By Jana Soeldner Danger
Why do some seniors look, act and feel younger than others? Part of the explanation is heredity. But diet, exercise and activities that engage the mind are keys to staying vibrant and attaining wellness goals.
You’ve heard it before: Eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
“Most Americans get only half the fiber they need,” says Gina Sweat, a registered dietitian with Cleveland Clinic Florida.
“Cook your own fresh foods instead of buying processed ones,” says Dr. Perla Del Pino-White, a family practice physician with Memorial Health System.
Many seniors are short of Vitamin B12, found in fish, poultry and eggs.
“B12 is important for making red blood cells,” Sweat says. “And many older people are missing calcium, which is important for maintaining strong bones.”
Experts recommend limiting salt and sugar intake. However, at the same time that seniors are trying to cut back on these substances, foods in their natural state may not taste good.
“As we age our sense of taste may decline,” Sweat says. “We encourage people to use natural herbs and spices instead of unhealthy salts and fats. And zinc has been shown to increase the efficiency of taste buds.”
Experts in the field offer other suggestions for promoting good health:
- Get plenty of sleep. “Focusing on sleep hygiene is one of the best ways to improve overall health and well-being,” says Dr. Ashwin Mehta, medical director of integrative medicine at the University of Miami Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center. “We are such a performance-driven society that the rest and downtime our bodies need are often neglected.”
- Don’t fall asleep with the television or computer on. “The screens are so bright, they trick the brain into thinking it’s daytime when it’s really nighttime,” Mehta says. “That delays the body’s production of melatonin (a hormone that induces sleep).”
- Develop a sleep routine. “It might include things like breathing exercises, meditation and guided imagery, which is like a daydream that’s good for the body,” Mehta says. “Your mind is telling your body what it should do.”
- Exercise is vital. “In many cases, the effects of exercise are just as good as medicine, and the costs are less,” says Rob Herzog, a clinical exercise physiologist with Memorial Healthcare. [Check with your doctor before beginning an exercise program.]
- Don’t use joint pain as an excuse to be inactive. “Commit to an exercise program that’s easy on joints,” says Dr. Gabriel Gavrilescu, a geriatrics specialist with Cleveland Clinic Florida. “Swimming is good because the water partially supports the body.”
While women may not hesitate to discuss the pros and cons of hormone therapy with their doctors, the same is not always true for men. Avoiding the topic can be a mistake, says Ivan Battern, a vice president with The Refinery, a men’s health clinic in Boca Raton. “As men age, hormone levels can decrease, and that carries negative side effects like loss of muscle mass, weight gain and erectile dysfunction.”
All health experts agree that mental acuity is vital to quality of life.
“We can’t prevent Alzheimer’s, but there are things we can do to keep our brains as healthy as we can,” says Dr. Po-Heng Tsai, a neurologist with Cleveland Clinic Florida.
One is exercise. “We don’t really know why,” Tsai says. “We think it might be because when we’re active the heart pumps more blood to the brain.”
Activities such as learning a language or working crossword puzzles and maintaining an active social life can help keep the mind sharp, Tsai says. “These are factors we can control.”