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Hitting The Century Mark
Have you ever dreamed of living to be 100? Have those dreams been tempered by a belief that the majority of those years will be spent in ill health and reduced capacity, eventually ending in a nursing home waiting for death to finally come?
What may have been believed as true about aging fifty years ago is no longer the view of those studying aging today. An ever-growing body of research suggests that aging does not inevitably result in chronic illness as we have long believed.
Instead, chronic illness and reduced mental function are more often the result of personal lifestyle choices that we are free to accept or reject. Of course, not all of us will approach the Century Mark; some will fall victim to accident or bad genes, and a large group will die from their chosen lifestyle. But a growing number of us will approach that age with full faculties and comparatively good health.
The answer, it seems, will not be found in a high-tech revolution but a simpler, personal one. High-technology medicine, designer drugs and perpetual surgery probably will not change longevity significantly, for drugs and surgery can do little to save a body once its organs and tissues begin to deteriorate. The answer is not to ask what others can do for us, but to seek what we can do for ourselves to assure a quality lifestyle that can reach five score and then some. The means already exist and are within virtually everyone's reach. The way we age depends less on who we are than on how we live, particularly: what we eat, how much we exercise and how we employ our minds.
The current demographic evidence in the United States suggests that Americans are not only living longer but are also living those added years better. Life expectancy in the United States has risen dramatically since the turn of the century from 47 years to 76 years. Although centenarians are still uncommon, they now constitute the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population, increasing 16-fold over the past sixty years -- from 3,700 in 1940 to roughly 61,000 today. The U.S. Census Bureau currently projects that one in nine American Baby Boomers (about 9 million of the 80 million born between 1946 and 1964) will survive into their late 90s, and that one in 26 (or 3 million) will reach 100. "A century ago, the odds of living that long were about one in 500," says Lynn Adler, founder of the National Centenarian Awareness Project and the author of Centenarians: The Bonus Years. "That's how far we've come."
Contrary to popular belief, that rise in longevity has not led to a large population of infirm seniors. According to Duke University demographer Kenneth Manton, the disability rate has steadily fallen among those older than 65 since the early 1980s, as has the fraction of seniors plagued by hypertension, arteriosclerosis and dementia. Indeed, the studies suggest that the senior seniors often enjoy better health than people in their 70s.
Aging experts now believe that most of the physical decline we see in the elderly stems not from age but from simple disuse. When we sit all day, year after year, our bones, muscles and organ systems atrophy. But exercise can preserve and even revive them. When we do little to use and stimulate our minds, the brain also atrophies, a condition we often call dementia or senility. And if we do not fuel our body with good foods rich in vitamins and minerals, even the best will fail to properly perform.
Hundreds of studies have been completed in the past decade that define the factors which help people enjoy their later years with clear minds and strong bodies. Three factors stand out as the foundation for longevity. The three foundation factors identified in those studies are: exercise, diet and mental activity.
Factor One: Exercise
Exercise can provide many benefits for preventing and reducing disease as well as any medicinal tablet. Research undertaken by highly regarded medical centres and published in respected and adjudicated journals has shown that exercise can keep us strong and trim as we age; protect our heart and strengthen our bones; improve our mood, sleep and memory; ward off breast and colon cancer; and reduce our overall risk of dying prematurely.
In the early 1960s, Dr. Ralph Paffenbarger of Stanford University began tracking the health of 19,000 Harvard and University of Pennsylvania alumni. At the time, many experts believed vigorous exercise for people over 50 was dangerous.
But Paffenbarger's study of the volunteers' activity levels and health status over those years turned that wisdom on its head.
In his 1986 report on the group, Paffenbarger showed that the death rates fell in direct proportion to the number of calories they burned each week. Those burning 2,000 a week (roughly equivalent to walking 20 miles) suffered only half the mortality of those with a sedentary lifestyle, mainly the result of a lower incidence of heart disease.
Paffenbarger's study wasn't designed to test the benefits of any particular form of exercise; however other studies have shown that different activities bring different results. Everyone now agrees that aerobic exercise benefits the heart, lungs and brain. And changing its form and rate may provide different results in the body.
For example, if you're a woman beyond your child-bearing years and walk for exercise, you may achieve different health results depending upon your walking speed. Researchers at the University of Michigan found healthy, postmenopausal women who walked slowly burned more body fat and increased their body's sensitivity to insulin, a hormone the body uses to burn glucose for energy. In contrast, speedier walkers secreted more growth hormone, which results in stronger bones and a generally leaner body.
The investigators caution their results are preliminary, but the study suggests that women who walk for exercise may be able to achieve individual health goals depending upon how they pace themselves. Slower walking, which increased insulin sensitivity is good news for women who are at risk of developing diabetes. Also, slow walking may be good for women who have a lot of body fat to lose and who have not done much exercise. Those who have a family history of osteoporosis may want to consider vigorous walking, because a faster pace increases the amount of bone-strengthening growth hormone the body produces.
Researchers at the University of Virginia found that walking a few kilometres a day helped older people live longer, according to an article in the New England Journal of Medicine. The study found that walking as little as three kilometres a day reduced the risk of dying almost by fifty percent. The study examined the medical records of more than seven hundred men involved in a heart disease prevention program in Hawaii. All the men were at least sixty years old, had retired from work and did not smoke cigarettes. All were in generally good health, and able to walk a few kilometres per day. Forty-one percent of the men who walked less than one-and-one-half kilometres a day died during the study period. However, the death rate for those walking three kilometres or more a day was only twenty-four percent.
Researchers at Tufts University have recently demonstrated that lifting weights can do as much for the elderly as it does for athletes in training. Dr. Maria Fiatarone recruited 10 chronically ill nursing-home residents to lift weights three times a week for two months. At the end of the period, the participants' average walking speed nearly tripled, and their balance improved by half. Two threw away their canes! Miriam Nelson then demonstrated that a series of simple strength-training exercises could help women overcome the debilitating effects of osteoporosis. She recruited 40 volunteers: all past menopause and none taking estrogen. Half continued their lives as usual, while the other half pumped iron twice a week. Over the course of a year, the control-group women suffered a predictable loss of bone density; in contrast, the weight lifters showed slight increases in bone density. Although they didn't lose weight, all of the weight-lifting group lost fat, and many ended up measurably stronger than their daughters.
One participant in the Tufts weight-lifting study felt the program not only rebuilt her body but gave her more energy and confidence than she had had since her youth. Five years later at 69, Dorothy Barron continues to lift weights and has added power walking, horseback riding and white-water rafting to her activities. When asked why she continues to push herself, Dorothy replied, "I'm too old not to."
Factor Two: Diet
We have heard for many years about those foods which are unhealthy for us: excess fat, salt and empty calories. While there has been a ground-swell toward diets lower in salt, fats and other ingredients, we in North America have not, as a population, taken as big a stride toward embracing healthier foods eaten in healthier quantities.
Cardiologist Dean Ornish and others have shown that a diet based on low-fat, nutrient-rich foods not only prevents heart disease, North America's leading cause of early death, but can actually help reverse it. Dr Andrew Weil goes further by linking a healing diet with the avoidance or remission of many chronic disorders. By eating a diet rich in unprocessed plant products, we ingest a wide variety of cancer-fighting phytochemicals, bone-saving calcium, and fiber needed to maintain colon function and modulate blood sugar.
Researchers have also shown the dramatic benefits of diets rich in certain minerals and vitamins. Selenium and potassium are just two of countless mineral age-fighters found in fresh food, but often missing in processed foods. The antioxidant vitamins such as vitamins C and E and beta carotene can help boost immunity and slow the deterioration of aging cell membranes, while B vitamins protect the heart.
Factor 3: Mental and Emotional Activity
Exercise and a proper diet provide but two important factors in successful aging. Without the third, mental and emotional activity, we have an unstable foundation for longevity. Successful aging is clearly also a psychological process. Researchers have found strong links between successful aging and mental stimulation. Mental challenges appear to preserve both the mind and the immune system, for the brain and the complex interactions of our nervous system, like the muscles, can atrophy from disuse.
Studies are finding strong links between stress levels, the proper functioning of the immune system and the incidence of heart disease, cancer and accidents in all age groups. However, those entering their Age of Integrity, what Gail Sheehy calls the years after 70, appear to possess strong skills for managing stress and a lifelong investment in mental challenges. What impresses aging researchers most is the simple drive and resilience of this group, their adaptability to the curves life threw their way. "People who reach 100 are not quitters," observes Lynn Adler of the National Centenarian Awareness Project. "They share a remarkable ability to renegotiate life at every turn, to accept the inevitable losses and move on." Life to them is but a great adventure.
Seniors who don't isolate themselves as they get older are those that keep the healthiest. Loneliness can speed our demise no matter how conscientiously we care for our body. Many started early in mid-life to build what Sheehy calls their social portfolio, a wide-ranging collection of activities to draw upon in later life that successfully combines activities which can be done alone as well as those which are done with others and activities which require high levels of body energy and those which are lower in energy usage. She also finds commonalities within this group which include: above-average education, enjoyment of complex and stimulating lifestyles and being married to smart spouses.
Sheehy prefers that we no longer call the process aging. Instead she suggests successful aging be called saging: the process of accumulating wisdom and growing into our society's sages. Although we have to acknowledge that death is inevitable, how we age can be a process over which we have full control -- if we choose to take it. As Sheehy concludes: "If every day is an awakening, you will never grow old. You will just keep growing."
Hitting The Century Mark by Keith C. Heidorn, PhD . ©2003, All Rights Reserved.
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