“Aging is for people who don’t know better.” This Tony Horton quote came to mind as I read Alison Gopnik’s column in today’s Wall Street Journal (“A More Supportive World Can Work Wonders for the Aged.”) The article highlights the demeaning language that is often applied to old people and the negative impact of those messages on their condition. Gopnik contrasts the experience of people 60 to 99 years old in a Yale study who were exposed to positive (though unconscious) ideas about aging and saw their physical functioning improve
Yet even the word “spry,” which was treated as a positive adjective in the study, carries with it the patronizing implication of “pretty good for your age.” Disparaging talk about aging is sometimes encountered in medical offices. “You can’t expect to be able to do what you could do when you were younger,” said one orthopedist to a very athletic woman in her forties. With all due respect to doctors in general, this is presumptuous nonsense. Some of us are fitter and in better health than we were as sedentary young adults. As a thirty-year-old, I couldn’t do even one pushup; now, at age 68, I can do at least forty. I’m not spry, I’m strong!
Much of the mental and physical deterioration traditionally considered to be an inevitable part of aging is actually a consequence of improper diet and inadequate exercise. Diet-wise, it’s important to get enough vegetables and fruit and enough protein. If you can’t or won’t buy and prepare lots of vegetables, drink vegetable juice. There are low sodium varieties at the store or you can make your own. Even if you eat vegetables anyway, drinking juice is like having extra insurance. And, drinking juice, any kind of juice, at least three times a week was associated in a Vanderbilt University study with a 76% lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
For years, my annual blood work showed that my protein was a bit low, yet my doctor never suggested a protein supplement. These days I have a protein smoothie in the mid-morning (recipes here) and a take an enzyme supplement that helps me to digest protein. The proteolytic enzyme also helps me to recover from injuries more quickly. Take protein supplements or eat protein bars to maintain muscle strength. Keeping muscles strong is one of the most important (and most underrated) contributors to a good old age. Strong people can pursue a greater variety of activities and are less likely to be injured if they have an accident. Also, the heart is a muscle; what’s good for the other muscles is likely to be good for the heart as well.
Keeping muscles strong means that exercise, especially weight lifting, is essential. But there are other types of movement that also need to be practiced and maintained, including flexibility, balance, explosive movement (plyo or jump training), and cardio. When it comes to cardio, older people are often told that a little swimming or walking around the neighborhood is enough. My own experience has been that you have to work a lot harder if you want to stay in really good shape. Everyone’s body is different but my particular body requires 33 minutes of intervals on an elliptical twice a week, averaging 85% of maximum heart rate. (I use a heart rate monitor.) For exercise overall, it takes about a little over an hour six days a week for me to feel comfortable and get a good night’s sleep.
Finally, I think it’s important to keep doing things for myself. Once you’re retired, to farm out tedious chores and errands to someone else seems like an attractive idea. After all, you’re retired, you should take it easy, right? Wrong! I don’t necessarily love grocery shopping or house cleaning but doing those tasks means that I am taking care of myself. The more I delegate the workings of my day to other people, the more I will have the sense that I can’t do those jobs anymore, almost as though I have become a child again. Doing things for myself helps me to maintain a sense that I am capable and in control of my own life. In this world there are only two things that I actually own: my physical body and my time. If I take care of one, I will have more of the other.