Our amazing bodies are created to be restorative and self-healing. If we take care of them, they will take care of us. Healthy habits and lifestyle choices can go a long way towards improving the quality and length of our lives, but aging will eventually catch up with the best of us. There are ways to postpone and limit the effects of time, but certain consequences of aging are inevitable. Let’s take a look at some of the truths and misconceptions about aging and see if we can get the facts straight.
What is the Aging Process All About?
Besides the obvious outer symptoms of aging such as wrinkles and gray hair, there is a lot going on inside our bodies as well due to the effects of “Father Time.” Our bodies are, in some ways, similar to a machine, and eventually parts begin to wear out and cease to operate at peak efficiency. Due to advances in medical technology, we have options today that were not available in generations past, such as the substitution of certain “original equipment” with artificial replacement parts. However, no matter what our defenses, the years will take their toll. It’s not a question of if, but when. However, if we establish patterns of wellness, especially while we are still young, our quality of life can remain very high despite the onslaught of time.
Let’s break it down by body systems and see what we can generally expect as we age:
Nervous System: One of the most common symptoms associated with aging is forgetfulness and memory loss. Brain cells are unique in that they cannot replace themselves. We are born with a certain amount, and as we age they decline steadily in numbers, eventually affecting the efficiency of our thinking processes. Of course, this can happen more or less quickly from person to person, depending on such factors as how healthily we eat, exercise, and avoidance of drugs/alcohol and other toxins. The overall nervous system is also impacted with age, and we tend to lose coordination and speed of reflexes as well.
Regular exercise can help to delay both the physical and mental effects on our central nervous system. Studies have indicated that exercising our brains can help too. Older folks who play word games like scrabble or crossword puzzles tend to have less cognitive dysfunction than those with “lazy” brains. Another interesting discovery is that even though the number of brain cells decreases with age, the body seems to compensate to some degree by increasing the quantity of connections between the cells, especially in people who remain mentally active. Habitually keeping your mind engaged throughout life may also play a factor in your senior years. However, it’s never too late to start.
Digestive System: As we age, the natural functions of the intestinal tract slow down. The amount of digestive juices and enzymes is normally decreased, including those from the stomach, pancreas, and liver, and the actual amount of digestive tract surface slightly decreases for most folks too. In addition, the number and intensity of muscular contractions that move food through your system lessen as well. All of these internal changes may not cause any noticeable changes in the way your body processes food, but some general dietary guidelines for seniors are appropriate. In your “Golden Years” it is especially important to consume less quantity of food, and focus on quality instead. As with people of any age, eating slowly and chewing your food well is also recommended. Seniors typically need less calories anyway, as their metabolism slows down and it is easier to gain unwanted weight if there is too little activity and too many calories. Another common problem for older folks is constipation. Staying active, eating a diet high in natural fiber, and drinking plenty of pure water every day is a great plan for staying regular. Everyone, young and old, should have at least two bowel movements daily for optimum health. A glass of prune juice on a daily basis may also prove beneficial.
Vision: Changes to your eyes are also a natural consequence of aging. Most people start to notice changes in their vision as they enter their forties. Nearsightedness, the inability to clearly see distant objects, becomes more common. The next noticeable change for many people is difficulty viewing objects close up. Bifocals often help, and by the age of 55 the majority of us need some kind of eyewear to correct our vision.
Other common vision problems for seniors include cataracts, macular degeneration, and glaucoma. The quality of night vision also decreases. As we age, the working parts of the eyes such as the retinas, lenses, and irises become dryer and more brittle. It is best to keep up regular visits to your eye doctor for possible corrective measures and to catch any vision diseases as early as possible.
Eating a wholesome diet throughout life is critical for our overall health in general and our vision in particular. Carrots and other foods high in vitamins A and beta-carotene are particularly helpful for maintaining healthy vision. As the saying goes, “You’ve never seen a rabbit with glasses, have you?”
Hearing: As with the eyes, the structures of the inner ear and associated nerves tend to deteriorate over time. In fact, nearly a third of folks experience some degree of hearing loss by the age of 60, and by 85 almost half of us will lose a significant portion of our hearing. The fine hairs that facilitate hearing can become damaged, the auditory canal becomes more narrow, and the eardrums thicken with age. The appearance of the outer ear can change too, as the lobes of many seniors typically grow longer due to the effects of gravity on older, less pliable skin.
The best hedge against hearing loss due to aging is to protect your ears from loud, damaging noise throughout life. Noise such as excessively loud music, gunfire, and industrial racket can permanently damage hearing, with the effects often not manifesting themselves till later in life. Be sure to use protective measures whenever possible.
Cardiovascular System: The heart muscle and circulatory system will naturally feel the effects of an aging body, but the good news is that age-related damage to these organ systems can be greatly minimized by healthy lifestyle and dietary choices. The pumping action of the heart will become less effective as the years go by, and the blood vessels become less elastic and narrower (atherosclerosis) as well. Lifelong dietary choices and levels of physical exercise can postpone and even eliminate a lot of these negative effects. Staying away from the Standard American Diet (SAD) consisting of high-fat, low-fiber foods that are loaded with sodium will do wonders for your cardiovascular system well into your senior years. If you eat a wholesome diet consisting of large amounts of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, your heart and circulatory system will stay strong and healthy much longer. Combine this with regular exercise, and you have a great one-two punch against premature deterioration of your cardiovascular health. It goes without saying, of course, that smoking is definitely to be avoided as well. All of these factors will minimize your chance of getting high blood pressure too, which is also a factor in poor cardiovascular health. Poor heart health is very common amongst the majority of American senior citizens, but it simply does not have to be that way.
Musculoskeletal System: Our bones continue to grow until about the age of 35. After that, they gradually lose density, strength, and flexibility as we grow into old age. The associated joints, tendons, and ligaments also tend to deteriorate over time. They dry out and friction increases, often due to inflammatory diseases such as arthritis. Many seniors find that they grow an inch or two shorter at their advanced age, and this may be due to bone shrinkage and compaction of the spinal chord over time. Bones may also become more brittle, and tend to fracture more easily. That is why broken hips, for example, are so common amongst the elderly.
The best prevention against such problems is a regular habit of consistent exercise, along with a healthy diet rich in the nutrients and vitamins that lead to a strong skeletal system. Getting plenty of quality calcium is especially important. Making adjustments as you age can help too, like limiting high-impact exercise such as jogging, and replacing it with gentler alternatives. Nowadays, replacement of joints such as knees is a very common option as well.
Skin: Older skin loses natural oils that lubricate it and keep it supple, and it gets thinner and more susceptible to bruising and other damage as well. Skin care (especially facial) is a mega-industry in the United States, with the average woman spending about $600 annually “from the neck up.” As aged skin becomes less elastic, gravity often takes its toll and causes it to sag, which can be quite upsetting to some people.
The best way to keep your skin from prematurely aging is to develop a daily skin care routine that includes a gentle, natural cleanser and a quality, toxin-free moisturizer as well. You will have to adjust this based on your particular skin type. Not smoking and avoiding second-hand smoke will also contribute greatly to healthy skin. However, there is one factor that is by far the most important issue regarding your skin: protection from the sun. Nothing damages and ages skin faster than overexposure to direct sunlight. Wear an organic sunscreen at all times, and the use of protective clothing is also recommended.
Dental: It is a myth that most older people will inevitably lose their natural teeth. While good dental hygiene is important at any age, it is even more critical as we age. Almost everyone can avoid losing their teeth by diligently taking care of them. Older folks may be more susceptible to tooth decay as their teeth and gums age, but a little extra care will usually avoid the need for dentures. Seniors should also be screened regularly for oral cancers, for as we age the mouth produces less saliva, which is a natural cleanser and deterrent against disease.
Sexuality: Another myth is that you can become too old to have sexual relations. As we age, staying sexually functional can have its challenges, and some adjustments may have to be made. Impotence in men increases with age, but in most, but not all, cases the problem may be mental rather than physical. If you and your partner are understanding with each other and willing to be flexible, healthy relations are possible indefinitely for most seniors. Sexual health is also a factor of lifestyle and dietary choices made throughout life.
Certain consequences of aging are bound to come, but have you noticed a pattern in our discussion? As with literally all wellness issues, aging can be greatly impacted by lifestyle choices such as diet and exercise. No one lives forever, but the quality of our lives when we get older are a direct result of the choices we make as we travel down the road of life. But don’t get discouraged if you have not taken good care of yourself. It is never too late to begin the process of change that can lead to wellness and prevent many health problems in the future.
Loretta Lanphier, ND, CN, HHP, CH is a Naturopathic Physician, Clinical Nutritionist, Holistic Health Practitioner and Clinical Herbalist in Houston, TX and Founder / CEO of Oasis Advanced Wellness. Under her leadership, Oasis Advanced Wellness is known and respected as one of the leading companies in providing safe, non-toxic, hi-tech natural health and wellness solutions along with cutting-edge health programs. Dr. Lanphier is the author of five health and wellness e-books including Optimum Health Strategies…Doing What Works. Lanphier is Editor and contributor to the worldwide Free E-newsletterAdvanced Health & Wellness We invite you to visit us at Oasis Advanced Wellness, the PMS-Progesterone-Menopause Resource Center, the Acne Resource Center, the Skin Care Resource Center, the Glyconutrient Resource Center, the Allergy-Asthma-Sinus Relief Resource Center andwww.oasisserene.com