Within the last century, we have increased our average life expectancy to upwards of 80 years! Although we are living longer, we are not necessarily living better. In fact, 50% of adults have at least one chronic disease such as heart disease, arthritis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes or dementia. Further, 70% of adults over sixty-five have two or more of these chronic conditions, as reported by the Center for Disease Control. These numbers are staggering.
As we age, we need to consider how our behaviors are impacting our quality of life so that we have more life in our years as we add years in our lives. If we are aging, can we do it with vibrancy and grace versus accepting the decline we associate with getting older? Fortunately, we have a lot of power to influence our aging experience as we strive to compress morbidity (shortening the period of illness so we live longer and die quicker, versus dying younger and being sick for a longer period of time).
If we would like to change the course of our aging patterns, first we should stop to ask ourselves: Why? What will be different if I change my habits and I’m healthy in my advanced years? Will I be able to engage more fully in the lives of my family? Can I get outside to play with my grandchildren without becoming winded and fatigued, or sitting on the sidelines? Am I able to enjoy the hobbies I love like traveling and gardening without limitations? All of these questions point towards your why: the intrinsic motivation you experience that inspires behavioral change.
For many, their why points towards avoiding one of the most feared consequences of aging: dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. For those over 65, this is their greatest health-related fear as they perceive it to be an inevitable consequence of aging.
As we discuss changing our habits to more health-promoting ones, we might be asking ourselves: is this realistic? Bob Wright states that there are no guarantees, but if we can commit to even a few healthy habits we can decrease our risk of these chronic diseases and increase our chances of aging well. With this in mind, we recently hosted an Age Well week-long intensive here at H3 where we hosted top Alzheimer’s neurologists Dean and Ayesha Sherzai.
Our keynote speakers provided us with an excellent framework for focusing on the prevention of Alzheimer’s and other chronic diseases. They assert that individuals that can master the lifestyle interventions cited in their NEURO program (more on this in a moment) can lower their risk of developing Alzheimer’s and other cognitive decline by 90%. That’s right… 90%!
NEURO is an acronym that stands for Nutrition, Exercise, Unwind, Restore and Optimize. The great news about this program is it blends beautifully with setting S (Specific) M (Measurable) A (Action Oriented) R (Realistic) T (Time Bound) goals that set us up for small wins that add up to big changes in the long-run.
The Sherzai’s recommend a plant-based, whole foods diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. If you’re an avid meat eater, ask yourself… how can I make one small shift that reduces my risk of cognitive decline and maybe another chronic disease? Perhaps you could strive to try two new colorful vegetables you’ve previously glanced over in your produce section? This is a measurable (M) and realistic (R) goal for most.
In terms of exercise, something is always better than nothing. With walking you can’t go wrong. How about a ten minute (T) thermal walk (A) around your block 3-5 times per week? The U in NEURO stands for Unwind. This has everything to do with stress management. There are both positive and negative forms of stress. Positive stress, or eustress, is motivating and allows us to take on interesting and appropriate challenges. However, chronic stress left unmanaged can negatively impact both the brain and heart over time. The Sherzais suggest as little as 2-3 minutes of meditation a day to unwind and reap the benefits of this stress management technique.
The R in NEURO stands for Restore. In order to Restore, we recommend optimizing your bedtime routine with SMART goals. One could be to replace one or two occasions a week with something specifically designed to occupy your mind and hands, such as knitting. Target 7-8 hours of deep, restorative hours of sleep per night to reduce your risk of dementia. Finally, the O in NEURO stands for Optimize, and this involves challenging your brain in new and complex ways. It may seem daunting, but learning a new language or to play a musical instrument is an excellent way to engage in higher-level thinking and processing that channel neural networks to adapt and learn new pathways.
Over time, all of these small changes added together lead to big results in terms of improving the quality of your life. If you’d like to work on some of the specific behaviors mentioned above, please join us for a stay at Hilton Head Health where we attend to holistic wellness and lifestyle management.