Despite whatever fears you might harbor about wrinkles or weak muscles or a less-than-quick mind, there are ways to age gracefully.
All that's required is following a set of ground rules that stress physical activity, intellectual engagement and preventative health care. While such recommendations aren't very difficult to follow, particularly for the healthy, it's even easier for people to run afoul of them.
Granted, some of the obstacles can be hard to avoid: a chronic disease, poorly coordinated health care, a lifetime spent hunched over a desk. But Colin Milner, chief executive of the International Council on Active Aging, a network of 7,500 organizations that cater to aging adults, says that it's never too late to adopt a proactive approach.
"You have to start somewhere," he says. "Really, what we're talking about is being able to live your life into your 80s and 90s, and then you'll drop dead," he says, contrasting a sudden death late in life with one that happens after a prolonged period of deterioration. Of the former, he says, "That's the way you want to go, having maximized your life."
While it's true that exercise benefits the body at any age, research also shows that physical activity can be particularly important for older adults' mental health. In a study published in October in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, two neuroscientists found that adults age 60 to 75 improved not only their physical fitness but also their mental acuity after walking briskly for 45 minutes a day, three days a week.
Throughout the six-month study, participants improved their ability to complete tasks that required scheduling, multitasking, planning and other executive functions, compared with a control group that engaged in nonaerobic activities like stretching and toning. The authors also did a critical review of similar research and found that moderate physical activity may slow or prevent cognitive decline or Alzheimer's disease by increasing the volume of brain tissue and improving brain function.
Physical exercise may have a two-fold benefit, but stimulating the brain shouldn't stop at the end of a workout. Dr. Gary Small, director of UCLA's Memory and Aging Research Center at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, and author of many books on the subject, says aging adults can employ a number of strategies to fend off the "middle-age pause." Crosswords and other mentally challenging tasks like Internet surfing can be effective, says Dr. Small, but there's no scientific proof linking such mental "jumping jacks" to the prevention of Alzheimer's or other cognitive conditions.
Still, Small recommends these and other techniques to improve memory, including staying socially active, which has been shown to maintain cognitive skills. Staying upbeat is also important.
"The best thing is a positive attitude," he says, noting that stress can muddle the mind. "If you worry about it, your memory will be worse."