Maintaining a Healthy Lifestyle

One Key to Aging Well

While the genetic theory of aging says that genes are responsible for how long you will live, I suggest that a healthy life style and the environment also play a role. Authors on the website, MedLinePlus say as much:

The duration of human life (longevity) is influenced by genetics, the environment, and lifestyle. Environmental improvements beginning in the 1900s extended the average life span dramatically with significant improvements in the availability of food and clean water, better housing and living conditions, reduced exposure to infectious diseases, and access to medical care. . . Most significant were public health advances that reduced premature death by decreasing the risk of infant mortality, increasing the chances of surviving childhood, and avoiding infection and communicable disease. Now people in the United States live about 80 years on average, but some individuals survive for much longer.

There is a wise old Spanish proverb that says “A man too busy to take care of his health is like a mechanic too busy to take care of his tools.” A healthy lifestyle is key to aging well and you as the mechanic of your health have choices – you can make ones that keep your mind and body well as you get older.

I think of a healthy lifestyle in terms of the six domains of wellness: physical, intellectual, social, emotional, spiritual, and functional. So, let’s look at each domain as it applies to maintaining a healthy life style.

Physical Wellness

Let’s begin with physical wellness which typically refers to exercise and nutritious eating. Exercise has countless benefits for people of all ages, including a healthier heart, stronger bones, and improved flexibility. For older adults, regular exercise can also reduce the risk of chronic diseases, lower the chance of injury, and improve their mood.

Many articles and books have been written about exercise for older adults. These four links provide good information:

Just as exercising is an important part of maintaining a healthy lifestyle; so, is eating nutritiously. Besides lowering your risk of chronic health conditions and diabetes, eating nutritiously helps you manage your weight, keeps you energized, and provides the required nutrients for your body.

Healthy weight varies from person to person depending on their height and body frame. Being underweight is of concern for older people and may be related to not having enough food to eat, not eating nutritiously or having an illness. Conversely, being overweight is of concern because extra weight can increase the risk of illnesses such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and bone diseases.

The CDC states that in 2017/2018, 42% of men and 43% of women 60 years old and over were obese.

Guidelines suggest that a 60-year-old, sedentary woman should consume about 1,600 calories a day, and a sedentary man should consume about 2,000 calories a day. Obviously, a more active person has different guidelines.

The Harvard School of Health suggests guidelines for healthy eating.. There are many other useful sites as well, such as

Exercise and healthy eating are key to aging well.

Intellectual Wellness

The old saying “if you don’t use it, you lose it,” applies to the brain as well. Exercising the brain is as important as exercising the body. So, the second dimension of maintaining a healthy life style is intellectual wellness. Generally speaking, maintaining your intellectual wellness expands the knowledge and skills needed to live a stimulating, successful life.  A life which leads to your active participation in scholastic, cultural, and community activities. Ways to maintain intellectual health in addition to being active and eating well are drinking sensibly, keeping in touch with others, asking for help, and doing something you are good at.

You can improve your intellectual wellness in many ways, if the brain is healthy enough to do them. Here are just a few. READ FOR FUN, especially if it is something you enjoy. Stretch your mind to think about things you normally don’t think about by DEBATING WITH A FRIEND.  Increase your intellectual wellness by PLAYING A GAME, LEARNING A FOREIGN LANGUAGE, or PLAYING A MUSICAL INSTRUMENT. KEEP A JOURNAL to help you understand your feelings and yourself better. MAKE PUZZLES: crossword and jigsaw puzzles are fun and have been proven to increase intellectual wellness by forcing a person to use a large amount of brain power.

The brain, like the rest of the body, changes as a person grows older. Many people notice that they become more forgetful as they age. They may find it takes longer to think of a word or to recall a person's name, which is typical. A concern for people as they age is that they will lose their mental sharpness and independence or, even worse, develop dementia, the group of conditions characterized by impairment of at least two brain functions; memory loss and judgment. Symptoms can include forgetfulness, limited social skills, and thinking abilities so impaired that they interfere with daily functioning. An estimated 5.8 million Americans age 65 and older are living with dementia in 2020. Eighty percent of them are age 75 or older.

A new survey of primary care physicians appearing in the Alzheimer’s Association 2020 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures report finds “nearly 9 in 10 primary care physicians (87%) expect to see an increase in people living with dementia during the next five years, but 50% say the medical profession is not prepared to meet this demand.”

Brain functioning affects everything a person does from remembering to brush his or her teeth to taking the right medication. Without intellectual wellness, you will not have the ability to make healthy lifestyle choices.

Social Wellness

We discussed physical and intellectual wellness, now let’s talk about the third dimension of maintaining a healthy life style: social wellness. Social Wellness involves building healthy, nurturing and supportive relationships as well as fostering a genuine connection with those around you. From the time you’re born, your relationships help you learn to navigate the world. You learn how to interact with others, express yourself, conduct everyday health habits, and be a part of different communities from those around you.

Positive social habits can help you build support systems and stay healthier mentally and physically. It can be achieved by surrounding yourself with positive people and being comfortable in social situations.

Signs of social wellness include

  • Using assertiveness skills rather than passive or aggressive ones.

  • Balancing social and personal time.

  • Being who you are in situations.

  • Becoming engaged with others in the community.

  • Valuing diversity and treating others with respect.

  • Maintaining and developing friendships and social networks.

  • Creating boundaries within relationships that encourage communication, trust and conflict management.

  • Remembering to have fun.

  • Having supportive network of family and friends.

Volunteering is one way to engage in social wellness because it can give you a sense of satisfaction and purpose; however, it’s not the only way. There are a variety of opportunities for older adults to increase their social circle and add value to their lives. Activities such as choosing a hobby you wish to pursue, participating in a sport like golf, or joining a group of like-minded people encourage social wellness. Although COVID 19 is definitely hindering the pursuit of social wellness for now.

Want to find ways to improve your social wellness? Take a look at these this website for great ideas and this one.

Connecting with others is a key component of maintaining a healthy lifestyle and aging well. Yet, it is often not considered.

Emotional Wellness

The fourth dimension of maintaining a healthy lifestyle is emotional wellness. It isn't really about problems you have in life, but about how you approach them and how you can choose to focus on the parts of life you love rather than on the difficulties. Emotional wellness means treating others well, liking yourself, being flexible, and being grateful for your loved ones. It also suggests that your life has meaning and that you value experiences over possessions.

Emotional wellness inspires self-care, relaxation, stress reduction and the development of inner strength. Emotional wellness also includes an ability to learn and grow from experiences which, in turn, encourages autonomy and proper decision-making skills.

I am reminded of the term emotional intelligence (EQ).  In his book Emotional Intelligence, author and psychologist Daniel Goleman suggested that EQ might actually be more important than IQ (general intelligence). 

Howard Gardner, the Harvard theorist, named four basic components of emotional intelligence: awareness, self-regulation, self-motivation and relationship management. Self-awareness means having the ability to listen to your real feelings, to recognize the impact of your emotions, and to have confidence in your capability to manage them. Self-regulation means having a say in how long a feeling lasts. Using various strategies such as reframing a situation in a more positive light, taking a long walk, or meditating can lessen negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, or depression. Self-motivation means inspiring yourself with clear goals and a positive attitude. Even if you currently have a negative attitude, you can learn to think positively with effort and practice. Relationship management means using the awareness of your own emotions and those of others to manage your interactions successfully.

The more skillful you are at understanding the feelings behind the signals someone gives, the better you can control the signals you send.

An important aspect of emotional wellness is emotional resilience; a person’s ability to adapt to stressful situations or crises. More resilient people are able to "roll with the punches" and adapt to adversity without lasting difficulty. They tend to be skilled in preparing for emotional emergencies and are adept at accepting what comes at them with flexibility rather than rigidity. People who are emotionally resilient maintain their boundaries, practice acceptance, don’t pretend to have all the answers, keep a list of self-care habits, and enlist a support team. Less resilient people have a harder time with stress and life changes.

You can imagine the important role emotional wellness and emotional resiliency play in maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Life does provide challenges and you must continue on your quest to age well in spite of them. Finding ways to adapt and accept the changes that will inevitably occur is key.

Spiritual Wellness

 Spiritual wellness is the fifth dimension of maintaining a healthy lifestyle and aging well. Spiritual wellness means being connected to something greater than yourself and having a set of values, principles, morals and beliefs that provide a sense of purpose and meaning to your life. Then, using those principles to guide your actions. The path to spiritual wellness may involve meditation, yoga, prayer, affirmations, or specific spiritual practices that support your connection to a higher power or belief system. This higher power can be thought of as God, an Inner Guide, or the Universe. Compassion, the capacity to love and forgive, kindness, joy, and fulfillment help you enjoy spiritual health.

Evaluate your spiritual wellness by answering the following questions. A "no" to any of them may indicate an area that you will want to work on. So, ask yourself if you make time for relaxation in your day or if you are making time for meditation and/or prayer. Also ask yourself if your values are guiding your decisions and actions and whether or not you are accepting the views of others? Finally and mostly importantly ask yourself whether you love and accept yourself exactly as you are.

I am reminded of Victor Frankl, the Austrian holocaust survivor, neurologist, psychiatrist and author of the book A Search for Meaning,  who said

the meaning of life is to find a purpose and take responsibility for ourselves and other human beings. By having a clear “why” we can face all the “how” questions of life. Only by feeling free and sure of the objective that motivates us will we be able to make the world a better place

Dr. Mimi Guarneri, author of the book 108 Pearls and Medical Director of Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine in San Diego, offers three keys to spiritual wellness. The first key is to develop an attitude of gratitude – a deep down heartfelt gratitude that comes from being aware of and truly appreciating something you may have been taking for granted. The second key is to forgive – forgiveness means taking back your power. When you forgive, you are no longer a victim. The final key is to change your thoughts and change your life. When you think negative hurtful thoughts, you subject your body, mind and spirit to the impact of that negativity.

Spiritual wellness is key to maintaining a healthy life style. There are many ups and downs as you age and having a spiritual connection is helpful.

Functional Wellness

In my view, the last wellness is functional wellness – the antithesis of functional decline. Functional decline is a loss of independence in self-care capabilities and is typically associated with deterioration in mobility and in the performance of activities of daily living (ADLs) such as dressing, toileting, and bathing.

Functional disability is common in older adults. It is often episodic and is associated with a high risk of subsequent health decline. The severity of disability is determined by physical impairments caused by underlying medical conditions and by external factors such as social support, financial support, and the environment.

There are many types of common age-related functional decline. These declines include vision problems such as macular degeneration, trouble reading, cataracts, and glaucoma. Hearing problems like loss of hearing and tinnitus can occur. Many people experience balance problems, memory and brain problems, including changes in mental fitness or dementia. Finally, they can have weakness in bones like osteopenia and osteoporosis.

One study found that the most important factors associated with functional decline were the number of days someone took off from regular activities, the number of hot meals eaten per day, and cognitive status. They also found that people who believed their health was worse than it had been previously were significantly less likely to improve their function. What can you do to prevent functional decline? This advice will likely sound familiar: eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly, manage chronic diseases that you might experience, and stay active.

Another factor in functional decline is a hospital stay.

Hospital admission is considered a health risk for older patients. Thirty-five percent of 70-year-old patients experience functional decline during hospital admission in comparison with pre-illness baseline. This percentage increases to 50% for 85-year-old patients.

It seems as if physical, intellectual, social, emotional, and spiritual wellness contribute to functional wellness and to maintaining a healthy life style. Maintaining a healthy life style is a key to aging well. So, that old Spanish proverb said “A man too busy to take care of his health is like a mechanic too busy to take care of his tools.” 

As the mechanic of your health, you are in charge, are you doing your job?