Healthy Aging

Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD

Flip through and old family photo albums and look at your parents or relatives when they were your age.  You might notice that they look much older than you do.   In some sense, they were.  We are living longer lives than our parents did, and nowadays, few 50-year-olds consider themselves 'middle aged'. We often hear, in fact, that '50 is the new 40 (or even 30)'.

Advances in medicine have allowed earlier diagnosis and better treatment for certain illnesses that allow us to age more gracefully.  But we have also learned more and more about healthy lifestyle approaches to aging that are helping to turn back the clock.

Keeping all the cells of the body properly nourished is one of the best defenses against the natural aging process.  Your body requires optimum nutrition in order to produce energy for everyday activities and exercise as well as to nourish all the cells and tissues so they can perform their functions. 

Adequate protein - from foods such as fish, poultry, lean meats, nonfat dairy products, egg whites and vegetable sources such as tofu and soy protein powder - is critical for supporting the health of muscle tissue.  Protein is also needed to manufacture various body proteins such as hormones and enzymes that help the body perform its daily functions.

We need enough carbohydrate, too, which is the body's primary 'energy currency'.  Fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains are rich in carbohydrate that fuel our activities - from everyday household chores to strenuous exercise.  Without enough carbohydrate to fuel activity, fatigue - both physical and mental - can set in.

The right kind of fats are important - and despite our 'fear or fat', we do need small amounts to help us absorb fat-soluble vitamins that keep our eyes, skin, bones and nails healthy.  We also need fat to maintain a healthy brain and nervous system. 

Fats are naturally present in small amounts in plant foods - fruits and vegetables have trace amounts of fats, and fattier plant foods like avocados, olive and tree nuts have more.  Animal foods contain fats as well - the healthiest fats coming from seafood which is rich in omega-3 fatty acids which support a healthy heart and nervous system.  The catch is that fats are calorie-rich, so it's important to consume only the amounts we need - and to consume only the healthiest ones since they come with a relatively high calorie cost.  So make fish part of your regular diet, and use the healthy fats from nuts, olive and avocado in small amounts to add flavor to your meals.

Our bodies cannot make the vitamins and minerals that are required for healthy functioning - so it's important to ensure adequate intake from a well-balanced diet.  As people age, their intake of vitamins and minerals might decline due to changes in appetite, or an overall reduced calorie intake. For this reason, focusing on 'nutrient dense' foods - foods which pack a lot of nutrition at a relatively low calorie cost -  is key as we age.  Again, the mantra is fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins to supply plenty of vitamins and minerals.  Many people use multiple vitamin and mineral supplements to help close the gap and meet needs.

Our bodies also require a good antioxidant defense system - the ability to help combat the formation of compounds called free radicals that can damage body cells.  Free radicals are formed as a result of everyday metabolic processes in the body, and as long as we have enough antioxidants in the system to keep their formation in check, the cells and tissues of the body will be protected.  Many of the most potent antioxidants in the diet come from the colorful pigments in fruits and vegetables. An easy strategy for increasing antioxidants is to try to consume a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables at meals and snacks throughout the day. 

Keeping weight under control is a great strategy for keeping a spring in your step.  As we age, we tend to burn fewer calories through exercise - or to do less strenuous activity - which can cause weight to creep up.  This puts additional pressure on joints, so that activity becomes more difficult, and the cycle progresses.  And, some chronic conditions that may occur with aging, such as osteoarthritis or Type 2 diabetes, are associated with excess weight. 

The old adage, 'use it or lose it' is good advice for keeping both the mind and body younger and healthier.  Regular physical activity - which includes some form of cardiovascular exercise, stretching and strength training - will not only help keep weight in check, but helps with flexibility and stamina.  Having the strength, energy and agility to get through daily activities is a key to looking and feeling younger than you are.

Finally, keep your mind active and engaged.  Those who stay physically and mentally active and who engage others socially enjoy a better quality of life than those who become isolated and unchallenged. 

While we can't turn literally turn back the hands of time, taking care of yourself is an investment well worth making - one that can help keep the 'gold' in your 'golden' years. 

Susan Bowerman is a consultant to Herbalife.

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