This is a guest post by author Ellen Rickerd
THE NATURE OF AGING
By Ellen Joy Rickerd, Senior Citizen
Aka Gere Johnson, Author
For many years it has been said that life begins at forty, though I have a good friend who says the “life begins when the kids leave home and the dog dies.” Additionally, there is the constant debate about whether life begins at conception or at birth (one has to wonder how that got to be a political question rather than a medical/philosophical/religious question).
Nevertheless, the fact is that once life begins there is ultimately a 100% chance of death. According to the latest estimates, the leading causes of death in the United States are:
- Cardiovascular disease – 36.9%
- Cancer – 22.7%
- Chronic lower respiratory disease – 5.2%
- Accidents – 4.5%
- All others – 30.7%
The main underlying causes of these deaths are the use of tobacco, a poor diet and/or inactivity (obesity), and alcohol. Of course, our bodies change as we age, but many people remain active and vibrant throughout their lives, whereas others may experience health effects that can diminish their quality of life. The difference, therefore, seems to be a “wellness lifestyle,” which can be influenced by maintaining a healthy weight and moderate exercise program. If we take care of ourselves, we may be lucky enough to someday find ourselves in what is known as “old age” or the “golden years,” and attitude about aging is a “major key in healthy into old age. The older you are, lifestyle becomes more important than genes.”[i]
When I asked some senior friends, “Why do people call these the “golden years”?
He said, “Because you need to be strong (golden) to face all the problems and difficulties that arise at this time of life.”
She said, “Well, the children are grown and gone. You don’t have to work anymore, and so you have more freedom … which is golden.”
The other man said, “You need lots of gold to pay all the medical bills!”
Age will change your entire body, from the top of your head to the tip of your toes, and if you’re like me, it will sneak up on you – one day you’ll look in the mirror and say to yourself, “Who in the world is that old lady (or man) in my mirror?” These changes may (probably will) include the following: the brain shrinks gradually as we age, by as much as 10% … disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia can lead to major cognitive deterioration.[ii]
Loss of melanin in the hair will cause it turn gray or white, and the texture may become more coarse and thinner. Hair that you lose from your head may reappear in your nose and ears. Women will find that they have more facial hair, and men may grow bushy eyebrows.
Age creeps into your voice, and your speech may become slower and high-pitched. Skin will appear wrinkled and be drier with the tendency to crack. The senile skin is thinner, lacks elasticity, and may have areas of discoloration (spots) and scattered redness.
Cataracts, glaucoma, macular degeneration, presbyopia (a condition in which loss of elasticity of the lens causes defective focus for near objects), and other conditions of eyesight.[iii] Hearing may become less sharp. Taste, smell, and appetite change, and foods that once seemed tasty may at this time be undesirable.
Hormones change … menopause becomes part of a woman’s life. (Note: there is currently a great deal of information on the Internet that can help a woman to know what to expect and whether to choose hormone replacement therapy). Bones can become brittle and weak (osteoporosis) and make falls more dangerous even as balance becomes less sure. Muscle mass decreases even as weight increases (weight increases approximately one pound per year starting at age 25). Joints become less flexible, and balance is more difficult to maintain. Respiratory difficulties such as COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) or emphysema can arise. Even toenails – and fingernails – are affected. The fingernails may become thin and brittle at the same time that the toenails become thick and coarse. Internal organs age also, and those that are not properly supported by strong muscles and tendons may prolapse (slip from their usual position). Aging of the heart and arteries can result in arteriosclerosis (clogging of the arteries), heart attack, and stroke.
Over the past 100 years, we have doubled our life expectancy. It may be that muscles and joints were not designed to last that long. So, what is to be done? Aside from cosmetic changes (which often don’t work), the best coarse is prevention, which includes proper nutrition, exercise, and a positive attitude.
Proper nutrition seems obvious, but seniors who have smaller appetites may have to monitor their daily intake to be certain that their diet includes all the nutrients needed to maintain a healthy, vigorous body (and that they take a daily multi-vitamin and calcium, if needed). The United States Department of Agriculture has established a “Nutrition Pyramid” that recommends a 2000 calorie per day diet to include: 2 cups of fruit, 2 ½ cups of vegetables, 6 ounces of grains, 5 ½ ounces of meat and legumes, 3 cups of milk and dairy products, and 5 teaspoons of oils. Individuals can go to the MyPyramid.gov site and produce a personalized plan based on age, weight, and other factors.
Exercise cannot be just a sometimes thing. It must be part of your lifestyle … part of a whole wellness program. Physical activity guidelines for weight management are: 30 minutes on most days of the week if you do not have difficulty maintaining body weight, 60 minutes of daily activity to prevent weight gain, or between 60 and 90 minutes each day to lose weight or to keep weight off following extensive weight loss. (Note: these times can be broken into more manageable segments of 10 or 15 minutes each, if desired.) If you are 45 or older or have any physical disability or abnormalities, you must check with your physician before starting an exercise program. However, exercise as part of your wellness program should be started at the earliest age possible. If you are still a “youngster,” keep this in mind when you realize that we live in a largely sedentary world wherein we spend a lot of time sitting in front of a computer and rushing to eat fast food before we run out of time.
Activity is important for the core of our being: many of the changes in our musculoskeletal system result more from disuse than from simple aging. Fewer than 10% of Americans participate in regular exercise, and the most sedentary group is older than 50 years of age.
A proper strength-training exercise program can help return muscle mass. Most adults have similar musculature, but inactivity can degenerate the muscle mass, decrease muscle fibers, and produce weakness. The individual percentage of muscle to fat can be greatly improved with exercise.
Slow and sustained stretching exercises (until you feel it, but not yet painful) can return flexibility by producing stronger muscles around joints. Connective tissues (bone to bone and muscle to bone) may become a little brittle, but the most important facet is the flexibility of the muscle.
Weight bearing exercise (walking, weight lifting, etc.) can help build healthy bones and reduce the likelihood of osteoporosis. The process of laying down bone is continuous through life and is affected by calcium intake, hormones, and the demand placed on them by the surrounding muscles. This is referred to as SAID – “Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands.”
Exercise cannot rebuild lung damage such as seen with COPD and other respiratory diseases, but improvement of muscle tone means there will be less stress on the respiratory system, more red blood cells to carry oxygen, and a higher capacity of the cells to carry oxygenation, plus higher vascularization (more capillaries).
Balance difficulties that are not directly attributable to disease (ossification of the inner ear bones, labyrinthitis, Meniere’s disease, or a rare meningioma like I have) are usually as sign of weakness that can be helped with strength training. Balance has a skill-related component that can be learned and improved. People with known balance problems should learn to plan ahead and to compensate for their weaknesses.
Cognitive problems can be alleviated by keeping mind active – be socially interactive, learn something new (take a class), play a game, read, write your memoirs (your children and grandchildren will be grateful for the insight), garden, travel, and go to the gym.
As we age, we should remember that wellness includes: physical, social, occupational, emotional, mental, environmental, and spiritual components. Each of these can affect longevity, and each deserves attention. Just as young people are encouraged to begin a 401K or IRA to insure their financial old age, it seems to me that young people should be encouraged to start a Wellness program to insure their physical well-being as they age. And as is discussed in my book, “The Strange Case,” senior citizens need to be cautious about medications and becoming over-medicated as it is often easier for your doctor to prescribe than to fully diagnose.
[i] “Aging Gracefully.” WebMd <http://www.webmd.com/healthy-aging>
[ii] “Anti-aging Clinic”. Nutritional & Educational Center. <http://www. healthstores.com/antiaging>
[iii] The Eye Digest <http://agingeye.net>