According to the Census Bureau, the number of Americans 65 and older is expected to nearly double by the middle of the century. By 2050, 83.7 million Americans will be 65 or older, constituting more than a fifth of the nation's population. Yet even given the size of the number of those marching into the Golden Years, so many of us still tend to think of aging as something we do alone.
The fact that doctors tend to treat people as individuals, guided by the need to ensure patient confidentiality, can reinforce this pattern of seeing the changes and challenges aging brings on through our heads and our bodies, rather than as a shared experience.
As our numbers grow, our need to stay united in this adventure becomes a key to the quality of these years. Experts believe that maintaining social connections and having a sense of purpose in life a robust predictor of how well someone will live and thrive as they age. A 2002 study by epidemiologists at Yale found that "individuals with more positive self-perceptions of aging, measured up to 23 years earlier, lived 7.5 years longer than those with less positive perceptions."
And don't be scared off by the idea of having a sense of purpose. Patricia Boyle, a neuropsychologist and behavioral scientist at Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center in Chicago says it doesn't have to be something complicated and lofty; something that's goal oriented and gives you a sense of accomplishment will do just fine.
According to researcher Becca Levy, a professor of epidemiology and psychology at the Yale School of Public Health, this mind/body connection can make a critical difference in how we age. In her research, one study showed that middle-aged people who had no cognitive impairment but did have negative views of aging were more likely to later develop the brain changes associated with Alzheimer's disease. The more negative their views, the worse those brain changes were. In another study, people with positive views of older adults were much more likely to recover from major health setbacks.
So, if you are in your fifties, and you just received your introductory membership application to AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons), don't sneer at it, embrace it and get ready for the ride of your life. Approach it the right way and it might earn you an extra seven years.
It is also critical that, as we age, we don't lose sight of the necessity to continue to pursue a healthy lifestyle, wholesome foods, daily exercise, and supportive social connections. If you have that and an amazing life partner to boot, as I do with my wife Gena, your years will be blessed.
The special benefit of bonding to another as we age was demonstrated by recent research. It shows that couples that go through the aging process together not only can see their relationship change and grow, but can become biologically more like their partners than they were in the beginning of the relationship. They become linked physically, not just emotionally. Their muscles and cells can begin to operate in sync.
The University of Michigan research found striking similarities between partners who spent decades together, especially in their kidney function, total cholesterol levels and the strength of their grips, which is a key predictor of mortality. They also discovered that the effects were crossing over from the mental to the physical. For example, increases in feelings of depression in one partner led to more daily task limitations in the other. These likenesses were "something the couples co-created" over time, the study concludes, not just what they started with. The findings were presented at the annual meeting of the Gerontological Society of America.
The study also found evidence of the power of optimism as it relates to health; that people in relationships don't experience chronic health problems on their own. Over a four-year period, when one partner's optimism increased, the other partner experienced fewer illnesses compared to people whose partners did not become more optimistic. In short, a partner's optimism can be good for you, even if your optimism doesn't change.
As the graying of the country continues its march forward many retirees are now relocating to dense urban centers for the cultural and social opportunities, access to public transportation and the ability to shop nearby for food and household needs without depending unduly on others. Wise urban planners are now retrofitting to meet the growing needs of this demographic.
According to research by the RAND Corp recently published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, the importance of neighborhood parks is now a major focus of cities. At the same time, urban parks continue to be largely geared toward the young, with far less appeal for adults, especially older ones. According to the study, adults ages 60 and up made up only 4 percent of park-goers, even though they constitute 20 percent of city dwelling population.
Parks represent an efficient, cost-effective way to improve public health. They should be all-inclusive. It makes good sense for planners everywhere to provide more facilities in general that are aimed at older folks.
Write to Chuck Norris ([email protected]) with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook's "Official Chuck Norris Page." He blogs at http://chucknorrisnews.blogspot.com. To find out more about Chuck Norris and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
Photo credit: Petras Gagilas