- EAT MORE PRODUCE: Fruits and vegetables are as close to a Fountain of Youth as anything else out there. Their antioxidant-rich phytonutrients contain the premier anti-aging compounds known to prevent damage to all our cells and body organs that occurs as a byproduct of many common processes, including normal metabolism, obesity, emotional stress, illness, surgery, smoking, alcohol and drugs, and exercise. If you are not counteracting all that “oxidative stress” (fancy name for bad molecules, formed by the processes just mentioned, damaging good, healthy molecules), then your body is moving toward chronic disease, aging, and death. One of the most important benefits of produce, too, is to increase circulation in small blood vessels, and promote their elasticity and resilience; and small blood vessels bring oxygen and nutrient-rich blood to such important organ systems as the brain, the kidneys and the heart. Doubt the power of produce? Even as few as 3 raw carrots a week can lower stroke risk by 66% in women over 50.
- EXERCISE YOUR BODY: More movement in your life, more often, will create stronger and healthier lungs, heart, blood vessels, and attitude! Plus exercise done through a variety of modalities— walking, swimming, biking, tennis—will enhance your sense of balance and protect against injury from falls later in life. Weight-bearing exercise, which includes walking, happily, also strengthens bones and keeps them protected against fractures if you do fall. A really scary statistic is that, if a woman over 80 falls and breaks a hip, she will most likely end up in a nursing home, and her life expectancy at that point will be 6 months to 3 years, at best! An important side-benefit of regular exercise is improved mood; depressed people have shorter life-spans and decreased mobility as they age. (Know the two most important cures for depression, by the way? Exercise, and helping others)
- EXERCISE YOUR BRAIN: Notice all those little old people hunched over their crossword puzzles? My own Mom used to sweat the USA Today crosswords in focused intensity until she’d finally have written in every box, then grab the next day’s paper first thing in the morning to examine her results. Research done on aging and the brain shows that challenging your brain every day, and often, keeps your neurons and brain chemicals and connections functioning more efficiently and accurately. Learning a new language as we age is a particularly great way to stay challenged. Making an effort to remember peoples’ names when you meet them, and to remember small details about each day, helps to “exercise” that brain and keep it young. If you want to keep living independently until the day you die, you need to keep your brain, as well as your body, as healthy and hearty as possible.
- STAY ENGAGED IN LIFE: People who withdraw from their communities as they age, who live isolated lives, miss out on an important social support system that helps people stay independent and active well into their final years. Often, such communities, be they religious, cultural, locational (neighbors and neighborhoods), familial, interest-or-hobby-based, educational-based, or any combination of the above, have been shown to be of key importance in promoting healthy and happy aging. The older someone gets, too, the fewer friends and relatives in their own age group remain, increasing the importance of having a social network that spans generations. Engaging in diverse activities with diverse people helps people feel more like they have things and people to live for. One of my Mom’s favorite comments, the older she got, was “I’m not afraid of dying, but there’s so much going on, and so many amazing discoveries and advances happening all the time, that I can’t imagine leaving yet!”
- HAVE A DAUGHTER! I found this tidbit especially relevant when Mom turned 92, the year before she died, and found herself not quite able to live entirely independently. She was contemplating moving into an Assisted Living facility, complete with options for increasing care if or when needed, until my sisters and I discussed the idea, with each other, and then with her, of having us live with her in her own home, in sisterly rotations. Mom chose that as her favorite option, and gave us each the privilege of getting to know her better than we ever had in our adult lives, enabling her to stay at home until the day she died, fixing breakfast for a friend. I discovered this importance-of-a-daughter fact when I read a study on aging done by an author who had come to the conclusion that, of all the things that determined whether or not an elderly person would ever have to live in a nursing home during their lifetime, having a daughter was the strongest negative predictor!
My two sisters and I fit the bill entirely, and loved it; but we can ALSO say with certainty that our experience “caring for” Mom was made infinitely more pleasant, harmonious, and comfortable for all because Mom had followed the first 4 steps outlined above, so that her health was overall quite strong, she was able to get around independently (though relying on her walker quite a bit; it had nice hand brakes, and a basket for her to put her crossword puzzles and dictionary in!). The fact that she’d get up at 6:00 in the morning, get herself over to the pool via elevator and walkway, and determinedly do her water aerobics routine, every day except Sunday (when she rested!), then be fixing her own breakfast when her live-in daughter would arise, made driving for her and doing her errands and helping her balance her checkbooks, a real joy.
Obviously, every person can’t lay claim to having produced one daughter along the way; the next best thing would be, to have or cultivate a close female friend, preferably someone about 20 years younger than yourself!, who might be willing someday to be leaned or relied on for some of the tasks that become increasingly difficult to continue to do on one’s own, as one’s own joints and brains, energy levels and overall resilience, begin to slow.
Taking these Five Ways to heart now, before you’re any farther along the road toward the end of your life, will help you preserve the quality and richness of your life, as you create your own roadmap and choose vitality and vibrancy, not slow deterioration in a nursing home, for your final act on earth.