Over the past few months, I have been seriously looking at the issues of aging. I became a gerontologist almost twenty years ago. The fascination with aging and all the myths, stories, and culture that surround it were becoming part of my life. But I was still in my fifties, and I looked younger than that. My perspective was still looking at aging as something that is happening to other older people. In fact, I remember saying that specializing in this field meant that I was still younger than the group I was studying. Now I look back on that as being so arrogant and ageist because now I am part of that group of older people.
The reason I am discussing this now is that the majority of boomers have crossed the threshold of age 65. Their issues are now front and center in all areas of life. However, I find that aging discussions are still centered around those in their fifties and sixties. I specialize in brain aging and brain health, and I am fully aware of what it takes to live a long, healthy, high-brain-functioning life. What has shaken me up lately though is looking at the risk factors for developing dementia and how they apply to those of us entering our seventies.
As I have written, “we are paying the piper for our lifestyle habits” when we hit these older ages. Unfortunately, the knowledge of the impact of our unhealthy lifestyles from our youth hasn’t been revealed until recently. Now our lifestyles are impacting our health as chronic diseases. The high incidence of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and inflammation-based diseases such as arthritis, gum disease, allergies, and asthma are putting us at high risk for dementia! So now what?
To the leading-edge boomers who did not get this information earlier in their lives, I want to say this. It is never too late! Granted, we have a lot to do to get us back into a healthy state. But now we have the advantage of understanding what we are dealing with. Our brains can be very resilient, and we are not doomed to anything. Information on healthy lifestyles is available everywhere. Brain health is a hot topic these days. Here is what we need to do:
· Take an honest look at your physical and cognitive state.
· Are you being treated for any chronic diseases?
· Do you follow your treatment plan or are you slacking off because habits are hard to break?
· How is your memory?
· How is your stress level?
These can be difficult questions to answer but if you want to do the hard work of turning your physical and brain health around you need to know your baseline starting point.
· Get up and get moving. Physical activity is paramount to changing your health. Obesity and diabetes are epidemic because we have become complacent and have settled for a sedentary lifestyle. Learn to play Pickleball!
· Become a lifelong learner. Just because you are not in the workplace any longer doesn’t mean that you should stop learning. This time you get to pick and choose what you want to learn!
· EAT RIGHT!! Fast food, processed food, and junk food started dominating our lives when we were young. Home-cooked, healthy meals fell by the wayside. Go back to basics – dark green leafy vegetables, dark, red-skinned fruit, fatty fish, lean red meat, nuts, legumes, dark chocolate, and a glass of red wine! Do not become obsessed with being perfect with this. Be mindful of what you are putting in your mouth!
· Get out of the house and be with other people. Living a solitary lifestyle can lead to depression and has a negative impact on your cognitive function. We are hardwired to connect. I need to use my mom as a primary example of the value of being with other people. Mom was widowed when she was 40 and she had six kids at home. Somehow throughout the years she always found new friends to be with. She lived to be 91 and over that time old friends died but she always made an effort to find new friends. In fact, the day she died she met with two of her friends and they played cards and laughed a lot. I always wanted to be like my mom – but that is the way I want to spend my last days.
· Sleep – It is harder than ever to get a good night’s sleep when you are older. There are many of us who have sleep apnea and don’t even know it. It is a primary cause of poor sleep. Talk to your doctor about that. I don’t recommend sleeping pills because you trade one risk for another. Again, this is an issue you should talk to your doctor about. Sleeping can be fraught with many kinds of disturbances. Be a detective and journal what your sleep habits are and your sleep problems are. This may surprise you.
· Finally, learn to deal with your stress. If you have had a stressful life and find this is the operating system you default to, have an honest talk with yourself about what it is doing to you. Many of our problems seem out of our control in these older years. How you react to these problems is the way to relieve the stress response. We do have control over that. Stress starts in our brain and stops in our brain. We need to learn ways to reign ourselves in so that stress doesn’t continue to run our lives and ruin our health.
This may be overwhelming but know this. We increase our risks for dementia when we hit our seventies because age is a non-modifiable risk factor. Now we can fall victim to that because we think we have no alternative. Or we can start to reclaim our brains and our lives by being serious about the lifestyles we live. Our brain doesn’t know how old we are but if we don’t treat it right it will age faster. We always have a choice.