Promoting Healthy Aging
Aging and death are, of course, inevitable, but despite the progress decline in function associated with aging, many elderly individuals remain cognitively sharp and physically active. This section explores lifestyle choices that appear to be associated with increased longevity and enhanced quality of life in older individuals.
Social Circles & Support Systems
Several studies have suggested that maintaining a large network of personal relationships, and regularly engaging in social and productive activities is associated with a decreased risk of cognitive and physical decline. Similarly, social disengagement, defined as having very few or no social relationships, is a strong risk factor for cognitive and physical decline.
One specific study on community-dwelling centenarians found similar results. Centenarians have confidantes, daily visitors, and someone from their family, typically their children, or a friend acting as a caregiver. These individuals help with meal preparation, sickness, or disability and therefore help keep the centenarian relatively healthy. This solidifies the fact that having friends, family members, caregivers or confidantes is very important for living a long healthy live.
Smoking shortens people's lives by an average of 14 years. More people die from smoking than from HIV, illegal drug use, alcohol use, motor vehicle injuries, suicides, and murders combined. Smoking causes 1 of every 5 deaths in the United States each year from the following ailments:
- Lung disease: Smoking damages the lungs and airways, sometimes causing chronic bronchitis and emphysema.
- Heart disease: Smoking increases your risk of heart attack and stroke;
- Cancer: Smoking can lead to cancer of the lung, mouth, larynx, esophagus, stomach, liver, pancreas, kidney, bladder, and cervix;
- Respiratory problems: Smokers are more likely than nonsmokers to get the flu, pneumonia, or other infections that can interfere with breathing;
- Osteoporosis: Smokers have a greater chance of developing osteoporosis than nonsmokers.
The good news about smoking, though, is that it is never too late to quit. Quitting smoking at any time provides serious and immediate health benefits. Those who quit smoking generally experience improvements in breathing and control of high blood pressure. Cessation o smoking bring a rapid reduction in risk of stroke and myocardial infarction and a slower reduction in the risk of cancer.
Many studies suggest that engaging in leisure activities regularly reduces cognitive decline, especially with respect to Alzheimer's disease and dementia due to severe vascular disease. The extent to which risk declines is to some extent related to the frequency and type of leisure activity participation. Leisure activity can be divided into two subgroups: physical activities and cognitive activities.
Regular participation in cognitive activities is associated with a reduced risk of dementia. Participating in physical activities has beneficial effects on the brain. It keeps a person sharp by enhancing resistance to insults, promoting plasticity, increasing the levels of neurotrophic factors, and promoting overall health. However, there is no convincing evidence that physical activity reduces the risk of dementia.
In addition to reducing the risk of dementia, cognitive activities also improve performance on cognitive tasks. These tasks include perceptual discrimination, visual search, recognition, recall, spatial perception. Memory training through computer training, memory tapes or games (i.e., chess and bridge) can also be very helpful. These trainings typically teach mnemonic strategies, concentration, attention, relaxation, personal insight, self-monitoring, motivation, feedback, and problem solving that have succeeded in improving memory performance.
Diet plays a major role in the prevention and management of debilitating cognitive and physical conditions, especially for aging individuals. Consuming too much or too little dietary substance can have detrimental effects. In undernutrition, which is different from calorie restriction discussed in the "Theories of Aging" section, individuals do not consume the needed amount of protein and nutrients for optimal health. Undernutrition can lead to some types of dementia and can accelerate osteoporosis. On the other hand, overnutrition increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, gallstone disease, hypertension, cancer, and sleep apnea.
Healthy centenarians did not engage in overnutrition,, and they generally avoided weight loss diets and large fluctuations in body weight. Instead, they ate a balanced diet, which included the regular consumption of breakfast, avoided dietary cholesterol, drank milk, consumed 20-30% more carotenoids and vitamin A.
The USDA has an excellent web site that provides a wealth of information about healthy eating and physical activity. See http://www.choosemyplate.gov/.
Effects of Exercise on Physical Health
Exercise has a beneficial impact on physical health. Higher levels of physical activity have been associated with:
- An increase in survival
- A delay in progression of disability
- A delay in the loss of functional ability
- An improvement in balance and strength
- A reduction in incidence of falls and fractures
- Higher quality of life
- An improvement in mood
These improvements occur because exercise moderates muscular, myocardial, skeletal muscle, oxidative stress, and inflammation associated with aging patterns. Exercise also has an important role in the prevention and retardation of osteoporosis, the reduction of fracture risk, prevention of colon and breast cancer and the prevention of obesity. For those with chronic disease or recovering from acute illnesses, exercise programs are an important part of the management. Exercise training must be tailored to an individual's goals and capacities pertain to age, gender, and medication use. However, it is recommended that older adults have 30-60 min of moderate intensity (5-6 on a 0-10 pain scale) exercise training per day or 75-100 min per day of vigorous (7-8 on the pain scale 3-5 times a week. In addition, the elderly should either have 2 days a week of moderate or vigorous intensity weight training and calisthenics and 2 days per week of flexibility training. Stretching is also recommended for each activity.
Effects of Exercise on Cognitive Health
The protective effects of regular exercise on cognitive health were documented in a recent comprehensive analysis of 15 studies including over 33,000 subjects who were followed for up to 12 years. The study concluded that all levels of physical activity suggest a significant and consistent protection against the occurrence of cognitive decline. Low to moderate levels of physical activity conveyed a 35% reduction in risk for cognitive decline. While individuals with the highest levels of physical activity were a striking 38% less likely to show signs of cognitive decline over time compared to those with very-low activity levels.
Aging Intervention and Future Research on Stem Cells
Aging is accompanied by a decline in cellular regenerative capacity of all tissues and organs. Decline in the regenerative activities of these tissues can be attributed to an age-related decline in stem cell function. As a result, scientists and researchers are delving into the world of stem cell therapy to look for possible answers to treat, and hopefully one day cure, some of these age related disorders. However, before a cure for such disorders can be found, we have to understand how our environment, physical age, cellular age, and stem cell age react with one another. Regardless of this fact, significant progress has been made in the field of stem cell research and more promising research is to come.