Healthy aging

Dr M K Mam

Aging or growing old is a normal phase of life through which we all leaving aside some unfortunate ones go through. As we age, certain changes in the body are inevitable. With all that, everyone would love to experience the aging in the best possible way – have a healthy aging. World Health Organisation (WHO) has defined healthy aging as “the process of developing and maintaining the functional ability that enables well-being in older age”. It is more than just the absence of disease. It is fine to wish and have a long life, however it should be a quality and better one, quality life is that really matters. Abraham Lincoln has very rightly said, “In the end, it is not the years in your life that count. It is the life in years.”
Importance of healthy aging: Studies have shown that healthy aging decreases chances of getting chronic medical problems like hypertension, ischaemic heart disease, diabetes, obstructive lung disease and falls etc that are common in an elderly. It helps in quicker recovery from illness, reduces dependency and healthcare costs. It also allows older people to continue participating productively in the society with all their wealth of knowledge, skills and experience.
Staying active: Staying active – regular exercise is the key to healthy aging and longevity. Studies show that people who exercise daily not only live longer but also live better. Regular exercise decreases the risk of osteoporosis, makes bones and muscles strong, and keeps joints fully mobile and functional. It also improves balance and decrease the risk of fall, a major cause of disability in elderly. Regular exercise not only prevents the chances of various medical problems like hypertension, heart disease ,diabetes etc. but also helps in their better management and improvement. Simple walking, yoga, gardening, dancing , swimming etc. are some of the activities that an elderly can do to keep moving, of course depending upon one’s capacity and health status. Walking is a great aerobic, low impact and safe exercise, that has lot of health benefits.
Yoga has a positive effect on the physical, mental and spiritual well being of a person. It harmonises the mind and body, increases and maintains the range of movements in the joints, builds muscle and bone strength and improves balance. We need to understand that exercise and yoga are not meant to be just weekend activities, it has to be a MUST TO DO activity of our daily routine.
Eating healthy diet: Eating a balanced diet that supplies all essential nutrients like proteins, minerals, vitamins etc. is essential for overall health of a person particularly for an elderly. It nourishes the body and provides energy for doing various daily functions of the body. We should avoid consumption of fats, fatty foods and excess of sugar as all that is not good for our heart and will also increase our weight. Low fat milk and milk products like yogurt, cheese etc., being rich in calcium and proteins are good for an elderly. We need to consume more of vegetables, fruits and whole grains – wheat products. Among non- veg foods fish, eggs and chicken are good choices.
Drinking enough of water: Drinking enough water helps to keep the body well hydrated and improves general health. Water as someone has rightly said is “the best and the cheapest health drink”. Elderly should drink water more often, particularly on an empty stomach when on getting up in the morning, after exercise and then before going to bed.
No smoking: Cigarette smoking and use of tobacco products is somehow not good for the health of a person. It is a significant risk factor for most of the medical problems involving heart, lungs, blood pressure etc., osteoporosis and hip fractures particularly in an elderly, so it has to be stopped at all costs. Research has shown that high physical activity with not smoking enhances the chances of healthy aging.
Not drinking alcohol: Alcohol consumption has to be avoided as it is harmful particularly to liver, bones, brain, immune system etc. Risk of liver problem- cirrhosis, osteoporosis and fractures increases with high alcohol intake. It also affects memory, can impair judgement, coordination, reaction time and balance, thereby increasing the risk of falls and fractures in elderly.
Being positive : Numerous studies have shown that having positive thoughts and good emotions is good for the health of a person especially of an elderly. Having a young spirit and faith is very beneficial particularly in this phase of life. George Burns has rightly said ” You cannot help stop getting older, but you don’t have to get old”.
Social connect: Research has shown that elderly persons with significant contact with family members and people close to them enjoy a broader sense of well-being – healthy aging than those who are without such contacts. Social support alleviates everyday problems and promotes physical, mental and social wellbeing of the individual.
Having a leisure activity: Having a leisure activity – hobby particularly in old age takes care of loneliness which is not uncommon with elderly people. It gives joy and happiness, relieves stress and elevates the mood, gives an opportunity to socialise, helps to learn new things and be creative and productive. In addition to being supported, elderly feel joy and happiness as they provide support to others by voluntary social work. Gardening, singing, music , reading and writing, arts and crafts, walking, yoga, social work, volunteer etc are some of the leisure activities that an elderly can have, depending on one’s liking and needs.
Injury prevention: It has been reported that one in three people over 65 years of age experience fall because of various reasons. The fall can result in serious injuries like head injury and fractures especially of hip that usually result in lot of complications- morbidity and mortality in an elderly person. Muscle strengthening and balancing exercises, being mindful etc. help in prevention of falls.
Adequate good quality sleep: It is essential to have around 7-8 hours of sleep per night so as to refresh and get ready for the next day working. Insufficient sleep affects overall health of a person. Exercise with all its benefits also helps improve sleep. Studies have shown that older people who exercise regularly fall asleep faster, sleep longer and report better quality of sleep.
Keeping the weight under control: Overweight- obesity increases the risk of getting chronic health problems like hypertension, heart diseases , diabetes, stroke , osteoarthritis etc., so it is essential that we keep a watch on our weight – maintain normal body weight.
Spiritual aspect: Spirituality and faith does help in changing negative image of aging and focus on more positive aspects of aging. Studies show that religiousness and spirituality can contribute to healthier lifestyles by assigning negative points of view to consumption of drugs and alcohol, tobacco etc. It also helps to deal with stressful life events, contribute to overcoming adversaries such as loss of loved ones, physical disabilities and promote meaning of life.
COVID-19 pandemic and elderly: COVID- 19 pandemic as such has badly affected all of us. Elderly being at higher risk of infection have been worst hit with severe complications, higher mortality, disruption of daily routines, mental and emotional problems , access to care, getting daily provisions , domestic help problems, social connect etc. As such elderly need to try and do all that is possible under the prevailing circumstances, and keep themselves healthy and safe . Now that vaccine is there, it is important that all of us have vaccination and along with that continue following strictly the COVID-19 guidelines like maintaining a safe distance, wearing a mask, frequent hand washing and not going out of home unless required etc.
It is essential that the individual, family, society, government, heath care system, professionals, media etc. work together for the well-being of elderly so as to have healthy aging. We need to have educational programs that help change the health behaviour of the older people. It is very important that Governments have heathy aging policies and programmes that are implemented in the right spirit.
(The author is Former Vice Principal, Prof and Head of Orthopaedics, CMC, Ludhiana Punjab)