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June 23, 2005

Living longer & better: Aging gracefully — & healthfully

Today, the vitality of a 75-year-old adult is comparable to that of a 55-year-old of two decades ago, according to Judith S. Black, medical director of senior products at Highmark. To achieve that new benchmark, older Americans must balance the goals of staying active, eating right, staying involved and taking charge of their lives.

First, though, Black wants to dispel some myths on aging: Just because someone is older doesn’t mean necessarily that their health problems are age-related. Don’t equate age with nursing homes — only about 5 percent of Americans over the age of 65 reside in them. And the consequences of growing older are not as dire as once believed — half of adults age 85 years or older have no limitations on completing the tasks of daily life.

While most people know the importance of staying active, only 8 percent of people age 65 and older exercise as much as they should, which is 30 minutes of moderate activity four times a week, Black points out. At least 35 health problems are related to inactivity, she notes. Black suggests something simple such as walking, which can reduce substantially the risk of cardiovascular events and visits to the hospital. In addition, she recommends muscle-strengthening activities at least twice a week.

Eating right isn’t just knowing the importance of vitamins and minerals, but using appropriate portion sizes and following national nutritional guidelines. That means forgoing McDonald’s super-sized fries for fruits, vegetables and fiber. More people need to pay attention to these dietary guidelines, according to Black. About two-thirds of people age 65 and older in western Pennsylvania are overweight or obese, she explains. Healthy diets are sabotaged by eating out and ignorance about the impact of calorie-dense foods and liquid calories.

Think of food as fuel. According to Black, foods that are “nutrition powerhouses” include: broccoli, green leafy vegetables, oranges, tomato sauce, oatmeal, beans, soy, salmon and tuna, low-fat milk or soy milk and nuts. And generally, people should eat foods that are plant-based, minimally processed and seasonally fresh, she said.

While healthy diets and exercise are important, older adults also need to limit stress in their lives, according to Black. Long-term effects of stress include decreased immune system response, hypertension, high blood cholesterol, heart disease and weight gain. Avoiding stress and finding time for relaxation are key. “Think about having some fun and laughing,” Black advises. “Laughing not only feels good, but it’s a great way to relieve stress.”

Avoiding stress, staying involved in activities with family and friends and engaging in some form of spirituality promotes a healthy inner life, Black advises. If a person finds his or her work fulfilling, maybe early retirement isn’t the healthiest of choices, she suggests.

—Mary Ann Thomas

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