By Nancy Ann Cotter, MD
Not long ago, a patient of mine said to me: “Don’t ever get old, it’s no fun!”
One could certainly understand the reasons she had to take such a view. She had lived a life full of challenges, including being a single mother of five, as well as suffering from severe osteoarthritis. By day she worked full-time as a home health aide, caring for others, and then went home to care for her family.
“You know, I’d just like to be able to garden a bit. It brings me so much pleasure, but my hands and neck hurt so much, it’s just not worth it” she would continue. “I know I can never be pain-free enough to garden again, but I’d like to at least be able to have a pain-free day every once in awhile. I’d like to contribute to my family and babysit my grandchildren. I know I am only going to get worse as I get older, and I don’t want to be a burden. ”
To hear this kind of outlook is heart- wrenching. Here is a woman who worked through difficulty all her life and who is looking forward only to worsening health. At Atlantic Integrative Medicine, we know that there is always something we can do to help by addressing the whole person. Before recommending a change in diet, exercise prescription, medication or supplements, the first thing I do is to encourage a change in attitude and expectations. I emphasize that there is so much that we can do to promote better health, no matter what condition we start with. Just the idea that we can create changes in health by adopting different habits is empowering and helps to lift the burden of further decline. This, in turn, makes it easier to implement helpful habits and drop unhealthy ones.
Gradually my patient adopted an anti-inflammatory diet, attended gentle yoga classes at our Healthy Lifestyles center, took some supplements targeted at decreasing pain and inflammation, and significantly decreased her pain medication. It was so gratifying to hear her report increasing improvements at subsequent visits. Most gratifying was the picture she brought in of the garden she was able to plant and tend with her granddaughter, and triumphant smile that spoke of self satisfaction and self worth that came with it.
People are living longer. A US citizen born in 1930 had a life expectancy of 60 years of age. Today, that same person may expect to live to age 79. How do people fare, in general, during those extra 19 years we have gained? The answer depends on some surprisingly controllable factors: our habits.
A study from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden that followed over 1,800 people aged 75 or older for 18 years, from 1987 to 2005. The study recorded things like life choices, social networks, exercise, and leisure activities. People who exercised on a regular basis — including swimming and walking — lived two years longer on average than those who didn’t. And those who had the healthiest lifestyles overall lived 5.4 years, on average, more than those with the unhealthiest lifestyles.
When older people have ailments, we often attribute the condition to aging. Increasingly, as people maintain health at older and older ages, we understand that our expectations of aging are not fixed in stone. As we see people living longer, healthier lives, our expectations of what is in store for us changes. We see that what we thought improbable in the past is now reality, and even greater expectations may shape our own and our children’s future.
We have abundant evidence that diet, community support, exercise, and attitude and expectations have an impact on how we age. Instead of concentrating on turning the clock back, ”living forward,” in a positive way can help us to inhabit our older years healthfully, comfortably, and in a way that contributes to the world around us.
The aging process need not be a decline into ill health but a transition to a future shaped by our positive habits and expectations. Sound promising? You can learn more on how to make that positive transition when Atlantic Health System host teachers from the Himalayan Institute, a non-profit, international organization dedicated to serving humanity through educational, spiritual, and humanitarian programs for a discussion on Vibrant Aging later this month. Vibrant Aging suggests that we look at getting older in a different light, as a time of life that is full of possibility.
The event will be held on Saturday, October 27, 2012, from 9:00am to 4:00pm at Malcolm Forbes Amphitheater, Morristown Medical Center, 100 Madison Avenue, Morristown, NJ. For more information or to register, please call 1-800-247-9580, or register online at atlantichealth.org.
Check out this and other entries on health care-related topics at the Well Aware - Your Way blog!