The bumper sticker on the car reads, "Getting older is inevitable, but growing up is optional." A woman's T-shirt says, "I'm not old; I'm youthfully challenged." If it's true that bumper stickers and T-shirts help express what's on people's minds, then it's clear that aging is a widespread preoccupation. We now have more information about diseases and other conditions that typically affect older Americans, such as Type II diabetes, osteoporosis, and certain types of cancer. We're better equipped to deal with them or prevent them, and can look forward to an active, energized, productive middle age. Although growing older is inevitable, we're increasingly able to do it with grace and style.
Outward appearances and physical symptoms are the first indicators of aging. Although skin health may appear to be a cosmetic issue, practitioners of Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine consider skin characteristics, such as pallor, telling indicators of overall health or disease. It's no surprise, then, to find that this protective mantle is intimately affected by our diet, how much water we drink, how much alcohol we consume, how much we smoke and how much we subject ourselves to the sun's damaging rays. You can help counter free radical damage with diet and exercise, and by avoiding external sources, such as smoke, sun and pollution.
Diminished eyesight is another telltale sign of aging. When we reach our 40s, the lens of the eye begins to thicken, leading to decreased night vision and focus. For some, weakened eyesight can be attributed to a condition known as age-related macular degeneration. The macula is the part of the retina that is responsible for central vision, which is required for reading small print. In their book Coping with Macular Degeneration (Avery, 2000), Ira Marc Price and Linda Comac explain that the macula begins to deteriorate from youth to age 30, and the deterioration accelerates after age 50. Yearly visits to an ophthalmologist can help keep a handle on eye health.
Weight gain is another age-related problem for both men and women. Even though you're eating right and exercising as you always have, you may find you've put on pounds since your 40th birthday. As we age, our metabolism slows down and we become more insulin resistant. In fact, our basal metabolic rate drops 4 percent to 5 percent each decade. This means the bread and pasta we used to be able to eat takes longer to break down, resulting in weight gain.
Soy lowers cholesterol and, for women, helps minimize perimenopausal symptoms."Many women gain weight from perimenopause to menopause," says Shari Lieberman, PhD, CNS, author of Dare to Lose: 4 Simple Steps to Achieve a Better Body (Avery, 2002). "It is clear that women gain weight in that time. But we're talking 10, 20 pounds max."
Men start to gain weight, particularly around the abdomen, creating the "spare tire" look. The extra fat is a problem, but so too is the loss of lean muscle mass. "Losing body muscle is the single worst thing we could ever do to our bodies," says Lieberman. That's because stronger muscles can mean better overall health; they keep us flexible, help us maintain balance, and improve bone density.
What's going on inside the aging body is as significant as the changes on the outside. Just as our metabolism slows down, so do our cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and respiratory functions.
This slowdown manifests itself as decreased aerobic capacity, making it more difficult to climb stairs or take walks; a slower heart rate, which means we have to exercise harder to get the heart rate up; and bladder and kidney problems. Also with aging comes decreasing body stores of antioxidants, such as vitamin C and coenzyme Q10, and increasing rates of tissue-damaging lipid peroxidation. The aging-associated increase in free radical bombardment, combined with poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle, often leads to atherosclerosis. The arteries become less elastic and gather fatty deposits, later giving rise to heart attack. And don't be fooled: Heart disease is not just a man's issue. In fact, 43 percent of all female deaths in America are attributed to cardiovascular disease.
Menopause, of course, strictly affects women. Perimenopausal symptoms vary, but some of the more common include hot flashes, vaginal dryness, mood swings, night sweats, lack of concentration, fatigue and irritability. These symptoms usually start to appear around age 47, when estrogen levels start to fluctuate. Another big concern for women, particularly for those older than 40, is breast cancer. Mammograms and self-breast exams are vital during this time.
Middle-aged men have specific health concerns too. Prostate cancer is the most commonly diagnosed form of cancer among American men. It's critical to have annual physicals, which should include a prostate exam, to help with early detection.
Then there's the problem of memory. If you've forgotten what you just read, then you're already familiar with "senior moments." At this time of life, brain cell activity begins slowing down, producing fewer of the chemicals that allow the cells to communicate with each other. This alters our short-term memory, which is where we keep information such as where our keys are and the names of people we've just met. Many supplements and herbs, however, can help combat memory loss. Exercise and proper sleep also help maintain sharpness.
No matter what your age, be mindful of your health. For many people, the 40s and 50s are the best years of their lives, made even better by good health practices. By eating a wholesome and varied diet, getting plenty of exercise and sleep, practicing relaxation techniques, and taking supplements, these years can be rewarding and fruitful. They may also be the foundation for many healthy and active years to come.
Patti Woods is the former managing editor of Better Nutrition magazine.