UAB experts provide ways seniors can take and maintain control of their health in several areas of wellness.
Media contact: Anna Jones
Lifestyle factors such as exercise and diet can be as important as genetics when it comes to living a long life and aging gracefully, and aging well can sometimes be as simple as following a few easy steps. Experts from the University of Alabama at Birmingham Division of Gerontology, Geriatrics and Palliative Care, and the UAB Division of Preventive Medicine provide some simple steps older adults can take to maintain control of their health.
A significant way older adults can age well is by regularly engaging in exercise and fitness; but when it comes to recommendations for specific exercises, recommendations may vary. Thomas Buford, Ph.D., a professor in the UAB Division of Gerontology, Geriatrics and Palliative Care and director for the Center for Exercise Medicine, says any movement is beneficial.
“While some health recommendations state 150 minutes per week of moderate to vigorous physical activity (or 10,000 steps per day), significant research states that lower levels — either in duration and/or in intensity — can still have significant health benefits for older adults,” Buford said. Buford says the best way to approach exercise is to find an enjoyable activity. Buford also recommends incorporating cardio, strength training, balance and stretching.
“The best exercise regimen is one that you enjoy and can stick with,” Buford said. “Try to get in as much activity as you can by participating in activities you like doing.”
Nutrition can play a major role in how the body ages; but fortunately, eating a healthy diet does not have to be difficult. Andrew Duxbury, M.D., professor in the UAB Division of Gerontology, Geriatrics and Palliative Care, encourages older adults to not overthink it.
“In general, older people just need a well-balanced diet like everyone else,” Duxbury said.
Kaitlyn Waugaman, a registered dietitian and program manager in the UAB Division of Preventive Medicine, explains that a well-balanced eating plan includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat or fat-free dairy, and protein. She also says it is important to choose foods low in saturated fats, trans fat, salt and added sugar.
Duxbury says older adults can often use more protein in their diet than younger people, and they typically do not need vitamins and other supplements unless they have specific health conditions. However, some adults, especially women, may have increased needs for extra calcium and vitamin D beyond what a typical diet supplies to combat the tendency toward thinning bones and keeping a healthy weight.
Waugaman explains that metabolism often slows down as people age because of changes in body composition that reduce energy needs.
So, what can older adults eat or do to keep things moving? The simple answer: Eat well.
“Eating well can improve the quality of life for older adults,” Waugaman said. “As we age, we should avoid diets or drastic weight loss. We may think diets are the best way to be healthy, but this is not true. Diets, especially ones that eliminate food groups, can lead to nutrition deficits and cause more harm than good.”
Waugaman recommends setting goals for eating all food groups and maintaining a stable weight. If there is a need for weight loss or specific nutrition goals, talk to a registered dietitian or nutritionist.
A concern among older adults may include being more susceptible to chronic disease.
Duxbury says seniors may be more vulnerable to disease because their immune systems are less robust, and they often experience a general decline in physiology and organ capacity.
When asked how older adults can prevent disease, Duxbury says that, while there is no way to completely prevent possible diseases during aging, there are a few solid routine habits to incorporate for optimal health.
“It is very important to avoid falls and take the appropriate safety measures that are needed to minimize this risk,” Duxbury said. “It is also important to understand the medications you are taking and have a trusted professional who helps with them and is not afraid to stop medications that may no longer be needed.”
Finally, Duxbury recommends accepting the aging process and the changes that come with it.
Another common interest among seniors and those approaching retirement age is maintaining healthy cognitive function and memory.
Duxbury explains that research has worked to find the perfect brain exercise to prevent cognitive decline with aging, but no specific solution has been found yet. However, there are some ways to keep the mind and memory healthy when getting older.
“First, we know that the brain in older adults is a ‘use it or lose it’ organ,” Duxbury said. “Individuals who retire from active life to passive activities around the home, often with little stimulation besides the television, are much more likely to develop cognitive decline than those who maintain an interest in problem-solving and learning new things.”
Duxbury says the best things an aging adult can do to preserve brain function are to keep their brain active with stimulating tasks such as reading about new things, attending lectures, solving puzzles, interacting with new people, and looking forward to the new day with intellectual curiosity.
As people get older, they tend to isolate themselves and feel alone; but relationships and connections play a major role in helping older adults maintain their emotional health as they age.
“Human beings are social animals,” Duxbury said. “We are designed by nature to live in a mutually supportive group of individuals. Separating ourselves from others tends to increase our stress levels and is generally unhealthy.”
“Older adults need both the company of other older adults — those who see and understand the world in a similar way through shared experience — but also younger people who can keep them active and engaged in the new and keep them learning. In turn, older adults assume their natural roles of mentors, storytellers and keepers of cultural wisdom for the young.”
For seniors who are looking for connection or younger adults who would like to volunteer, the Birmingham Crisis Center offers a primary service for senior citizens, retirees and widowed persons to talk with volunteer counselors over the phone on a regular basis. Signing up for the program is easy. Visit Crisis Center Birmingham or call the Crisis Center’s Senior Talk Line at (205) 328-8255 and request to be signed up.