We all want to remain active and alert for as long as possible. But what does healthy aging involve? We certainly know what unhealthy looks like. For instance, sitting on the couch and eating potato chips and chocolate cake all day will eventually catch up to us as we get older. But how can you create new, healthier habits that will help you retain better health as you age?
The National Institute on Aging (NIA) regularly references studies and insights that examine the issues that impact aging. And they have identified key elements that can help mitigate those issues and lead to healthier bodies and minds as we age. That includes individuals with dementia. We’ve paraphrased a few of them as follows:
- Your body thrives on movement. Whether you have a daily 30-minute workout 3-4 times per week or simply get up and walk daily, you are working your muscles and getting your heart pumping. The NIA cited a study that showed that individuals who reach at least 8,000 steps per day live longer than those who average around 4,000. And, as we age, muscle loss can contribute to reduced activity. That’s why it’s important to engage in muscle strengthening exercises at least 3-4 times per week.
- What you put into your body matters. We all know this but doing it is something altogether different. Fortunately, there are plenty of foods that are both heart and brain healthy. And, while it has been around for many years, the Mediterranean Diet is still the one recommended by most physicians and nutritionists. You can learn more about it on the Mayo Clinic website.
- Sleep is healing. As we age, getting sleep becomes more important, especially for individuals with dementia. Pain or illness can deprive older adults of the 7-9 hours of sleep we all need. Some medications can also cause restlessness at night. Check with your doctor and carve out a plan to optimize your environment to facilitate a good night’s sleep.
Other physical health tips include limiting alcohol and stopping smoking. Alcohol and nicotine can together create a perfect storm for poor health in later years. It’s also important to keep current on doctor visits and regular health exams. Catching an issue early can make a big difference in outcome.
- Connecting with others improves wellbeing. The NIA cites studies that show that adults who are more isolated have a greater risk of not only depression, but also cognitive decline. If you are retired, take some time to identify social outlets and ways to get involved locally through volunteering or joining local clubs. If you are caring for a loved one with dementia, make it a point to get them out of the house regularly. A meal out or a visit to a local park stimulates the senses and helps them better connect with others and the world around them.
- Minimizing stress is critical. Try joining a yoga class or learn meditation. Individuals with dementia also often respond well to these activities. The key is to try to do it daily if possible. Chronic stress can impact the brain and negatively affect things like cognition and memory.
If you are caring for a loved one who has dementia, it is even more important to find ways to alleviate stress. Consider joining a dementia support group where you can share your concerns with other family caregivers who are in similar situations.
What impact does all this have on cognitive health?
A lot! Have you ever noticed how after a good night’s sleep that you are sharper than after a restless night? If you are caring for a loved one with dementia, you have probably witnessed how much more mentally alert they are when they are well rested. Walking and taking in fresh air stimulates the brain as well. And foods rich in Omega 6 fatty acids are known to help improve alertness. The combination of eating nutritious foods, getting exercise, and reducing stress all contribute to better overall health for everyone. And that’s what healthy aging is all about!