Simply exercise your muscles and your brains! But how? Read on, and make sure to check out my exercises for the over-65s.
If someone is lucky enough to live a long life, aging becomes an inevitable part of it. In developed societies where life expectancy is continually increasing, the changes that come with aging pose challenges not only for the individual but also for families, communities, and society as a whole. One must cope with the sometimes less-than-pleasant changes that come with advanced age.
Two-time Oscar-winning actress Bette Davis once said, "Old age ain’t no place for softies." And that is indeed true. But why? What does old age entail? Can it be made easier and more enjoyable? It's worth thinking about this, as it doesn't make a difference who you are – when you grow old, what matters is how you handle the changes and challenges that come with age.
The aging process begins at different times and progresses differently for everyone. It's influenced by the genes one inherits, life circumstances, lifestyle choices, and access to healthcare.
Traditional thinking suggests that old age begins at the age of 65. This stage is the period encompassing the closing of the human life cycle, until the end of life. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) doesn't define old age by years but considers the extent to which an individual can carry out previous roles (family, work, community, etc.), tasks, and contribute to society. We could say that whether someone is considered old or not is determined by their "activeness."
What happens in this stage of life?
First, I would mention the gradual slowing down that affects both physical and mental processes. As a person gets older, the speed at which physical tasks are performed decreases. It takes longer to go shopping or do garden work. In most cases, the same applies to mental tasks – solving a crossword puzzle or reading usually takes more time for an elderly person.
Other physical changes are also noticeable. Bone composition changes, causing them to become more brittle. Bone and joint inflammations appear, and osteoporosis is more common, especially among women. The focusing ability of the eyes deteriorates, making it harder to find objects. With advancing age, cataracts or glaucoma occur more frequently. Hearing deteriorates, with one study showing hearing loss in 48% of men and 37% of women over the age of 75. The skin loses its elasticity, and its ability to regenerate is not the same. Wounds and injuries take longer to heal. The hair becomes thinner and turns grey.
Digestion slows down, and constipation becomes more common. Others may experience diarrhoea because their stomach and intestines cannot process food properly. Urinary retention can be a concern for some. According to a 2014 survey in the United States, 50% of women and 25% of men aged 65 and over suffer from incontinence.
Many people experience chronic sleep disturbances. Some need to take multiple naps during the day.
As coordination of the body movement decreases, falls become more common, unfortunately becoming the leading cause of death in old age.
Mental changes can or may also occur in the lives of elderly individuals. Research suggests that those with a negative attitude or perception of old age are more likely to develop depression. Many fear or even dread illnesses, and this can affect their everyday lives. According to WHO data, approximately 15% of individuals over 60 years old are affected by mental disorders.
The speed of encoding, storing, and retrieving information decreases. Symptoms of dementia can appear, such as a decline in memory and other cognitive abilities.
This raises the question: how can someone age healthily?
As we age, our minds and bodies change, but a healthy lifestyle can help us cope. Various health problems can be prevented by paying attention to the following.
As we age, our dietary needs change. It's possible that we need fewer calories, but it's still important to pay attention to proper nutrient intake. It is recommended to consume fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, low-fat dairy products, nuts, and seeds. It is advised to avoid empty calories, such as sugary drinks and potato chips, and excessive alcohol consumption. (Of course, we're not talking about enjoying an occasional glass of wine in the evening.) It's particularly important to ensure an adequate intake of fluids because the risk of dehydration is higher in older age.
Maintaining a healthy body weight
Problems can result not only from excess body weight. Under-nutrition can also be an issue. Healthy eating and exercise can help achieve the ideal weight.
Elderly individuals who actively participate in leisure activities with others, be it through family, hobbies, or community involvement, enjoy greater protection against certain health problems. Aging doesn't necessarily mean being alone.
Exercising Our Minds
Engaging in various activities can actively stimulate our minds and improve our memory. These activities include acquiring new skills (learning languages, music, drawing, DIY, craft work), reading, crossword puzzles, and playing games (chess, Lego, card games, board games).
Regular Physical Activity
Physical activity can help maintain a healthy weight and avoid chronic health issues. If you haven't previously been active, then begin gradually. In addition to walking, hiking, or even yoga, it's advisable to perform specific targeted exercises – you can read more about these below and in my book.
The Benefits of Physical Activity
Regular physical activity is a cornerstone of healthy aging. Physical activity comes with numerous physical and mental benefits. It helps maintain muscle strength, flexibility, and cardiovascular health, reducing the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and osteoporosis. Physical activity stimulates the release of endorphins ("happiness hormones"), providing a natural mood boost and reducing the risk of depression. Physical activity has been linked to improved cognitive functions and a reduced risk of dementia and age-related mental decline.
What's behind the “wonderful effects” of exercise?
1. GABA and Glycine Levels
GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) and glycine are inhibitory neurotransmitters that play a crucial role in the central nervous system's functioning. With aging, GABA and glycine levels tend to decrease, affecting mental health and cognitive functions. Reduced GABA levels have been associated with increased anxiety, depression, and sleep disturbances, while decreased glycine levels may impair memory and cognitive processes.
Reduced levels of GABA and glycine can lead to the release of primitive reflexes from their inhibition.
2. Primitive Reflexes
Primitive reflexes are automatic movements that appear in infancy and serve as building blocks for more complex motor skills. While these reflexes typically disappear in the first year of life, they can return in adulthood and old age, often as a response to stress. Their reappearance signals an issue with the functioning of the cerebral cortex. (You can read about this in my blog posts about the immature brain and primitive reflexes and primitive reflexes.) They can disrupt normal movement patterns, motor coordination, and even speech. Treatment of primitive reflexes resulting in their inhibition can contribute to improvements in motor coordination, balance, and overall motor function, thereby enhancing the quality of life in older individuals. I would like to emphasize that the presence of primitive reflexes is a symptom. It indicates that the cerebral cortex has a need for a specific type of movement, because something is not okay.
BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) is a protein that plays a critical role in promoting the growth and survival of nerve cells. It is often referred to as “brain fertilizer” because it significantly supports neuroplasticity, the brain's ability to change and adapt, and the formation of connections between nerve cells, known as synapses.
Exercise has been proven to increase BDNF levels, resulting in improved cognitive functions, better mood, and the slowing of degenerative processes within the nervous system, as well as protecting nerve cells. By promoting the production of BDNF, exercise can be a fundamental tool in maintaining brain health and potentially slowing age-related mental decline.
4. Preventing Dementia
Dementia is a major concern within our aging population. While there is no guaranteed method for preventing dementia, several strategies have shown promise in reducing the risk. A healthy lifestyle, including a balanced diet, regular physical activity, social involvement, and cognitive stimulation, can help preserve brain health. Additionally, the management of chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity can contribute to a reduced risk of cognitive decline.
My package of reflex integration exercises for the over-65s, when performed regularly – ideally daily – can contribute to a more balanced and happier old age.
After all, “an old person should not be an obsolete person!"