10 Know-Brainers for Aging

Some of healthy aging has to do with genetic luck, but much of it has to do with making smart lifestyle choices every day of our lives — from exercising to learning to tango


By Deb Cummings


There are certain things we can’t control, and aging is one of them. What you can do, however, is slow the decline of aging with smart choices along the way. From exercise and what you eat to your friendships and retirement goals — it all impacts the speed at which you age. Seeing that it’s the season for tune-ups, we thought we’d give you this primer.


Move it or Lose it!

Research suggests that up to a third of dementia cases may be prevented or have their onset delayed, says Lorraine Venturato, associate professor of gerontology in UCalgary’s Faculty of Nursing. “Particularly those forms of dementia associated with lifestyle-based health issues.”

If it’s good for your heart, it’s probably going to be good for your brain, too, she suggests. “Aside from reducing your risk for heart disease and diabetes, exercise and remaining active can also reduce your risk for dementia. Active aging involves a trifecta of flexibility, strength and cardiovascular fitness,” explains the clinician, educator and researcher who focuses on community and long-term care services. Her activity recommendations include at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity, such as cycling or walking every week, and strength exercises on two or more days a week that work all the major muscles. “Pilates, yoga or tai chi are great for flexibility and should be included in any activity program,” adds Venturato. “The other benefits of active aging include running rings around your grandchildren (or great-grandchildren) or climbing mountains into your old age! Better yet, exercise with friends!”

Stay Social

Stay Social

Older adults should pay attention to their specific social needs — whether it’s the community in which they live or their activities.  

Venturato also suggests exercising with friends, which maintains social engagement, another important strategy for healthy brain aging. She also recommends trying new activities such as learning to dance, orienteering or simply checking out a new hiking path. “Learning new skills and challenging your brain to learn new steps or remember choreography is good for keeping your brain as active as your body,” she adds, reminding us that, “with exercise, it’s never too late to start.

“Remember — if you are old enough to start thinking about your pension and retirement planning, then you are old enough to be taking action to ensure you are well-placed to enjoy a long and healthy retirement!”


Keep Your Mind Active, Too

Whether it’s doing crossword puzzles, joining a bridge club, or learning a new language or a musical instrument, brain workouts are key, says Prof. Marc Poulin, who specializes in Alzheimer research.


Avoid Processed Meat

The biggest culprits in processed meats are not the saturated fats or cholesterol; it’s the level of sodium and chemical preservatives. Processed meats like bacon, sausage and deli meats have about four times more sodium and 50 per cent more nitrate preservatives than unprocessed meats. Research has also implicated processed meats in a higher risk for cancer. Just say “no!” to those foot-long bacon-wrapped hot dogs!


Eat Blue (and Other Colours)

We’re not saying you should plan your diet around one superfood, but there are plenty of studies that have found that three or more servings of blueberries per week can lower your risk for diabetes, as well as lower your blood pressure. Load your grocery cart with anything dark in colour — blueberries, cherries, spinach and kale. They will also fill you up so you’re less likely to binge on junk food. 


Skip Packaged Foods

Nutritionists say that one of the best eating strategies for aging well is to skip processed foods and beverages. Not sure what’s processed? If you have to rip it out of a package, it’s likely processed — think chips, frozen pizza, even granola bars. Once you delete packaged foods from your diet, you will automatically start eating more fruits and vegetables, lean meats, fish and whole grains. In other words, opt for a Mediterranean diet which numerous studies have shown to be good for you. Any diet based on whole, real foods that doesn’t come in packages is likely beneficial, confirms Poulin. 


Don’t Do it Alone

If you’re suffering from depression or sleep apnea, seek medical treatment, advises Poulin. That also goes for anyone suffering from diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and obesity, or looking to quit smoking.

Lose a Little

Lose a Little

Even a small shift in body weight can have a big impact on your health. Losing just five per cent of your body weight has been shown to reduce your risk for diabetes and heart disease and improve metabolic function in liver, fat and muscle tissue. Your goal doesn’t have to be huge — start with a five-per cent weight loss goal and strive to keep it off.


State of Mind

Dr. David Hogan, a specialist in geriatric medicine and lead of the Brenda Stafford Centre on Aging at UCalgary, said he recently came across a short piece written by Bertrand Russell (British philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, writer, social critic, political activist and Nobel laureate) when he was in his 80s titled How to Grow Old.

“As Russell died in his 98th year, this seemed a good source of guidance,” says Hogan. “His first piece of advice was to, ‘choose your ancestors carefully,’ as longevity runs in families. Russell felt he had nothing useful to say about maintaining one’s physical health as his was excellent, even though he would ‘never do anything whatever on the ground that it is good’ for it. He had much more to say about your psychological state.

“He warned against ‘undue absorption in the past,’ and stressed the importance of nurturing of what he called ‘strong impersonal interests,’ as you need something to get up for in the morning. Russell finished his essay by writing that, when he died, he hoped to be ‘still at work, knowing that others will carry on what I can no longer do and content in the thought that what was possible has been done.’”


Join Us

UCalgary’s Brain in Motion II Study is currently looking for 300 recruits for a new randomized control trial. You must be 50 to 80 years in age, fluent in English, have had no previous stroke or TIA and cannot have been diagnosed with dementia. Other inclusion criteria can be found online. For more details, call 403-210-7315 or email bimstudy@ucalgary.ca

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