Life is full of transitions and stages – from schooling and working, to moving, to raising children and empty-nesting, to retiring. As we and our loved ones grow older, there are important ways in which we can protect and maintain our health. Being thoughtful and proactive about our physical, social, spiritual, and mental well-being can add significant meaning and longevity to our lives.
Regardless of our life stage or age, our bodies need regular physical activity to promote good bone, muscle and heart health. So, if you are 65 years of age or older, are generally fit and have no limiting health conditions, you should exercise for at least 2.5 hours each week doing things like brisk walking, ballroom dancing, gardening, or water aerobics.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, you should also set a goal for doing muscle-strengthening activities two or more days a week – things like yoga, squats and pushups that work all major muscle groups. Of course, remember to check with your physician about any activity precautions or restrictions. If exercise can be done with friends – all the better! Research shows that social bonds improve the quality and duration of our lives.
Social support and close friendships do play in an important part in our health, particularly as we age. One study found that those with stronger social relationships had a 50 percent increase in the likelihood of survival. Friends benefit our psychologic well-being and physiologic functioning and they also help us make better health choices. They prevent loneliness, reduce stress, and can help us cope with loss and difficulties. Friends also boost our happiness, and improve our sense of belonging and purpose. Sometimes it can be hard to maintain or find new friends, but we can find meaningful relationships in many places – volunteering at a hospital, museum or place of worship; attending community events; joining a faith community; taking community college courses; or participating in gym classes.
Having these sources of social and emotional support decreases the risk of anxiety or depression. In addition to addressing these elements of mental health, we should also tend to our intellectual functioning as we age. Some studies emphasize that having good heart health, staying physically active, and also being intellectually engaged can have a positive impact on our mental abilities. Nevertheless, dementia can happen despite our best efforts. While we cannot reliably predict who will develop dementia, there some things we can do to support those living with dementia. The World Health Organization recommends enhancing physical and psychological health, treating any physical illness and/or behavioral symptoms, and even providing long-term support to caregivers.
Ultimately, as we age, we should remember the vital roles that each of us plays in our community. Our rich perspectives and experiences that we’ve gathered throughout life’s stages can benefit the well-being of our friends and younger generations. Striving to stay a part of our community – whether with family or friends – gives us the social connections we need to maintain good physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health. Stay active. Stay engaged. Stay curious.
Callout: Being thoughtful and proactive about our physical, social, spiritual, and mental well-being can add significant meaning and longevity to our lives.
About the Author: Eden V. Wells, MD, MPH, FACPM is Clinical Associate Professor, Epidemiology, and the Director for the Preventive Medicine Residency at the University of Michigan School of Public Health in Ann Arbor. Board-certified in both Internal Medicine and Preventive Medicine, she completed medical school at the Ohio State University College of Medicine, internal medicine training at Vanderbilt University Hospitals, and a preventive medicine residency at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. Dr. Wells was appointed Chief Medical Executive for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services in May 2015.