September is National Healthy Aging Month, a time to take stock of how well we’re taking care of ourselves, particularly as we get older. Although healthy aging can mean different things to different people depending on individual circumstances, the American Geriatric Society says health promotion strategies should be targeted on five domains as we age:
» promoting health, preventing injury and managing chronic conditions;
» optimizing cognitive health;
» optimizing physical health;
» optimizing mental health; and
» facilitating social engagement.
If you desire to be proactive in maintaining or enhancing your health as you age, then focus on positive lifestyle behaviors and choices, such as engaging in regular physical activity, maintaining an ideal body weight, following healthy eating habits, maintaining good oral health, avoiding tobacco and recreational drugs, practicing good sleep hygiene, and managing your stress levels. You also should see your physician at least once a year to make sure you and your doctor are keeping a close eye on issues that can impact your health, such as blood pressure, blood glucose levels and cholesterol levels.
Be proactive, too, in managing any chronic diseases or early-stage conditions that can lead to chronic illness. Engaging in evidence-based disease management and risk factor reduction to prevent the progression of chronic conditions will help you age in a healthy manner.
To protect and enhance your cognitive health, engage in lifelong learning and other intellectual or mental pursuits. Recent dementia research suggests that people who enjoy a lifetime of intellectual activities tend to experience higher cognitive functioning as they age. Even if you think you’ve been “mentally lazy” since high school, it’s never too late to start engaging and training your brain. You can stay engaged mentally by volunteering, playing brain-training games, working crossword puzzles, reading or learning a new skill or activity, particularly in a social environment.
Regular physical activity that includes endurance, muscle strengthening, balance and flexibility exercise is essential for healthy aging. Even though you may have led a largely sedentary lifestyle, if you begin a gentle exercise program, you can improve your energy levels, boost your mood and promote a wide range of other health benefits. Just getting the body moving for at least 30 minutes per day will prove to be beneficial. Even people with limited mobility can find ways to move their bodies that will help them maintain muscle tone and strength, even if it’s primarily or exclusively in their upper body.
Other strategies you can use as you age to optimize your physical health include getting the appropriate amount of dietary calcium and vitamin D to promote musculoskeletal health; taking measures to avoid falling, including perhaps enrolling in a fall prevention program; getting an osteoporosis screening and managing the condition if you find you have it; having regular dental examinations to correct problems with the gums and teeth; and managing any osteoarthritis you may have.
In addition to maintaining cognitive health, take additional measures to enhance your mental functioning. Get adequate sleep each night, avoid substance abuse, engage in meaningful work as much as possible, and find your life purpose. It’s well known that regular exercise has a very beneficial effect on our mental health, particularly on our moods.
For optimal mental and physical health, take part in enriching social activities. Isolation is one of the leading causes of depression in older adults. Being around other people, especially if you are doing something fun or rewarding together, helps you maintain a healthy mental state and a positive outlook on life.
To embrace aging on your own terms, be sure to create an advance care plan and designate a healthcare power of attorney who can speak for you about the type of care you desire should you be unable to speak for yourself. Make sure to share your priorities and preferences with your loved ones and your healthcare providers.
By focusing on these five domains, you can optimize your health as you age. It’s never too late to begin your journey to healthy aging. Talk to your doctor to create a plan for healthy aging based on your individual situation.
VITAL SIGNS This column, which promotes community health, is sponsored by Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital, Region Ten Community Services Board, Thomas Jefferson Health District and the University of Virginia Heath System.
Jessica Cooper is senior service program coordinator for Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital.