As baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) enter their “golden years”—that period generally covering traditional retirement age of about 65 and beyond— increasing attention is being paid to the health and wellness of this fast-growing population. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s report The State of Aging and Health in America 2013, the senior population will increase dramatically between now and 2030, growing from 35 million to 72 million, to become 20 percent of the US population by 2030. And advances in modern medicine will mean that a significant number will be living past age 85, although not always living well.
Lifestyle modifications related to nutrition and physical activity that have been medically proven to make a difference in quality of life as we age can help ensure that those golden years are truly golden. The sooner we embrace these changes, the more benefits we reap (though healthy lifestyle changes at any time can make a difference). While modern medicine has not yet cracked the code to stop aging, research has provided a valuable road map to help us make choices that will make a real difference in how we age.
The maxim It’s not what age you are but how well you age has real significance to those who are seeking a long, vital life. Paying attention to lifestyle factors we can control as we age can help prevent chronic diseases that decrease quality of life in the later years and help us maintain emotional and mental vitality.
Take a look at the following lifestyle modifications that can have a significant impact on your overall well-being as you age.
- Decrease Body Fat. Extra body fat increases inflammation that causes premature chronic disease, while lean body mass increases strength and mobility as we age. If you are overweight, now is the time to focus on reasonable weight loss through healthy diet and an exercise plan that will help you build lean muscle. Due to a decreasing metabolic rate that occurs with aging, a realistic weight-loss goal for most older adults is 2 to 4 pounds per month.
- Consume Seven To 10 Servings Of Fruit And Vegetables Per Day. Aim to meet this recommended goal to get the antioxidants needed to lower risk for chronic diseases and the fiber, potassium, and other compounds that can help lower blood pressure and cholesterol. The 8,000 compounds found in produce cannot be duplicated in a supplement, so pile them on your plate. Fruits and veggies are also less calorie dense than proteins and grains, providing satisfying volume with fewer calories.Wondering about serving size? A vegetable serving is about ½ cup of cooked vegetable or 1 cup raw (excluding iceberg lettuce); a serving of fruit is equivalent to one piece of fruit or 1 cup of bite-sized fruit (melon or berries, for example) or half a banana. To put that in perspective as part of your daily intake, consuming three pieces offruit, 2 cups of cooked vegetables, and a large salad will mean you’ve met your daily recommendation.
- Watch Your Protein. While it is important to have a small amount of lean protein at each meal to help maintain muscle mass and repair cells, excessive protein increases your risk of cancer and heart disease. Limit red meat to no more than twice a week, and aim for two to three servings of fish per week to get the healthy omega-3 fatty acids, which help combat the inflammation that causes chronic disease. Including some vegetarian protein in your diet (three to five meals per week) is also a good idea to decrease saturated fat and lower levels of contamination often found in commercially produced meat.
As with vegetables and fruit, it’s helpful to be aware of serving size and recommended servings where protein is concerned. For women, 6 to 8 ounces per day is recommended; for men, 9 to 11 ounces. Eating additional protein may contribute unwanted extra calories and increase the risk of chronic disease.
- Seek Out “Healthy” Fats. All fat is not created equal; some types of fat actually help fight inflammation. Vegetable oils that are low in saturated fat and higher in omega-3 fatty acids—such as olive oil, canola oil, grape seed oil, nut oil, margarines with an olive oil or canola oil base, nuts, and avocado—are recommended. Be aware, however, that all fats are high in calories, so if weight is a concern, limit the quantity that you use to no more than 1 tablespoon per meal.
- Eat Fish. Fish is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, which, in addition to reducing inflammation, improve brain function. Fatty fish such as salmon, trout, sardines, and shellfish are good choices because they are low in mercury. Shellfish such as shrimp, crab, and lobster are higher in cholesterol but, due to their very low saturated fat content, do not raise human cholesterol as once thought. For those who don’t like or are allergic to fish, 1,000 milligrams of fish oil in the form of an omega-3 supplement can provide some benefit.
- Eat Nuts. Nuts are high in vitamin E, which promotes brain health; they are a good source of omega-3 fatty acids and are high in antioxidants that prevent chronic disease. One serving of nuts per day is recommended; one serving is 12 to 15 almonds or pistachios, 8 walnut halves, or 20 peanuts. A tablespoon of natural peanut butter or almond butter on whole-grain toast or an apple is a great way to enjoy this healthy food daily.
- Take A Vitamin D Supplement. Adequate vitamin D not only decreases rates of hip fractures but is thought to decrease risk factors for heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers as well. Most of us don’t get enough of this important vitamin because so few of the foods in the American diet contain it. And while sunlight is a good source, sun exposure is attended by risk of skin cancer, so many of us avoid exposure when we can. Consider taking a vitamin D supplement of 800 to 1,000 international units daily.
- Ditch The White. Replace as much white flour as possible with whole-grain carbohydrate foods, such as brown rice, whole-grain pastas, lentils, beans, whole-grain breads, cereals, and ancient grains such as barley, faro, and quinoa. Whole grains metabolize much more slowly than refined white carbohydrates; this means a lower glycemic load, which helps prevent type 2 diabetes. Whole grains also keep you feeling full longer and cause less insulin production, which helps prevent inflammation. Whole grains are also higher in fiber, which helps with digestive problems. Look for breads that have at least 3 grams (g) of fiber per serving and cereals that provide 6 g of fiber per serving. Whole grains, along with adequate fruit and vegetable intake, contribute to the 30 to 40 g of fiber recommended daily for good health.
- Get Moving. A minimum of five hours of exercise per week is the general recommendation; if you haven’t been exercising regularly, start slowly. Walking is a good option for those who have been sedentary; over time, walking speed can be increased to make exercise more rigorous to improve cardiovascular output and promote weight loss. Exercising with friends or family members has the extra benefit of providing social connections, which has been shown to be another important aspect of overall well-being as we age.
- Strength Train. Weight-resistant exercise—also known as strength training or weight training—not only increases muscle mass but also ups our metabolism as we age. Functional exercises—those that mimic daily movements—are best to assist in maintaining balance, strength, and range of motion, making daily life easier as we age. To be effective and to consistently improve conditioning, try incorporating strength-training exercise three to four times per week.
Paulette Lambert, RD, CDE, is director of nutrition for California Health & Longevity Institute, located within Four Seasons Hotel Westlake Village (chli.com). With more than 27 years of private practice after an extensive clinical education, Lambert has wide-ranging experience in clinical nutrition and the development of individualized dietary plans.