December 18, 2008
Active living is the key to successful aging
Dr. Roger Landry wishes senior citizens would stop acting their age. Landry, president of Masterpiece Living, LLC, a consulting firm for senior communities that emphasize healthy aging, observes, "Nothing in our DNA dictates that we can't stay vital into old age. We need to adopt a 'use it or lose it' approach to our minds, bodies and spirit."
After all, Landry points out, Grandma Moses began her illustrious artistic career in her late 70s and lived to 101, painting more than 20 canvases in her last year of life. "I hear inspiring stories like this every day," he said. "Recently, I met a woman who parachuted down to her 90th birthday party."
You don't need to parachute into active senior living, but modest exercise is essential. Not only does exercise build muscle tone and strength, it also creates a feeling of confidence and competence. "When you are physically engaged in life, you're more ready to try other activities," Landry says.
Ed Abramson may be living proof. Now 86, the L.A. resident is a highly decorated World War II veteran whose bravery earned him a Purple Heart, Bronze Star, Presidential Citation, Combat Infantry Badge and numerous other medals. As a member of the Army's 90th Division, Abramson participated in the landing at Normandy on Omaha Beach.
Abramson retired 17 years ago, having run a sales company specializing in high-end furniture for architects and designers. In that time, he's developed new interests, taking up oil painting, studying the Torah and exercise -- all avidly. His seascapes and still lifes grace the homes of friends who admire his work, and one of his granddaughters has asked him to paint Jerusalem's Western Wall for her apartment.
He enjoys spending quiet evenings with his wife of 40 years, June, as well as playing with his four great-grandchildren. And, barely one month after surgery to remove a cancerous tumor on his lung, Abramson still hits the gym three times a week, where he does an eye-popping 125 sit-ups each time, 45 minutes in a combined walk/jog on the treadmill and a variety of other exercises.
"Sometimes I don't feel like working out, if I'm tired or have aches and pains," he admits, "but I force myself to go, since I know I'll feel a lot better afterward. Working out is a key to feeling good," he says.
A combination of mental stimulation, social connections and physical challenge is a perfect example of what Landry calls successful aging.
"Research has smashed the stereotype that aging means automatic feebleness or crankiness. People who remain physically, mentally and socially active can maintain high levels of functioning well into their 80s and 90s," he said.
Landry points to exciting research in the last few years that has focused on the importance of "social connectivity" and its connection to overall brain fitness.
"We've always known that it's good to be with people, but there is a physiological basis for it," Landry says. "The DNA looks different in those who are socially connected than in those who are not."
For example, the telomere, which is the end of the strand of DNA, gets shorter and shorter as people age. However, Landry says telomeres shorten more slowly in people who stay socially connected, appearing as a younger cell.
People who maintain strong connections with friends, loved ones and confidants also have lower risks of just about every type of illness, including cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer's. Left unchecked, older adults who lose meaningful engagement with people and activities can become depressed, marginalized by society, losing their physical and mental vitality and becoming at greater risk for assisted living.
"It doesn't have to be that way," Landry said. "Older people can not only continue to have meaning, purpose and activity in their post-retirement years, they may even find a new purpose, unencumbered by work and parenting obligations."
Landry recommends that older people do the following each day: exercise for at least 30 minutes (though sedentary individuals should check with their doctors before beginning an exercise program), learn something new to stimulate brain function, meet with or call friends, and do anything they find meaningful, such as joining a book or other special-interest club, doing volunteer work or picking up an old hobby.
"Think back to things you may have enjoyed earlier in life, whether it was stamp collecting, crafts, gardening or politics. Whatever you're interested in, there's a group out there for you," he said.
Judy Gruen's most recent book is "The Women's Daily Irony Supplement."