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All too many times overwhelmed caregivers are physically and emotionally depleted and need to take time to rest and care for themselves. Believing in a holistic approach to caregiver stress and a strong commitment to helping our members find the right solutions, we created this blog to help you connect with others who, like you, may be facing the same eldercare issues and challenges. Feel free to comment, ask questions, and submit articles. Please forward the blog link to your family and friends. They'll be glad you did.

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Patricia Grace
founder & CEO
Aging with Grace

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

How to Live a Longer, Healthier Life

Back in 1946, when the first baby boomers were born, it was easy to imagine some sort of magic pill that would promise, if not immortality, at least a very long, happy, and healthy life.

Darn, another hoped dashed. We are living longer, but not always healthier and happier. Given that the ranks of Americans age 65 and older are soon to swell -- from 13 percent to 18 percent by 2030 -- geneticists, physicians, and psychologists are hard at work figuring out what it takes to thrive into old age.
Everyone is aware that they'll probably live longer if they exercise, eat right, and don't smoke. The trick is to get people to do what they know they should.
However, don't get your hopes up about living past 100, should you lack the right genes. Demographic experts had predicted that the proportion of U.S. centenarians would grow over the past decade, but they were wrong. Instead, from 2000 to 2010, the figure held steady: Only about one in 5,000 Americans reached age 100 or above.
For the other 99-plus percent of us, even the best genes will get you only so far. "Genes account for one-fourth to one-third of longevity," estimated Howard Friedman, a professor of psychology at the University of California (Riverside) and the coauthor of The Longevity Project, published this year. "That leaves well over half not accounted for."

Most of the rest, for better or worse, is up to you. "The importance of choices people make is in so many ways responsible for the quality of life in old age," said Charles Reynolds III, a professor of geriatric psychiatry, neurology, and neuroscience at the University of Pittsburgh medical school. "Many people think they should be entitled to a good-quality 25 years after age 60. Well, they're not necessarily entitled, but they can put the odds in their favor."

One way -- "the least speculative and the most obvious" -- is with exercise, according to Simon Melov, a Buck Institute biochemist. "More activity is better than no activity, and most people are not doing anything. They're just sitting there." Exercise, he said, reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease and perhaps even a decline in cognition. One needn't run a marathon. Gardening, walking, swimming, wood-working -- all of these are more active than just sitting.

Although physical fitness is important, so is psychological fitness. "The word I like to describe successful aging is active aging," said geriatric psychiatrist Reynolds. "That means socially, intellectually, and spiritually." Research has shown that people who maintain connections to others -- whether through family, friends, or work -- remain healthier in old age. A study of centenarians found that they had a purpose to their lives -- volunteer work or taking care of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

But these rules aren't universal. "Everyone ages differently," the National Institute on Aging's Bernard pointed out. "If people who have been lonely and isolated their whole lives, and we say they need to be out and socializing -- but it's not in their nature -- it could be more stress than benefit."

She touts the advantage of preventive care as a larger part of the U.S. medical system, noting studies that show a greater incidence of cancer, heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, and lung disease in older Americans compared with Europeans. Preventive care can even ease depression, a serious problem among the elderly, albeit one that medical professionals often dismiss as natural and not worth treating. Not so, according to Reynolds. Depression can be treated with medication or psychotherapy, thereby improving a patient's physical health. The benefits -- and the downsides -- flow in both directions. "Disability can beget depression," Reynolds said, "and depression can beget disability."

But depression should be distinguished from garden-variety worrying -- and here's a provocative finding: People who fret about things may live longer. "[A] moderate amount of worrying can be good," particularly for men, said Leslie Martin, a psychology professor at La Sierra University in Riverside, California. Research has shown that men who think ahead and plan -- and, yes, worry -- tend to fare better after their wives die. In fact, men who were worriers faced a 50 percent lower risk of dying within the next few years after becoming widowers than men who weren't worriers, Martin reported.

Possibly the reason is that, in many marriages, "the wife is the protector -- telling the husband to get the doctor's checkup, to eat healthier, to wear a seat belt," she explained. "If a guy does more on his own, it may serve him well." This could also explain why men who are happily married tend to live longer than men who aren't, while wedded bliss seems to have no effect on women's longevity.
The role of dumb luck inspires experts to counsel: Don't be too hard on yourself. As federal administrator Bernard put it, "People shouldn't blame themselves if their aging isn't going exactly as they want."

Hey, relax (but not too much). Maybe you'll live longer.

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