When Paul McCartney penned those lyrics back in 1967, my junior-high friends and I thought that 64 was an ancient age, one we couldn’t imagine, but the passing of 40-some years has changed my perspective. I can easily imagine 64 now—and it is not ancient! Like most of the baby boom generation, I plan on living to be much older, but contrary to my childhood assumptions I hope to be active and healthy throughout my life.
At the beginning of the 20th Century, life expectancy in the United States was 49 years; by the time I was born in the mid-1950s the average adult in Asia and China could still only expect to live to about age 35. Today, people in most countries routinely celebrate birthdays into their late 60s, 70s and 80s, although life expectancy in much of Africa is still only about half that of the rest of the world. Sufficient nutrients in the diet, vastly improved sanitation and hygiene and advances in medicine all contribute to increased life spans. But just living longer is not necessarily the goal for many baby boomers—we want to remain active, stay as healthy as possible and maintain vital connections to our families, friends and communities, rather than becoming frail and ill.
Throughout history the elders of most cultures were respected and nurtured, often receiving choice bits of food, and the best sleeping areas. Their voices were heard in council and their wisdom and experience were acknowledged and appreciated. Today in our society, “elderly” all too often tends to be treated more like a medical condition, synonymous with illness and weakness. This does not have to be the case, however; even though there is no magic fountain of youth that will keep us from aging, there are plenty of things we can do to avoid chronic diseases and slow the deterioration of our bodies.
We all grow older everyday, but it is never too late—or too early—to integrate healthy habits into our lives. Diet and exercise play a large part in getting or staying healthy, regardless of age, but more and more, research indicates that it is particularly important to pay attention to these areas as we get older. Our food choices and the amount of movement in our days can be implicated in a host of illnesses ranging from cardiovascular disease to cancer, joint problems, depression and dementia. Environmental factors play a role in how we age, as do genetics. None of us can change our DNA, but we can take charge of other risk factors.
Katy Wallace is a Naturopath and Nutrition Consultant whose clinic, Human Nature (www.humannaturellc.com) is located at 2158 Atwood Avenue. I asked for her assessment of the most important factors for maintaining health and vitality as a person moves from their 30s into mid-life and beyond, and she had these words of advice: “It’s important to be a ‘nutritarian’—I like this term, coined by Dr. [Joel] Fuhrman, to describe a person whose food choices are influenced by the nutritional content of food. It is not satisfactory to count calories, or look at percentages of carbs/fats/protein, animal foods vs. vegan, or glycemic index alone. To keep the body healthy with age, we need copious amounts of the most nutrient-rich foods, especially vegetables. Plenty of greens and colorful vegetables that are chemical-free and in season locally are the best for the body. Understanding the nutrition needs of your own body as an individual is also vital.
“We also need support through regular exercise suited to an individual’s lifestyle and body type. For most of us, aging requires that we incorporate internal exercises into a daily routine. Yoga, tai chi and chi-gong are examples of practices that emphasize exercises that strengthen body systems from the inside-out. Meditation reduces the effects of aging on the brain. Research indicates that meditation increases brain function, improves concentration, and cultivates confidence and well-being.”
One of the first suggestions we often hear from health practitioners is to quit smoking. The negative health effects of smoking are well documented—smoking is a cause of cancer, respiratory diseases, cardiovascular disease and more. This addiction contributes to wrinkled skin, stained fingers, headaches and shortness of breath, as well as imparting a distinctive odor to our hair, clothes, cars and homes. Breaking the smoking addiction is one of the most difficult things most ex-smokers say they have ever done, but it is a worthy challenge. When a smoker quits, the body begins to heal almost immediately. According to the American Lung Association blood pressure and pulse rate begin to decrease just 20 minutes after quitting and oxygen levels normalize after eight hours; after one day the risk of heart attack is lessened and after two days the senses of taste and smell improve; within the first several months sinus congestion, coughing and shortness of breath decrease. One year after quitting the risk of heart attack is halved and by five years the risk of stroke is that of a non-smoker. When you hit the 10-year mark as a non-smoker the risk of lung cancer drops to half that of a smoker’s and the risk of other smoking-related cancers is also lessened. By 15 years, the risk of death has become almost the same as that of a non-smoker. There are many helpful tools available to those wanting to quit—they won’t make the process painless, but should help to reduce cravings and physical withdrawal symptoms.
Metabolic syndrome, or “Syndrome X,” are terms that have been in the news quite a bit the past several years and both refer to the same condition; some medical experts include insulin resistance as an alternate name for the syndrome, but others consider it to be a separate condition. Metabolic syndrome is fast approaching smoking as a leading cause of heart disease in the United States. Approximately 25 percent of American adults and a growing number of children live with this condition and many don’t even know about it. Metabolic syndrome is a condition that develops in many overweight or obese people who are sedentary; genetics or insulin resistance can also be causes. Insulin resistance occurs when the body does not respond correctly to the natural release of the insulin hormone. The pancreas then increases insulin production in order to convert blood sugars into energy. Eventually the exaggerated response leads to elevated blood sugar levels and type 2-diabetes.
Metabolic syndrome is diagnosed when a person has any three of these five risk factors:
- An “apple” shape with a large, protruding abdomen and large waist measurement.
- Higher than normal triglyceride levels, or taking medication for high triglycerides.
- Low HDL or “good” cholesterol levels.
- Higher than normal blood pressure, or taking medication for high blood pressure.
- Higher than normal fasting blood glucose levels, or taking medication for high glucose.
If a person has metabolic syndrome they are five times more likely to develop diabetes and twice as likely to have heart disease as someone without metabolic syndrome. The good news is that metabolic syndrome can often be delayed or reversed by diet and exercise. To prevent or control metabolic syndrome be sure to get 30 minutes of brisk exercise at least five days a week and maintain a healthy weight or lose weight if necessary. Research shows that losing only five to ten percent of body weight reduces the risk of several health problems including metabolic syndrome, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. In the case of metabolic syndrome, exercise plays a big role in prevention and management. In a recent University of Florida study, participants who walked briskly for 30 minutes, five to seven days per week over a six-month period showed strong improvements in insulin sensitivity without making dietary changes. This suggests that it may be worthwhile to make changes in your exercise routine before changing your diet, if it is difficult to do both things at the same time. If brisk walks aren’t your style, any form of aerobic exercise will work—running, swimming, biking, dancing, tennis or roller-blading. Pick one activity you can enjoy most days of the week or mix several into your routine. And if you have young children—or grandchildren—the time you spend running and playing with them counts as exercise too, plus it is a great way to instill a lifelong love of activity in your kids.
Researchers at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health found that people who ate a typical Western diet including refined grains, fried foods, processed meats and red meat were at higher risk for metabolic syndrome; those who ate larger quantities of meat, especially hamburger, hot dogs and processed meats were most likely to develop the syndrome and eating fried foods also increased the risk. The diet that is recommended for controlling metabolic syndrome consists of several daily servings of non-starchy vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, fish, poultry and low-fat dairy products. Red meat and processed meat products should be avoided or eaten only occasionally. Reasonable quantities of healthy oils are an important part of a good diet; these include omega-3 oils from fish, flax and walnuts as well as olive oil and coconut oil. Interestingly, this mostly plant-based, whole foods eating plan is also recommended for everything from weight loss to the prevention of cancer and heart disease and all these foods are easily found here at the Co-op.
The high levels of blood glucose that characterize insulin resistance also contribute to abnormal inflammation in the body. Sometimes inflammation is a good thing—the redness that accompanies a cut or scratch indicates that healing processes are at work—and sometimes inflammation gets out of hand. Research indicates that abnormal inflammation is at least partly responsible for many of the diseases that we associate with aging, especially heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and many types of cancer. Unchecked inflammation also causes or aggravates diseases that usually show up earlier in life including asthma and irritable bowel syndrome and autoimmune disorders like lupus, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis to name just a few.
Many holistic medical practitioners, as well as a growing number of allopathic physicians, recommend an anti-inflammatory diet for all their patients, but especially those who are already experiencing disease processes. A quick search online or at a bookstore for anti-inflammatory eating plans will turn up several variations, but the basics are the same: eat generous amounts of vegetables, some fruit, whole grains, nuts and seeds and healthy, mostly mono-saturated, fats. Omega-3 fatty acids are always included in the form of cold-water fish like salmon, mackerel and sardines or walnuts, flax or hemp seeds. Fish oil supplements can also be used. The diets vary at times in their protein sources-some recommend avoiding animal protein entirely (except fish) and others tout the value of lean meat and poultry; all anti-inflammatory diets eliminate fatty and processed meats and fried foods. Some plans allow low-fat organic dairy products and others eliminate dairy entirely. Wheat is usually considered an inflammatory food and avoided. The nightshade family of vegetables, including tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and potatoes, can trigger inflammation in many people who suffer from arthritis or related problems. Anti-inflammatory spices and herbs such as basil, ginger and turmeric are strongly suggested. Processed foods and snacks are not on the anti-inflammatory menu. As you can see, this style of eating is very similar to the recommendations for metabolic syndrome.
Dr. Wallace also recommends reducing abnormal inflammation through good food choices and said, “What you choose to eat can have a large impact on inflammation and aging in the body as well. Foods cooked at high temperatures develop glycotoxins that are responsible for the development of a low-grade but chronic level of inflammation. This would pertain to fried foods and all processed foods like potato chips and snacks because of high temps used in manufacturing. These foods are associated with other health risks, as well. Consuming low glycemic foods such as vegetables and fruits and whole grains instead of refined carbohydrates prevents the insulin surge that contributes to a chronic inflammatory condition. Evidence cited by Dr. [Andrew] Weil shows whole wheat flour is correlated with an inflammatory response like white flour so I cannot overemphasize how the whole grains (like brown rice, millet, quinoa) are superior to any product from a milled grain (like bread, cereal, pasta etc). Also eating too many foods high in arachidonic acid such as beef, egg, and dairy has been linked to inflammation. It is best to rotate these animal foods throughout the week and balance them with copious amounts of vegetables.
“Healthy fats are essential. So far research indicates that DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid, is especially effective in reducing inflammation. DHA is found in seaweed (you can add these easily to soups, sautés, and salads or throw a summer sushi-making party complete with nori rolls), and cold water fatty fish like salmon, tuna, mackerel, sardines, herring, to name a few.”
The DASH diet is the standard recommendation for people suffering from high blood pressure or hypertension. Approximately 75 million American adults—most over 50—have hypertension, which is a major risk factor for strokes or heart attacks. This illness can often be prevented or controlled with diet and exercise. The DASH diet is a high-fiber, low-fat, low-sodium plan that emphasizes whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean meats and low fat dairy. Small amounts of sugar are allowed and there are no guidelines for omega-3 fatty acids.
More than one million Americans are diagnosed with cancer each year; cancer is the second highest cause of death in this country. Studies done as early as 1981 concluded that dietary choices were a major factor in at least 35 percent of cancer cases; according to the non-profit Cancer Project that number might be as high as 60 percent. The National Cancer Institute estimates that 80 percent of all cancers are preventable because of their links to diet, smoking and chemical toxins. A diet that is high in antioxidants and low in fat is often recommended for cancer prevention. Antioxidants are abundant in vegetables and fruits and are also found in whole grains, nuts and seeds. Animals feeding on pasture produce meat that is lower in fat and higher in many nutrients than meat from feedlot animals. Large European studies, as well as research among Seventh Day Adventists in the U.S. shows that vegetarians have a 40 percent lower occurrence of cancer than meat-eaters. Consumption of high fat dairy products has been shown as a risk factor for breast and prostate cancer, so consider low fat products if you choose to eat dairy foods. Omega-3 fatty acids are an important component of dietary prevention, but if you get your omega-3’s from fish oil, but sure to choose a product that has been molecularly distilled to insure purity. Some foods have much higher pesticide residues than others; choose organic foods as often as possible, but especially to avoid the most concentrated sources of pesticides. You can download Environmental Working Group’s wallet-sized list of the worst offenders at: http://www.foodnews.org/.
Other important aspects of cancer prevention include maintaining a healthy body weight—obesity is a factor in many types of cancer; regular brisk exercise and plenty of vitamin D also help to prevent cancer. Avoid chemicals in your environment as much as possible—switch to natural cosmetics, body care and cleaning products; try to reduce or eliminate the number of plastic or synthetic items in your home; be sure to ventilate your home regularly to dissipate any airborne toxins; install a filter for your drinking water or buy filtered water. Stress management is important to keep your immune system strong so take time to relax and breathe deeply each day. Exercise is a great way to control stress, and has the added benefits of improving sleep and burning more calories.
For women, mid-life is marked by the hormonal dance that signals menopause. For the past few decades, this normal change of life has often been treated with hormone replacement therapy (HRT) in an effort to reduce or eliminate symptoms and preserve bone and heart health. But, in 2002 a long-term study indicated that there might be more risks associated with HRT than previously thought. Many women now look to alternative therapies for the hot flashes, night sweats, and other symptoms that can make the menopausal years a challenge. Once again, good food choices are an excellent starting point; eating a plant-based diet including a variety of vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds will ensure a good supply of phytoestrogens and help control the weight issues that many pre- and post-menopausal women encounter. There is some controversy regarding the benefits of consuming soy, but many women have found that soy helps alleviate hot flashes. Experts that recommend soy also recommend consuming it as it has been traditionally used for centuries, in the forms of tempeh, tofu, edamame and miso rather than processed soy products. Make sure you are getting omega-3 fatty acids in your diet and replace fatty meats with leaner choices.
Herbs can help manage menopausal symptoms. Black cohosh, sage, licorice, dong quai and red clover are common suggestions for relieving hot flashes, but check with an herbalist to be sure you are using the most effective herbal therapy for your personal needs. Acupuncture can be very helpful during the menopausal transition for a variety of symptoms. Exercise is also recommended for hot flashes, weight management, to maintain healthy bones and for cardiovascular health. Maintaining a positive attitude will help things along too.
Many people begin to notice changes in the way their body looks and responds as they move through their forties. A look in the mirror may show flabbier-looking arms, thighs or belly even though a person’s weight hasn’t changed; double chins and lines in the face seem to appear overnight, along with graying or thinning hair and drier skin. Some of these changes, like hair color or baldness are rooted in our genes, but others can be delayed. We tend to lose muscle mass and replace it with extra fat. This is partly due to changes in hormone levels, especially for men, but also to general slowing of metabolism. If you don’t already include strength training in your regular exercise routine, midlife is an important time to add it. Strong muscles help prevent falls and other injuries; they make it easier to rise from a seated position and carry everything from groceries to grandkids, but you have to keep working muscles to keep them strong—just ask anyone who has switched from a physically active job to a desk job or retirement! Building muscles is important for weight control too because lean body mass burns calories all the time. Results of a 20-year study, released in May, showed that men who lifted weights at least twice a week and maintained their muscle strength had 30 to 40 percent less chance of dying due to cancer. Strength training won’t cause women to look like prize-fighters either, but it is important for preventing osteoporosis—check out Dr. Miriam Nelson’s work at: http://www.strongwomen.com/ to learn more about the benefits. Yoga and Pilates are other good choices for strength training if you don’t enjoy lifting weights.
In addition to building strength, yoga and Pilates help to keep the muscles and joints flexible. T’ai chi is another classic method of improving flexibility and balance. Like yoga, t’ai chi is meditative and useful for stress reduction and relaxation. T’ai chi classes are offered at a variety of venues in the Madison area and local libraries are a good source for books and video instruction.
Maintaining flexibility is important no matter what your age, but as the years go by many of us tend to become stiff after sitting or standing for prolonged periods. Stiffness can make us look older than we really are and it impedes our activity throughout the day. Many older adults will experience stiff joints, and often pain, to some degree, due to the development of osteoarthritis, but arthritis can strike younger people as well. Of the 46 million Americans diagnosed with some form of arthritis, almost two-thirds are under age 65 according to the Centers for Disease Control. Osteoarthritis is caused by time and wear and tear on the major joints of the body, especially the hips, knees, fingers, spine and feet. Arthritis may occur in joints that have been injured through repetitive motion, trauma or sports. Arthritis is not an inevitable partof aging, though. Prevention strategies include maintaining a healthy weight, which reduces the stress on joints. Even though it may sound like a contradiction, exercise is an important component of both the prevention and treatment of arthritis. Regular exercise keeps joints flexible and strengthens the muscles surrounding the joints; when muscles are strong joints don’t have to work as hard. Take a look at your daily routine and try to eliminate repetitive motions and bad posture habits. Make sure that the tools and furniture in your work environment fit your body and are designed to accommodate healthy posture and movement. Move around regularly during the day, especially if you spend hours at a computer—get up hourly, more often if possible, to walk around a bit and stretch. You can download a good selection of stretches for the office at: www.bcn-nshe.org/downloads/. T’ai chi and qigong exercises are famous for their arthritis-relieving properties. Many of the exercises focus on increasing range of motion in the joints. The cartilage in our joints is made largely of water, so be sure to drink generous amounts of water each day. The anti-inflammatory food plan described earlier is a good choice whether you want to prevent arthritis or you are already coping with it. Be sure to include spices in your diet; turmeric and ginger have proven to be especially useful in treating arthritis and there are several others you may want to include—check with an herbalist to find out which ones are right for you.
The possibility of Alzheimer’s disease is a frightening specter for many baby boomers. This degenerative disease affects up to 4.5 million Americans according to the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America. It is characterized by lesions on the brain that destroy nerve cells, causing loss of memory, language skills and the ability to make appropriate choices and decisions. Risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease include heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure, so one of the first prevention tactics is to prevent those conditions. Research indicates that it is also important to stimulate the brain regularly, so read, work puzzles, study music or a foreign language or anything else that appeals to you. Enjoy time with family and friends—isolation anddepression often precede Alzheimer’s disease. Practice stress reduction techniques, eat a healthy diet that includes antioxidants and omega-3’s and check in with your doctor if you are concerned about symptoms in yourself or a loved one.
The more I learn about aging with grace and health, the happier I am to be a Co-op Owner. It is easy to follow the recommendations for healthy food, supplements and herbs when shopping at the Co-op. We have experts in every department that can help shoppers find the freshest produce, pasture-raised meat and dairy products and herbs for every need. Whether you are a baby boomer or a baby’s parent, our experts will help you meet your nutritional needs too—now and for years to come!