When we think about aging well, we usually focus on the physical aspects of growing older. And while that is certainly an important component of our well-being, we can’t sell ourselves short and focus on this aspect alone. Here we look at 5 areas of our lives (or of our loved ones!), that deserve our intention as well as our attention.
Let’s start with the obvious—our physical health. One of the many physical changes we experience as we age is a loss of muscle mass, which can set in motion a host of other physical issues. According to Dr. Michael Roizen, award-winning author and chief wellness officer at the Cleveland Clinic, we lose an average of 5 percent our muscle mass every 10 years after the age of 35. Beyond mobility, your muscles are also responsible for keeping your metabolic system intact and protecting you against metabolic and hormonal decline, obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Loss of muscle equates to a general loss of physical energy, a tendency to gain excess weight, increased vulnerability to disease, and accelerated aging. Maintaining good muscle mass enhances your cognitive function and slows down the aging process.
Take Action: Get moving! Daily walks are a perfect way to use the large muscle groups in our legs and keep them from losing strength. Join a fitness class led by a certified fitness instructor. Visit a local gym or look into programs that are designed for older adults and may even be covered by your insurance plan.
According to Mental Health America, while depression is not a normal part of the aging process, there is a strong likelihood of it occurring when other physical health conditions are present. For example, nearly a quarter of the 600,000 people who experience a stroke in a given year will experience clinical depression. Recognize signs such as decreased appetite, weight loss, disinterest in things that once brought joy, or a general lethargy. Any of these could be signs of what we call a “failure to thrive” and indicative of a poor mental state. Emotional health is not only about being happy, but also being self-confident, self-aware, and resilient. People who are emotionally healthy can cope with life’s challenges and recover from setbacks.
Take Action: Know the symptoms and risk factors associated with depression. Read more here. Talk to your doctor or health care provider about your concerns. Find a support group and/or research additional mental health resources in your community.
Friendship is a lot like food. We need it to survive. What is more, we seem to have a basic drive for it. Psychologists find that human beings have fundamental need for inclusion in group life and for close relationships. In fact, evidence has been growing that when our need for social relationships is not met, we decline mentally and even physically. There are effects on the brain and on the body. Some effects work subtly, through the exposure of multiple body systems to excess amounts of stress hormones. Yet the effects are distinct enough to be measured over time, so that unmet social needs take a serious toll on health, eroding our arteries, creating high blood pressure, and even undermining learning and memory. In adults, loneliness is a major precipitant of depression and alcoholism. And it increasingly appears to be the cause of a range of medical problems, some of which take decades to show up.
Take Action: Volunteer! Working with others for a common cause nurtures your need for inclusion and sense of purpose while helping others at the same time. Make a recurring date with friends. Whether it’s coffee on Thursdays or cards every Tuesday, put something in your calendar that you can look forward to on a regular basis. Start or join a book club, a dinner club, or even a travel club.
Many of us did something, whether it was being a stay at home mom, a chief financial executive, a teacher, or a sales representative. Whatever role we played to support our families or ourselves, we derived a sense of purpose and satisfaction. There is an intrinsic reward when we can work for what we get. That goes away when we retire if we don’t replace it with something. What is your something?
Take Action: Could a part-time job be calling your name? Could your favorite hobby or craft earn you some extra spending money? Look into craft shows or consignment stores where you can sell your goods.
As we get older, it gets more difficult to exercise our brains just like it is to exercise our bodies. And since we’ve often retired, we may have fewer opportunities for our brains to think critically and learn new things. The good news is that with more free time we can actually be more selective in what we choose to learn and how we exercise our brains!
Take Action: Take a college course or two! Want to learn a new language? Are you a history buff? You’ll probably realize that school is much better the second time around! Play some games. Wheel of Fortune, crossword puzzles, checkers or chess are really more than entertainment—they are a means to exercise your mental muscle. So go ahead and buy a vowel or show off your Jeopardy skills. Your brain will thank you!