I was at Whole Foods the other day when an elderly couple caught my attention. They were walking slowly in front of me in a crowded aisle, and although I was feeling some time pressure, it seemed rude to suddenly duck around them.
So I waited.
They inched forward, hunting for a particular brand of something on the shelves, the husband insisting it was “right here last time.”
In the interest of full disclosure, I was polite on the outside, but I was not being a very nice person on the inside, so I wasn’t as much help to them as (I realized later) I could have been.
What I Saw
When I wasn’t rolling my eyes (sorry) and being impatient, I noticed a couple of things:
- He was speaking loudly to her and repeating himself, apparently because she was hard of hearing, and I suspect might have had some short-term memory issues, maybe even early-stage Alzheimer’s.
- His hands were shaking involuntarily, a possible warning sign of Parkinson’s Disease.
- Her spine was curled up like a candy cane, indicating possible osteoporosis and possible osteoarthritis.
- They were both having difficulty walking; she was scooting along with a walker, and he probably should have been.
- I got the sense that he loved her very much and worked hard to protect and care for her.
As I observed these things, my selfishness began to melt away and I wondered how much longer they would be free to live outside of assisted living (I’m making some assumptions here, but the evidence would suggest that they were still living at home).
Who Else Is Suffering In Their Golden Years?
It got me thinking about my patients (some of whom have been with me for twenty years), my neighbors, my friends, my colleagues…my mom.
I know so many people who are moving up into their Golden Years. Some of them are enjoying good health, while others aren’t. It grieves me. When I see a friend living below the standard of health they could have enjoyed, it makes me wonder what I could have done to help them stay healthier longer.
But then I thought of you.
Taking Steps For Fighting Dementia
Every week, we gather here to talk about one topic that can help you stay healthier longer, physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, relationally, and on and on. There are so many facets to wellness, and they all work together. It gives me a never-ending Rolodex of topics to choose from.
This week, I want to focus on some simple things you can do now to help ensure that you enter (or continue in) your Golden Years with vitality. Nobody really wants to spend their 70s, 80s, and 90s slumped over in a wheelchair, but that’s how millions of people wind up.
I want you to enjoy life like the families in Ikaria, Greece, where people live to be over 100 in good health. How does that happen? That’s why I partnered with Dan Buettner and the Blue Zones Project, who studied regions of the world where longevity is normal. They identified 9 tendencies that were consistent across diverse cultures (the original Blue Zones are located in far-flung places like Greece, Japan, Italy, Costa Rica, and California).
Real Longevity, Not Just Getting Old
When I talk about longevity, I don’t mean spending your last twenty years in a bed or a wheelchair in silence. I’m talking about enjoying your great-grandchildren, making music, traveling, playing tennis…whatever activity makes you happy. I’m talking about writing down the life lessons and wisdom you have amassed over a century of life.
(Note: one of my good friends has a business where he interviews the elderly and captures their life stories on video for their families to share for generations. It’s an amazing business and I’m super proud of him. He lives in Texas, but if you’re interested, he is doing a Facebook Live webinar tomorrow night where he will be teaching a class on how to organize and write your memoirs. Look up GenerationBridge Media on Facebook and find the event announcement.)
Wouldn’t you like to be able, on your 100th birthday, to sit down with a roomful of young people and share your wisdom and memories of how things were when you were younger?
Let’s work on keeping you strong so you can do that.
Start Now, Continue From Now On
Here are some tips I’ve picked up that contribute to a life of vitality well into your Golden Years.
Walk Every Day
Walking is good for your legs, your heart, your lungs, but especially for your brain. While I haven’t seen any research tying high-intensity exercise to mental acuity, there is some very exciting recent research linking casual walking to increased brain volume and dementia prevention (say that five times fast). Just anecdotally, I find that my patients who walk regularly are funny, creative, and vibrant. Something about a nice evening stroll activates your brain in a way that allows greater problem-solving, creativity, and imagination. Make a habit of taking a walk of at least half a mile to a mile every day.
Do Some Gardening
There is significant research that links brain health to digging in the soil. It’s relaxing, it allows your body’s electromagnetic cycles to get in harmony with the earth (grounding), and there are nutrients in the soil that absorb into your skin over time. Kneeling is great for your knees and hips, as well, but if you are already having a hard time getting all the way down to ground-level, get a waist-level planter box and do some square-foot gardening (this is great if you have a small yard). Or just grow some flowers in a planter box. That brings me to my next suggestion.
Why not BUILD your own planter box? If you want to maintain a healthy brain into your 90s, then keep it active. Learn a new skill every year. Play a musical instrument. Learn to draw or paint. Study a craft, like building planter boxes from scratch. Cook complex meals (meaning not sticking a box in the microwave). Plan a trip – or a garden. Memorize poetry or scriptures, or even phone numbers (there’s a lost art!). The earlier you do these things, the longer your brain has to form and reinforce new channels.
You knew I was going to say this.
So much of our food today is loaded with chemicals that promote dementia, and the research into it is barely scratching the surface. I believe we are going to see an explosion of dementia cases over the next twenty years as the food choices we made in our 20s and 30s come home to roost, as they say.
Stay away from processed foods, soda, sugary drinks, refined sugar, white flour, all that junk. Basically, if they can keep it in a cardboard box or a plastic bag, it’s not really food, and your body will treat it like an invader. You know what I’m talking about – all that pre-processed food on the shelves in the middle of the grocery store. Sadly, hundreds of millions of people are quietly being poisoned by a food system that either doesn’t know or doesn’t care what effect it is having on people’s health.
A Healthy Brain Diet
Do yourself a favor and eat fresh, organic vegetables every day, healthy fats (avocado, ghee, olive, and coconut are some of the best), a little fruit (in season), a little fish, a little poultry, some nuts and beans, and a little whole grain bread. For my money, the Mediterranean Diet is still the best, most balanced way to eat. It’s how the people in the Blue Zones live to be over 100 years old.
People tell me all the time that they are shy, they like to keep to themselves, or they freeze up in large crowds. I get that. I also get that there are a ton of positive health effects associated with social interaction, including helping your body produce positive neurotransmitters, like dopamine and oxytocin, which are great for stimulating brain cells.
It also provides you with a network for emotional support and purpose, when people around you need you. You don’t have to get up and speak in front of a large group, you just need a handful of close friends who enjoy your company. Play cards with your neighbors. Meet a friend for coffee a couple of times a week. Spend time in the physical presence of others, not on Facebook (they do not have the same effect). My friends at Blue Zones mentioned a study that reported:
“people whose brains were severely affected by [Alzheimer’s Disease] were still able to perform well on memory tests providing they had a large social network.”
Honestly. Do I even have to say this anymore?
Yes, the world has become more complicated recently. It’s true that we live in a neighborhood that hurricanes sometimes visit. Yes, the older you get, the more funerals you will attend. I’m telling you, as your doctor, to hang on to JOY! A positive mental outlook has been shown to be a powerful preventative against dementia. Engaging in a faith, meditating, and surrounding yourself with positive people all contribute to fighting depression. Shutting off the news also helps.
Get A Pet
Taking care of a dog, a cat, a bird, or even a turtle has several positive effects on the brain. The caregiver module of your brain activates when you feed them. Petting a cat or dog triggers a flood of oxytocin and dopamine in both you and the animal. And the responsibility of feeding and caring for a pet gives you purpose. If you’ve never had a pet before, learning how to care for them has the added benefit of creating new pathways in the brain. Countless assisted living centers have adopted pets to promote joy and vitality among their residents. If you are currently able to live on your own, having a pet will help to keep you mentally cogent enough to continue doing so.
Look Forward To Those Great Years!
So many people dread getting old, and it’s a shame. I think it’s because we’ve seen so many examples of people whose bodies and minds wore out before they were supposed to. We should live in vibrant health all the days of our lives, but millions don’t. And younger generations don’t take care of their bodies because they think they don’t want to get old. Like they are cursed to get old and sick with no way out.
I’ve visited with so many people who have had to stand by and watch as loved ones have slipped into the silent disintegration of dementia, and it’s terribly painful to watch. If I can help you or your loved ones maintain a life of wellness all the way to your 100th birthday, I’ll feel like have achieved something worthwhile.
If this was helpful to you, please take 8 seconds to help me get the word out by sharing it on your favorite social media channel. You never know who is in your circle of influence that is looking for this information right now.
“At the end of your FEELINGS is NOTHING. At the end of your PRINCIPLES is a PROMISE.” — Eric Thomas