Will You Make The Same Mistakes About Aging That Your Parents Did?


Millions of us are middle aged or older, caring for aging parents and other loved ones who can no longer be independent. We see how they decline, whether slowly or sometimes rapidly after some accident or episode. The last part of their lives does not look so great. Chronic illness, doctor visits, loss of ability to do what they used to enjoy and depression about it can all be in the mix. Do we have to do the same as they did?

What We Know Now That Parents May Not Have Known

For many people, aging is thought of as a matter of luck. Good genes or bad ones, they believe. And for so many of our aging folks, there is a sense that there is nothing much one can do about that luck. That can be true for some, though it it far from the whole picture. Science tells us a different story. It’s only about 30% or so genetics that determines how we age. We know much more about the aging process now than we did a generation ago. What’s different? We have solid research on how to prevent or delay the declines that lead to disabling illnesses. The good news—a lot of chronic illness is preventable. The “bad” news—it takes work to do this prevention!

Our Typical Habits

Most Americans do not get the exercise we need to stave off the worst of age-related decline. “I don’t have time” is the most common excuse. But it is merely that, an excuse. The truth is that exercise, even the mild variety, takes effort. Indeed, more effort is needed to walk for 15 minutes than to watch TV for the same amount of time. We hear this from the medical researchers who study aging. We hear it from our own physicians. But we stay on the couch because it’s just easier. However, there is a price tag attached to easy. It is inevitable, progressive health decline as we get older. Are you willing to pay that price? Many thought leaders in aging research believe that exercise is the single most important tool we have to protect us against dementia, heart disease and all the other chronic illnesses aging brings to the majority of us. If you see it in your own aging parents or other loved ones, take heed. You are not an exception to the aging process. Every human being who lives past middle age must experience age-related changes. We can’t stop aging but we can direct a lot of how it happens to us.

Then there’s food. Some doctors call what we generally eat the “standard American diet” (SAD). And the long term effects are indeed “sad”. There is more and more evidence in competent studies that informs us that the SAD is directly related to specific age-related declines in just about everything. That includes dementia, which most of us fear. Imagine that if you chose to work at prevention, you wouldn’t get dementia, even if a parent or both of them had it. You could vastly increase your odds of avoiding it.

Life Expectancy

If we live a long time, or at least to the average life expectancy, we don’t want to get there in a miserable state of health. Putting off making a personal choice to avert that misery does nothing. Thinking it through and making a private commitment to take action starting now does make sense.

Sometimes an aging parent is exemplary and does a lot of things right, having their last years go very well with few medical problems. Good, and follow their example. Some rare folks live to be 100 with a slew of what we call bad health habits. They smoke, drink, eat unhealthy foods and carry extra weight. But they are the exception. Look around you. I see many people in their seventies really starting to fall apart physically. How did they take care of themselves in the prior decades? Not well, in almost every instance you can observe.They didn’t get enough sleep. They skipped exercise. They didn’t create a close group of social contacts. They failed to attend to their own mental wellness. They ate whatever they felt like and got too heavy. Now, they take a lot of medications and have a lot of health problems.

Prevention Doesn’t Sell Well

We are a society that wants quick solutions, instant rewards, and someone else to fix us if we get some health problems. Forward thinking healthcare providers are frustrated that their patients do not embrace the concept that they, the patients, do have a lot of control over how their last years are going to look and feel. Preventive health measures are just too much work, the doctors and others hear. But are they really too much work? Is it too much to do a brisk walk three times a week for a half hour, as the American Heart Association recommends? Is it really too hard to give up any of those highly processed junk foods we eat so often?

The Takeaways

For the majority of our U.S. population, the last part of one’s life is filled with health struggles. Multiple diagnoses, loss of mobility, loss of being able to take care of our own basic needs and the like are all too common. Toward our 70’s, 80’s and beyond, all too many of us have never made a commitment to preventing disease or at least delaying it. However, you can be different. If you are determined to hold onto what you love doing, and to having a full and independent decade or two (or more) after your reach retirement, do what is needed. It will take work, but it’s a job most people are entirely capable of doing. That means, at the very least, get off that couch and get rid of that junk food. You can age differently from those, like many aging parents, who did not do any disease prevention. Look around you and decide what is worth changing in your own life. Your doctor can’t fix your attitude. Only you can do that and make better choices starting now.

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