Act Your (Mental) Age
By Diane Bones
Old age was long viewed as a time of decline in health and function. That is far from the case today.
"Studies have shown that remaining physically and mentally active confers a significant degree of protection against illness and disability in late life," says Joel E. Streim, M.D. Dr. Streim is a professor of psychiatry in the section on geriatric psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
There is some evidence that staying active and young at heart may even help reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease, though the National Institutes of Health says that researchers still aren’t sure whether these factors can actually prevent the disease.
But what if someone tells you to "act your age"?
Everyone is different
"'Acting your age' makes no sense because people age at different rates," says Kenneth R. Pelletier, Ph.D., M.D., a clinical professor at the University of California and University of Arizona medical schools. "There is no such thing as an 'average' 85-year-old because all 85-year-olds are not the same, genetically, biologically, emotionally, or psychologically."
Old age was long viewed as a time of decline in health and function. That is far from the case today. "As people live longer thanks to improved medical care, many are fortunate to survive into old age with less chronic illness and disability," Dr. Streim says.
Experts on aging have this advice for older adults who want to stay young at heart:
Choose a role model
"Look at your peer group and notice older adults who continue to participate in a range of activities. Then remind yourself that you can, too," Dr. Streim says. "My hero is Jimmy Carter, but I also admire Clint Eastwood and Peter O'Toole, even if they didn't win Oscars this year!" Dr. Pelletier thinks people who climb Mount Everest at age 85 "provide us with a living image of what is possible."
It is never too late to make changes
"It is harder to change when you are older, but it's never too late to start making small changes," Dr. Pelletier says. "No matter what your physical state, you can do something to optimize your function." For instance, you could try water aerobics if you have arthritis. You could adjust your diet if you need to lose weight.
Avoid isolation; keep in touch with family, friends, and neighbors; and meet new people. "Older adults have more avenues to accomplish this—such as through active community senior centers—than ever before," says Dr. Streim. What if you or someone you love seems depressed or unwilling to engage with others? Talk with your health care provider. Depression is treatable, Dr. Streim says, and older adults do not have to suffer.
Use it or lose it
Stay active physically with a simple pursuit such as walking. Keep your mind sharp by reading books, working on crossword puzzles, playing video games, or joining in conversation. Embrace what you enjoy. "The same activities that enhance your quality of life, such as ballroom dancing, will extend the quantity of your life," Dr. Pelletier says.
Of course, each person's abilities shape what he or she can do. "Many people who live to a ripe old age report that they got there by using good common sense and practicing moderation," says Dr. Streim. "But moderation doesn't mean giving up on life. It just means adjusting your expectations and avoiding big risks."
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