We inherited our DNA and basic human needs from hunter-gatherer ancestors who traveled and cooperated eons ago in search of food and safety. Our basic needs of sleep, food, movement and procreation are the same as theirs. But of course our living circumstances and the challenges we face in successfully aging are very different.
Successful aging for them meant helping each other survive and maintain their community as long as they lived. We live longer, under very different circumstances, and face vastly different challenges. How we age today depends on our lifestyle, the way we live. Aging successfully is a matter of attending to a few simple principles.
Hunter-gatherers’ routines were regular, and determined by daylight. Establishing a regular routine of sleeping, eating, playing, socializing, participating in hobbies and exercising can be problematic for us. Walking is good, but not adequate exercise. Along with 30 minutes of active exercise at least three times a week, strengthening, stretching and maintaining flexibility of the body’s core and extremity muscles is important for balance and preventing injuries. Complications from physical inactivity are responsible for 15 percent of our health care costs.
Hunter gatherers ate fruit, nuts, seeds, vegetable roots, and occasional small amounts of meat. For us, eating does more than fuel the quest for food. It’s one of life’s greatest pleasures.
Seniors shouldn’t be slaves to diets, but like our ancestors the best diets include generous quantities of fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, whole-grain cereals and baked products, low fat dairy products, fish and chicken and occasionally lean red meats. Seniors have increased sensitivity to alcohol’s effects. It should be consumed in only small to moderate amounts. Obesity is second only to tobacco in contributing to premature death.
Hunter-gatherers, spiritual health necessarily came from being an integral part of their community’s survival. Today, being connected with others and nurtured within a network of close personal and diverse casual friends is a crucial element of our spiritual health and successful aging.
Diversity is nurtured through having varied interests and associating with different groups. As paths to some interests close, new ones can be found. Learning, developing new interests, and finding new friends also strengthens the mind. People who are socially isolated are more than twice as likely to die prematurely as those who have strong social connections.
Caring for the emotional self can be crucial. Life is a series of wins, partial wins, frustrations, reverses and losses. Paradoxically, success is a loss of the previously striving self. Children are taught to “grin and bear it,” “life is what it is,” and “move on” following adversity. Not having learned to move on, some adults retaliate when given an opportunity when they identify others as responsible for their adversity. Consequently, without someone else to blame, they are inadequately prepared to cope with aging’s inevitable losses like stroke or debilitating cardiovascular disease or other serious personal health setback, death or disability of a partner or close friends.
Healthfully coping with loss is a matter of adequately grieving and transforming the self into a new being with a vision of life that fits comfortably with the previous one. Transformation requires solitude, time to meditate, contemplate and renew the self. Solitude allows fully appreciating feelings of joy or sadness. In due time, healthy mourners begin marshalling their inner resources. Some seek help from others in re-discovering meaning, and re-creating their inner selves. Those who suffer unrelenting emotional or psychological distress need professional help.
Sudden, unanticipated mental changes, weakness or loss of feelings in the face, arm(s) or leg(s) can be signs of stroke and are emergencies that require immediate professional care.
Subtle physiologic changes and physical symptoms like constipation, persistent diarrhea, and bloody stools need to be evaluated. Progressive changes in urination need to be checked out and possibly treated. New or changing patterns of pain or discomfort should be noted and followed up on.
Routine professional health care is important in aging successfully. Along with vaccinations for influenza, pneumonia and shingles, it should include periodic blood pressure checks, eye exams with pupil dilation, skin exams and twice yearly dental checkups.
The key to modern successful aging is regularly reconnecting with the self and reaffirming your vision of life and purpose for living. It’s adapting a healthy lifestyle, preventing and avoiding diseases and limiting their negative effects. It’s expecting life to throw occasional curveballs and adapting to them as best you can. By assuming a child-like curiosity for adventure and learning, seniors are in the enviable position of being models of aging and truly helpful to others.