By Pamela D. Wilson, The Care Navigator, CSA, CG, MS, BS/BA
Good health or aging successfully doesn’t depend only on the state of our physical health and level of activity. There are other contributing factors that we often overlook like mental health and our level of social contact and support.1 It is all of these factors combined that determine whether we will age healthy or age sickly. Even more interesting, research proves that individuals who rate themselves as being “in poor health” are more likely to die before their peers who report themselves as being “in good health”.2
Who knew there were factors we should pay attention to early in our lives so that we might age healthy? Why weren’t we told about this at an early age from our physicians or other family members? Would we have cared? Would the information have made a difference?
To some of us information about aging and preventative care is invaluable; to others not so much. The difference is two-fold: 1) our personal level of interest in being and remaining healthy and active and 2) our ability to self- regulate or to choose behavior that is positive rather than negative to our health. Both of these factors are likely affected by our childhoods and how our own parents viewed health and lifestyle unless, on our own, we’ve had an interest in researching health.
It’s never too late to make the choice to be healthy. Physical health and level of activity are two areas in which a little focus and attention can show great results even if you start slowly and work up to higher levels of activity. Exercise is not only the level of intensity but also the time spent in exercise. Whether you’re walking, jogging or participating in another activity that raises your heartbeat you’ll strengthen your cardiovascular system and likely improve muscle strength.
For some, the word exercise conjures up pictures of unpleasant activity at the gym and use of weight and exercise equipment. For others, exercise is hiking outdoors with friends, bicycling or mowing the lawn. Exercise, and how you view the activity, is all in your attitude and in your mind. Exercise is also mental: reading books, learning a foreign language, crossword puzzles, word search games, jigsaw puzzles and more. The body benefits from both.
There’s no doubt that strengthening your cardiovascular system supports managing blood pressure, avoiding heart disease and stroke; both of which may contribute to vascular dementia. Alzheimer’s disease is just one of the diagnoses of memory loss and related declines, vascular dementia, frontal temporal dementia and brain injuries are some of the others. Being a caregiver for an individual with Alzheimer’s disease increases the likelihood of cardiovascular disease. 3
Maintaining good physical health strengthens muscles and improves balance, reducing the likelihood of physical disability which makes it difficult to perform daily activities like making a bed, standing at the stove to prepare a meal, walking a flight of steps and many activities older adults eventually find difficult. Good physical health also helps avoid falls and fractures that contribute to permanent nursing home placement. Other contributors that have been identified that contribute to decline include: smoking, alcohol consumption, sleeping too much and poor dietary habits.2
Social contact with family and friends is also important. This activity supports our brains through participation in intellectual conversations and activities. The internet has made contact with those far away relatively simple and helps develop the skill of using a computer. Social support and contact also reduces the likelihood of depression, anxiety and potential mental health issues. Just the opposite, isolation contributes to cognitive, physical and functional declines and results in more frequent hospitalizations and the likelihood of permanent institutionalization.
While the long term effects of our health are rarely on our minds when we’re young and perfectly healthy, life changes as soon as we’re diagnosed with a chronic disease that affects us physically or because of a need to take medications. It’s at this point, again, that our attitude can be our best friend or our worst enemy.
Many individuals experiencing chronic illness or pain become depressed and less active. This results in increasing physical disability and poorer health including self-reports of being in “poor health”. Individuals, in spite of chronic illness and pain, who continue a healthy lifestyle that supports good mental and physical health fare better in their daily lives and report “good health”.
As in many aspects of our lives, it is our attitude that supports our general outlook and wellbeing. In no aspect of our life is our attitude more important, as with our health especially as we age. Older adults experience more frequent hospitalizations. Remaining out of the hospital becomes more challenging if the appropriate coordination and follow up to support health does not occur. For some older adults, follow through and coordination of health related activities after a hospitalization becomes challenging.
If you or a loved one for whom you’re caring would benefit from an assessment or support in developing a plan to address health and activity, The Care Navigator is available to assist. The Care Navigator serves caregiving families and individuals in Metro Denver and the Colorado Front Range. Through The Caring Generation®, a one of a kind online community of support for family and professional caregivers, Pamela D. Wilson offers an extensive library of expert interviews, educational podcasts, videos, articles and a forum to allow caregivers to connect with others in similar situations.
1 Parslow, R., Lewis, V., and Nay, R. “Successful Aging: Development and Testing of a Multidimensional Model Using Data From a Large Sample of Older Australians”. J Am Geriatr Soc 59:2077-2083, 2011.
2 Tsubota-Utsugi, M., et al. “Health Behaviors as Predictors for Declines in Higher-Level Functional Capacity in Older Adults: The Ohasama Study.” J Am Geriatr Soc 59:1993-2000, 2011.
3 Von Kanel, R. et al. “Cardiometabolic Effects in Caregivers of Nursing Home Placement and Death of Their Spouse with Alzheimer’s Disease.” J Am Geriatr Soc 59:2037-2044, 2011.
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