their five children took up most of their younger years, so now they fully embrace the ability to travel and enjoy life. “I feel better at 77 than I did when I was in my 60s,” says George. They credit their good health to regular workouts, including swimming, as well as reading voraciously and eating right. “We drink green smoothies, eat a lot of fish and lean meat maybe every two weeks,” Reyes says. Medications are not a part of their regular routine, either. “I take one pill for cholesterol,” says George.

The Perezes also credit their young-at-heart attitude to younger friends. “Most of our friends are our kids’ age, in their early 50s,” says George.

Is staying younger simply a matter of choice? Largely yes, says psychologist Dennis Kravetz, PhD, longevity and aging researcher, and author of A Sound Mind in a Sound Body: Live Long, Live Healthy (KAP). “Many of the states that contribute to death—cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, etc.—are under an individual’s control. They involve lifestyle choices. It’s not about luck or chance. If you’re sedentary or eat a diet high in saturated fat you’re not going to live as long as someone living with more positive conditions.”

Fewer opportunities to engage in mentally-stimulating activities while still on the job plus a less-challenging environment after retirement are believed to contribute to a decline in cognitive function, according to a study in The Journal of Economic Perspectives (Winter 2010). What’s more, conditions such as depression in seniors are often “written off” and not addressed by the average family doctor, says Kravetz. “People are labeled negative or cranky, but depression can be treated and resolved.”

Staving Off the Physical
Effects of Age

Planning to spend your retirement traveling, pursuing a hobby, tackling service projects or just enjoying your grandkids? No matter what you want to do, your plans may be jeopardized by the toll time can take on your body. Not only do chronic disorders such as heart disease and cognitive dysfunction become more frequent with age, joints often start to ache and senses begin to dull, resulting in a poor quality of life.

These changes aren’t always inevitable. While genetics plays a role in determining how fast someone ages, scientists believe that diet (working in tandem with exercise) is an even more significant factor. Certain nutrients, especially those found in whole plants, contain anabolic substances—those that promote rejuvenation and renewal—which counteract those that are catabolic—ones that degrade cells and tissues. Stress, inadequate sleep, exposure to toxins and excessive sunlight, and other catabolic agents generate free radicals, atoms and molecules that damage cellular structures and foster the kind of low-level inflammation that has been linked to ill health. Anabolic agents inhibit tissue destruction and neutralize free radicals by acting as antioxidants.

For a long time, Oxygen Radical Acceptance Capacity (ORAC) has been considered the antioxidant gold standard. Now scientists realize that antioxidants with high ORAC values, as vital as they are, fight only one class of free radicals.

This has led to testing for “Total ORAC,” or ORAC plus four additional categories: HORAC, NORAC, SORAC and SOAC. This explains why it’s important to consume a range of fruits and vegetables, which contain antioxidants that span the entire Total ORAC range. Some of the most effective plants in terms of antioxidant capacity include wild blueberry, bilberry, cranberry, tart cherry, prune and strawberry, in addition to the seeds from grapes and raspberries; all are also used in anti-aging supplements.

Other plants contain substances that help cool the cell-damaging fires of inflammation. These include phenolics from oregano, hydroxytyrosol from olive, polyphenols from green tea, curcumin from turmeric and resveratrol from grape, along with enzymes from such sources as pineapples.

Although men and women share many age-fighting needs, an optimal wellness program should be tailored to the requirements of each gender. Men especially need prostate support from carotenoids such as lycopene and herbs such as saw palmetto, stress-fighting adaptogens such as ginseng, amino acids for muscle mass, and grape and apple polyphenols to support testosterone production.

In addition, it’s important to be aware of your own vulnerabilities. Does heart disease run in your family? Vitamins B6 and B12, plus the B-complex member folic acid, team up to reduce homocysteine, a cardiovascular risk factor. The minerals magnesium, potassium and selenium all play crucial roles in heart health, as does the amino acid taurine. And garlic, long used by traditional healers for its cardiac benefits, has been joined in recent years by Pycnogenol, a pine bark extract that supports healthy circulation. If staying sharp mentally is your main concern, ginkgo is another herb with a long history of use.

Huperzine A (taken from the Chinese club moss) has been found to slow the degradation of neurotransmitters crucial to cognition, while lecithin phospholipids have been found to optimize memory and mental activity.

Various nutrients and herbs also battle the discomforts that make life more trying. Green coffee bean extract and a tea extract called L-theanine, along with the adaptogenic herbs eleuthero and rhodiola, can help you find extra energy. Old standbys glucosamine and chondroitin are joined by TendoGuard, a high-tech collagen mix, to make moving around easier by supporting your joints. Lutein and zeaxanthin, another pair of long-time favorites, combined with the marine-based antioxidant astaxanthin, can help brighten your sight; rosemary and pine bark extracts, bolstered by the probiotic strain S. salivarius K12 for inner ear protection, can sharpen your hearing. If you want to look as young as you feel, fatty acids from ingredients such as chia and flax seed, the B vitamin biotin, vitamin C and the sulfur-bearing MSM can help your skin maintain a soft, pliable appearance. —Lisa James

Exercising the mind throughout one’s lifetime can reduce the risk of cognitive decline. Taking up a hobby, reading, crossword puzzles and online games can help, says Kravetz. “Passively watching TV can bring about cognitive decline. Instead, read newspapers, or watch educational shows. Dementia is not inevitable.”

Stages of Aging

The average lifespan is now 78 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “It was 49 only a hundred years ago,” says Michael Gurian, marriage and family counselor and author of The Wonder of Aging: A New Approach to Embracing Life After Fifty (Atria). “We now have another 30 to 40 years where we can accomplish this ‘freedom’ that people often talk about with aging. This involves living lives in which our identity is developed.”

Gurian believes that between the ages of 50 and 65 people transform from adult to elder—and he’s not referring to simply getting older. “It’s when we develop a sense of freedom and a sense of clear identity,” he says. He defines an elder as someone who passes on specific work and wisdom, models a life of purpose and maturity, and remains physically and mentally active. An elder also connects young people, as well as society in general, to the mysteries of success, compassion, freedom and faith.

In his book, Gurian designates “age stages” to those over 50, which he developed from an integration of science and spirituality. These stages include the age of transformation (50 to 65), the age of distinction (65 to the late 70s) and the age of completion (age 80 and beyond).

“At approximately the age of 50, for example, the age of transformation is directed internally and involves hormonal and biochemical changes,” says Gurian. This includes menopause in women and andropause in men, the latter of which is not widely recognized but refers to the natural drop in hormones when a man reaches his late 40s and 50s. “Looking at these stages as spiritual quests enables us to better embrace the changes and develop a more realistic optimism,” he says. People of this age who do not connect biomechanical changes with spiritual and emotional ones can become angry and resentful.

Men in particular may look back at their younger years and feel sad and depressed. “They get angry because they haven’t embraced these changes yet,” says Gurian. “During this stage we have a 15-year period to feel the anger and then consciously work towards realistic optimism and de-stressing. This anger can go on and on if we don’t learn to de-stress.”

An Inner Quest

Stress-fighting practices, such as yoga or meditation, often include a spiritual component and many studies show a link between well-being and religion, regardless of faith. A University of Missouri study showed that across five faiths—Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Catholicism and Protestantism—a greater degree of spirituality links to better mental health. Researchers believe spirituality works by reducing self-centeredness and helping individuals develop a greater sense of belonging to a larger whole.

“Positive aging includes your capacity to perceive your life as having benefit and meaning,” says James W. Ellor, PhD, DMin, professor of social work at Baylor University and editor of the Journal of Religion, Spirituality and Aging, a Routledge Press Journal. “Positive aging involves three things: avoiding disease, maintaining high cognitive involvement and engagement with life. Each is important on its own but they’re also related to the other.”

Avoiding disease includes keeping blood pressure in check, eating a healthy diet and taking a proactive approach to health in general. Staying mentally occupied and keeping active socially have been shown to slow the aging process. According to a study in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health (8/12), having a wide circle of friends in midlife links to better psychological well-being for both men and women. The lowest levels of psychological wellness was found among thosewith no relative or friends versus those with a regular circle of 10 or more social contacts.

Ellor suggests finding connection through volunteer work or the start of an encore career. “Aging well is a matter of understanding that life is full of bumps in the road,” he says, “but reaching out and caring about others or simply sharing ourselves with others enables us to find fulfillment and meaning.”

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