September is Healthy Aging Month, a time dedicated to increasing awareness about the positive aspects of getting older. Healthy aging isn’t just about reducing your risk of preventable diseases. It’s also about living a healthier and more fulfilling life so you feel better with age.
Healthy aging means understanding what to expect as you age so you can learn how to prepare your mind and body for the natural aging process. This Healthy Aging Month, we’ll explore the top ways your health changes with age and how to manage these changes for better longevity and well-being.
Often the first sign of aging we notice is a change to our skin. Collagen is the protein that’s responsible for the skin’s smoothness and elasticity. As we age, the amount of collagen our bodies produce declines. How rapidly collagen production declines largely depends on genetics. With less collagen, our skin becomes thinner and develops fine lines and wrinkles. But changes to aging skin aren’t solely cosmetic一aging skin is also more susceptible to bruising, sun damage and skin cancer.
Skin is a vital organ that acts as a protective barrier, keeping us safe from toxins, injury and other threats. Taking care of your skin is a critical part of healthy aging. One risk factor that causes premature aging is prolonged, repeated and direct exposure to UV light. Radiation from the sun can harm the DNA in your skin, which may lead to skin cancer. Regardless of your skin’s pigment, protecting yourself from intense UV radiation is important.
Experts at the National Institute on Aging recommend that all older adults conduct a monthly self-examination to detect any skin changes. Examine yourself for signs such as new moles or growths, changes to current moles or abrasions that take long to heal.
In addition to monthly skin checks, aging adults should also limit their time in direct sunlight and apply sunscreen of a minimum SPF 15.
For many older adults, preserving brain health一the ability to think, learn and remember一is one of the top priorities in healthy aging. Everyone’s mind slows down with age, making it harder to control our attention and process information as quickly as we used to. How rapidly this decline happens and the degree to which it occurs vary from person to person.
Many factors determine how well our brains can perform, including exercise, diet and sleep. Doctors have also started emphasizing the importance of reducing and managing stress in order to maintain brain health. Chronic stress changes our brains, diverting resources away from functions like learning and memory and toward the part of the brain responsible for anxiety. Stress is also linked to higher risks of Alzheimer’s disease.
Promote healthy aging and maintain brain function with these stress-management practices for older adults:
Adults who are able to maintain cognitive function into old age benefit from a higher quality of life and better emotional well-being.
One of the subtle changes that occurs with age is to our heart health. The heart muscle naturally enlarges with age, and the arteries thicken, increasing blood pressure and reducing the rate of circulation. As a result, blood vessels become less resilient over time.
These natural changes put aging adults at a higher risk of developing cardiovascular diseases. To help minimize the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes, healthy aging practices should include measures to manage blood pressure. Diet is an essential healthy lifestyle practice to prevent heart disease and diabetes.
Heart-healthy diets involve reducing the amount of saturated fat and cholesterol you consume regularly. Doctors also recommend limiting your salt intake with age, as it can cause swelling in the extremities. In addition to avoiding certain foods, healthy aging diets should also include plenty of fruits and vegetables high in dietary fiber.
Maintain a healthy cardiovascular system by getting your blood pressure and cholesterol checked regularly.
Another way our bodies change with age is the decline in the production of certain hormones. In both men and women, reproductive hormones begin to decline. For men, testosterone levels begin to decline gradually by about 1% each year after the age of 40. In women, estrogen levels decline during perimenopause. Melatonin and human growth hormone are two other chemicals that decline in both men and women, which both play a role in the sleep cycle.
While the decline in hormone production is a natural part of the aging process, there are healthy aging practices that can help stave off this decline. Studies have found that a combination of diet modifications and regular physical activity can help to balance hormones with age. Particularly, calorie restriction and resistance exercise are both shown to help increase growth hormone.
Maintaining healthy levels of growth hormone can help to decrease the risk of health issues, like weight gain, in aging adults. Growth hormone is often called the anti-aging hormone due to its role in metabolism and cellular repair一two functions that help minimize age-related diseases.
Age also impacts the musculoskeletal system一our network of bones, muscles, ligaments, tendons and joints. One of the earliest changes happens to our bone density, with bone mass declining gradually with age, particularly in women. Likewise, joints lose cartilage over time, reducing their cushioning effect. Both men and women also start to lose lean muscle mass with age, and muscle tissue gets replaced slower.
These factors typically lead to older adults experiencing difficulties with mobility and range of motion. Conditions like arthritis, chronic pain and even fatigue can become more prevalent with age due to changes in muscles, bones and joints.
To help maintain mobility over time, healthy aging practices should include:
Staying active and enjoying continued range of motion are essential to aging successfully. Not only does physical exercise help improve musculoskeletal health, but it also provides benefits for other age-related concerns.
Aging also affects the immune system. The older we get, the slower our natural immunity is at responding to viruses, bacteria and other pathogens. It can also take longer to heal from cuts and scrapes. Despite the natural decline in immunity in aging adults, there are plenty of lifestyle improvements that can decrease the rate at which the immune system declines.
More research is indicating the important role that sleep plays in immune health. During sleep, our bodies naturally eliminate waste and toxins, helping to repair and rejuvenate us. Additionally, sleep also helps our bodies become more efficient at making immune cells that are needed to fight infection. Deep sleep appears to be especially beneficial for helping our bodies fight infections.
There is a myth that older adults need less sleep, but all adults need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night, regardless of age. However, research shows that people over the age of 60 tend to experience higher rates of sleep troubles than younger adults. Experts suggest that following proper sleep hygiene habits is one of the best ways to ensure better sleep as we age.
Healthy aging is all about living and feeling better by prioritizing well-being as you age. From keeping up with exercise and limiting bad foods to getting more sleep and reducing your stress load, healthy aging practices allow you to continue making the most of life.
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