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April 2018
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Adding Life to Years
by Dr. Lawrence J. Weiss
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Starting from Zip: Achieving Healthy Aging 

Dr. Lawrence J. Weiss
Dr. Lawrence J. Weiss

Today, your ZIP code says far too much about your health. Within the United States, there are unacceptable disparities in health, state-by-state and even county-by-county. The effort to make the U.S. a healthy nation starts with ensuring equity. America’s Health Rankings’ 2016 Senior Report takes into account 35 factors, including senior obesity and smoking rates, prevalence of falls, flu vaccination statistics and senior volunteerism.

In the report, unfortunately Nevada ranked 42nd among all the states in elder health. This report was released May 2016. Nevada’s ranking was dragged down by factors including the state’s excessive drinking rate among seniors — self-reported at 9.2 percent, landing the state at No. 49 in that category. Nevada ranked 50th in smoking, flu vaccination coverage, and suffers from comparatively low community support expenditures, according to the report. The state’s strengths include a low prevalence of falls among seniors and a low rate of preventable hospitalizations among Medicare beneficiaries.

Improving the health, function, and quality of life of our growing elder population is recognized as a national goal through Healthy People 2020. Unfortunately, many social determinants of health including race, income, and education have contributed to poor health and decreased quality of life for many older adults. In 2010, the incidence of obesity in adults 65 years or older ranged from 16 percent to almost 30 percent of the U.S. population, depending on the state. In some states, as many as 40 percent of older adults engaged in less than 10 minutes of physical activity each week, which contributes to obesity as well as increased injuries due to falls. Furthermore, older adults living in rural communities are burdened by inadequate access to quality health care resources. These disparities vary by sex and are worse for minorities including African Americans and Latinos.

Nevada’s elder’s health and quality of life were again ranked among the lowest nationally in a United Healthcare report recently released, placing 42nd — a single spot above the state’s 2015 ranking. Researchers also analyzed national data on the middle-aged population in 2014 to judge the overall health of the next generation of seniors. They compared that data with statistics on middle aged people in 1999, who are now 65 and older. Overall, this population smokes less but will be entering their senior years with higher rates of obesity and diabetes and lower rates of very good or excellent health status, putting significant strain on the health care system.

Healthy aging is a hot topic. Whether you're concerned about weight gain, sex drive or chronic diseases, the key to healthy aging is a healthy lifestyle. Eating a variety of nutritious foods, practicing portion control and including physical activity in your daily routine can go a long way toward promoting healthy aging.

If an interest in healthy aging leads you to consider anti-aging therapies — such as restrictive diets, supplements or expensive treatments claiming to postpone or even reverse the aging process — be cautious. There's no quick fix when it comes to healthy aging. Know what you're buying, and know how to spot suspicious schemes. Often, anti-aging therapies don't live up to the claims.

Let’s discuss healthy aging issues and recommendations to achieve healthy aging. First, we must live actively and incorporate regular exercise. Do not become a couch potato. Regular exercise maintains your independence to go where you want to and perform your own activities. Regular exercise may prevent or even provide relief from many common chronic conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, depression, and arthritis, to name a few. Make your activity fun. One option available by the Center for Healthy Aging is the Senior Healthy Walking program that takes place weekly. Call to find out times and locations.

Second, eat healthy foods with moderate proportions. The majority of adults in the U.S. consume more than double the recommended daily allowance of sodium, which can lead to hypertension and cardiovascular disease; most of this high sodium intake comes from pre-packaged foods and restaurants. Eat more fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain foods. Avoid sweet, salty, and highly processed foods.

Third, maintain your brain with a lifestyle that includes cognitive stimulation with active learning that slows cognitive decline. Never stop learning or challenging yourself. Learn something new, like language, play a musical instrument, read a book, or attend lectures at your local university.

Fourth, get sleep. Elders need seven to nine hours per night, but often get less due to depression, irritability, stress, chronic pain, etc. Develop a regular schedule with a bedtime routine. Keep your bedroom dark and noise-free, avoid watching television or surfing the internet while in bed, and avoid having caffeine late in the day.

Fifth, socialize. Twenty eight percent of older adults live alone, and living alone is one of the strongest risk factor for loneliness. Common life changes in older adulthood, such as retirement, health issues, or the loss of a spouse, may lead to social isolation. Maintain communication with your family and friends, especially after a significant loss or life change. Schedule regular time to meet with friends and family – over coffee, during a weekly shared meal, or around a common interest. Reach out to friends who might be isolated or feel lonely.

Sixth, be happy, at peace, and reduce stress. "If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present." — Lao Tzu. Stress causes depression, memory loss, fatigue, and decreased ability to fight off and recover from infection. In fact, it is estimated that more than 90 percent of illness is either caused or complicated by stress. Take care of yourself when you are stressed by getting enough sleep and exercise. Talk about your feelings and issues. Do activities that bring joy and happiness. Try some relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, yoga, or meditation. Remember to always keep things in perspective – try to accept and adapt to the things you cannot control.

Seventh, create meaning and make community connections. Elders who engage in meaningful community activities like volunteer work report feeling healthier and less depressed. Try joining a community activity or volunteer program. A great volunteer activity is the Senior Health Advocate program that the Center for Healthy Aging has developed to help elders be educated about community services available and obtain them. Knowing about services, eligibility, and taking charge of your own health creates healthy aging.

Finally, among many other healthy aging issues, be prepared and plan. Inevitably we will become ill and die. Deal with death. Complete your Advance Directives, let significant others know your wishes about end of life, especially when you are not able to make those decisions yourself due to illness. The Center for Healthy Aging has helped in creating a web based program that helps you plan for end of life decisions. Visit www.theroyl.com.

These are just a few suggestions to help foster health and happiness as we become old. We need to “add life to years” to make it worthwhile.

Lawrence J. Weiss, Ph.D. is CEO of the Center for Healthy Aging. Dr. Weiss welcomes your comments on this column. Write to him at larry@addinglifetoyears.com or c/o Center for Healthy Aging, 11 Fillmore Way, Reno, NV 89519.