Is it just me or is there some book of rules on getting older making the rounds and constantly changing? I’ll reach for it, check the facts and in an instant there is version two.
My mom turned 81 last month and repeatedly reminds me I need to ditch the idea that this fictional rule book is worth reading. She basically eats what she wants, plays with her dogs, exercises at the gym five days a week — because she has always liked athletics and has friends she meets there — and enjoys teaching reading in her village elementary school.
But eat healthy because she should? No way.
Exercise just because she should? Nope.
Medicine cabinet filled with pills and nutritional supplements? Never.
Myth: Aging changes can be stopped.
Think about this — there’s media coverage daily on how to be healthy as you age: Aspirin, apples, fish oil, this exercise, that diet, and take a vitamin supplement, too. And worse, these rules keep shifting. They change as often as the latest scientific report hits print. And what’s left? What we are doing today might be all wrong when the next report comes out tomorrow.
There is no magic pill or potion to make aging vanish. If we are lucky, we’re all going to get older. We will all change as we get older. Some of those changes are good (getting smarter). Others are not so good (gaining weight and needing glasses).
Mom’s a good model here. Her body has changed over the years. “Why are you so tall when I used to be two inches taller than you?” she asks. “That’s osteoporosis — the bone condition that many older people endure as it makes some bones more likely to break,” I tell her.
She rarely complains about what she can’t do. Turns out that’s a good strategy; being positive is a great thing. Most importantly, Mom is true to herself. She takes good care of herself but doesn’t do anything just because it’s healthy.
Myth: Aging is about following the rules.
Aging is part of life, there are no specific rules. Aging is something we don’t like to think about. It frustrates, worries and scares us. So why not a rule book that makes aging less irritating or frightening?
If only getting older were as easy as following rules. Like magazine articles that tell you ultimate fitness is possible in a 15-minute workout, I assure you the perfect food, a special combination of vitamins and minerals, or particular set of exercises won’t stop you from getting older. You still will notice differences in your mind and body.
We tend to become more like ourselves as we age. A group of 5-year-olds is easily pegged as being 5. A group of 85-year-olds are diverse. Rules that apply to everyone are scarce at any age.
That’s why Mom is my aging guru. She exercises more because it makes a difference in how she feels and she notices. She is not fanatical about her strength or weight. I remind her to get out of her workout rut when she mentions a problem, like having a hard time getting up after kneeling. There are exercises that can help with many aches and pains.
She eats fresh fruits and vegetables every day, but gets those from the local stand when possible, supporting the Michigan farmers. And she eats lots of things just because she likes them, including peanut butter cups, though not the best nutritional choice. She takes one or two nutritional supplements her physician recommended.
My friends are surprised to learn Mom is a cancer survivor, had a small stroke a couple of years ago, and took care of my dad at home until his death. Today, Mom is as well as she has ever been — and keeping up with all she does takes some doing.
Myth: Science will provide the answer.
Science and technology surround us, all good stuff in general. But everything in this world holds risk or disadvantage.
I worry we trust science will reveal the single miraculous answer. The answer. As a nurse, I have cared for older people for many years. I know the real answer isn’t going to be a miracle formula. Aging is part of life and human life has its end. And isn’t it living life that counts?
Following someone else’s rules for getting older with the aim of health alone misses the point of living. Living is much better when it’s done well.
Sure, health is part of living well but it is not everything. Aging research, when taken together and not one report at a time, tells us that moderation and balance really do make a difference. A colleague of mine who studies how cells age, Dr. Kelly Jordan-Scuitto, says “eating an avocado a day is only good if you really love avocado — it won’t reverse aging.”
Almost all things in moderate quantities and eaten or done in a balanced way are good for us as we grow older.
I’m not saying there aren’t foods that should be restricted to a once-a-year treat — there are. And there are habits that might be hard to break, but are worth that effort because of the risk to your health. That’s true no matter what your age. There’s a ton of support out there if you need to break a bad habit.
If you are searching for the next anti-aging miracle, you’ve missed the point of living a long life. So why not take a page from my Mom’s manual and ditch the rule book and go with a few of the following that really do make a difference:
• Be a wise eater and enjoy a wide variety of foods, avoid processed and fast foods, and aim for different whole grains and fresh vegetables and fruits.
• Be physically active every day that you can. Don’t call it exercise if you don’t like to exercise. Just be active and talk to your doctor, nurse practitioner, or physical therapist if you need ideas about how to do it.
• Be mentally active every day. Learn something new. Think, read, write — do things that keep you interested and engaged.
• Be connected to others. Spend time with people you love. Care about people by helping others. Socially engaged people are happier and healthier.
• Be someone who has faith. Whether it’s faith in human nature, emphasis on a positive outlook, or belief in your religion, hold true to it. Faith and seeing the positive side of life helps you age well.
I know I’d rather live well if I can and I recommend it to you too. I’d love to hear from you about your thoughts on aging and related topics. Email me at email@example.com and follow me on Twitter @SarahHKagan.
Dr. Sarah Kagan is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing where she specializes in geriatric issues and the care of older people. She is a visiting scholar at universities around the world and was awarded the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship for her work. Her column on aging myths appears in newspapers and on digital sites throughout Calkins Media.