September 20th, 2012 at 10:00 am
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3 ways elders can aim for longer lives

by Dorian Martin

I recently had a conversation with an acquaintance about aging parents. This person had just lost her father, who was in his 90s. We talked about the opportunity to help her mother thrive despite the loss of her husband. I shared that I think my father (who is now in his mid-80s) would have succumbed soon after Mom’s death in 2007 if I hadn’t been living close to him. And I believe that Dad’s lifestyle has improved since he moved in with me in 2010 because I’ve encouraged him to embrace healthier choices.

How elders live impacts how long they live

Healthy living into old age can increase a person’s life span, according to a HealthDay article. A new Swedish study examined the life choices, social networks and leisure activities of more than 1,800 people, age 75 and older, from 1987 to 2005. Given the age of participants, a significant portion (92 percent) died during the study, but approximately 50 percent did live to be more than 90 years of age. Exercise — such as swimming and walking — and lifestyle played a big role:

  • Those who regularly exercised lived approximately two years longer.
  • Those with healthier lifestyles gained about five years compared to the participants with the unhealthiest lifestyles.

The researchers found that the people who lived the longest had higher levels of education, strong social networks, leisure activities and healthy lifestyles. The analysis also showed, not surprisingly, that women tended to live longer. Smokers died a year before nonsmokers, on average. Participants who quit smoking earlier survived approximately as long as those who had never smoked — which I consider good news for Dad, since he stopped smoking around 1970.

Three tips to enhance elders’ lives

Dad’s habits have changed in ways that might help other seniors, too:

  1. An improved diet. When he was living alone, Dad ate a lot of processed foods, such as soup, packaged ham, cheese and cereal. Nowadays, his diet is more balanced, full of produce, lean meats and whole grains, with very few processed foods. He continues drinking lots of milk, but I regularly remind him to consume more water, especially when it’s hot outside.
  2. More socializing. Admittedly, he doesn’t get out of the house as much these days, but he interacts with me on a regular basis, as opposed to being a loner when he lived in the apartment. Plus, my friends drop by periodically for happy hour and to interact with him. And my neighbors stop to visit with him when he’s out and about.
  3. A tad more exercise. I’ve tried to get Dad to do more exercise, but he doesn’t stick with a schedule. However, the way my house is designed, he has to walk quite a bit between the rooms that he tends to use the most as compared to the set-up of his much smaller apartment.

Obviously, promoting these behaviors is easier if an elder lives with you. Even if your loved ones live at a distance, you can contact them often and encourage a healthy lifestyle. Look into different kinds of physical activity, whatever the person enjoys — for example, TV or video programs with low-impact exercise for seniors. Check up on food choices and suggest manageable steps toward balanced nutrition as part of an ongoing commitment to better health.

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