Did you know that September is Healthy Aging Month? This annual health observance was created to emphasize the positive aspects of growing older. With the number of older adults growing substantially each year, it is important to focus on healthy aging. According to the United States Census Bureau, for the first time in U.S history, older adults ages 65 and older are projected to outnumber children by 2034. Healthy Aging month is a great reminder that it is never too late to focus on improving our personal health and wellness. Use these tips to help you take personal responsibility for your health and well-being.

Follow a Healthy Eating Plan

As we age, healthy eating can make a big difference in our health by reducing the risk of developing chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease. Healthy fueling of the body also benefits brain function. Older adults should focus on a healthy eating plan that includes fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat milk and dairy products, lean meats and seafood, and legumes, nuts and seeds. Recent research on nutrition and brain health has pointed to a specific eating pattern to support cognition called the MIND (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) diet. Individuals who follow this diet may have a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. The MIND diet includes more frequent consumption of berries, nuts, and green leafy vegetables to help improve brain health. It is also suggested to reduce consumption of specific foods like red meats, cheese, butter and stick margarine, pastries and sweets, and avoid fried foods and fast foods.

Participate in Regular Physical Activity

Being physically active can help you maintain a healthy weight, avoid chronic disease, and stay more independent as you age. Older adults should aim for at least 2-1/2 hours or 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity each week. Muscle-strengthening activities should also be incorporated on 2 or more days a week that work all major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms). These activities can also improve balance and reduce the risk of falls, which can increase with age. It is important to remember that some physical activity is better than none. Always check with your health care provider before beginning any new physical activity routine.

Keep Your Mind Active

Memory problems and a decline in cognitive skills can be a common part of getting older. However, there is a difference between normal memory changes and memory problems associated with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Normal memory problems do not typically interfere with everyday life. For example, forgetting where you put your keys, but remembering where you placed them later is normal. On the other hand, forgetting what keys are used for or how to unlock doors is not a normal part of aging.

What can you do to help slow or even help prevent cognitive decline? Anything that uses your mind in challenging ways can possibly have short- and long-term benefits for your brain. As the brain is used in new ways, it begins to form new pathways for connections among brain cells. Incorporating brain-stimulating activities into your day can help to keep the brain active and improve memory. Completing puzzles and games that are challenging to you, or engaging in ongoing education to learn a new topic, skill or hobby are some examples.

Make Mental Health a Priority

Approximately 20% of people age 55 years or older experience some type of mental health problem, the most common of which are anxiety and depression. The good news is that people who participate in social and leisure activities that they enjoy may be at lower risk for developing mental health problems. Research has shown that connecting with others socially can benefit brain health and may possibly delay the onset of dementia. Those who engage with other people more often tend to have lower rates of death and disability. When you are involved in activities and personal connections that you find meaningful, they help provide a sense of purpose and increase mental wellbeing. Other ways to help improve your mental health are practicing meditation, relaxation techniques and gratitude.

Stop Smoking

Quitting smoking is one of the most important things that you can do for your health. Studies have found that smoking increases the risk of cognitive decline and may increase the risk of dementia. Additional benefits of stopping smoking include a lower risk of several different types of cancer, heart attack, stroke and lung disease, as well as improved blood circulation. Contact your health care provider for new ways to help you quit.

Play an Active Role in Your Healthcare

Seeing a health care provider regularly can help identify health problems sooner rather than later. Various factors like age, current health, family history, lifestyle choices (i.e., what you eat, how active you are, whether you smoke), can impact what and how often you need healthcare. Take control of your own healthcare by scheduling an appointment with your healthcare provider to discuss what screenings and exams you need and when you need them. It is also important to know what, if any, medicines you are taking, what you are taking them for, and how to take them correctly.

When thinking about healthy aging, it can be helpful to take a holistic approach to personal wellness. Consider your health across a spectrum of areas, including physical, intellectual, social, emotional and spiritual. Starting small and making simple lifestyle changes can have a cumulative effect, leading to improved health and wellbeing overtime. Remember, it is never too early or too late to start living a healthier lifestyle.

Katie Greenawalt is a Penn State Extension educator for food, families and health in Lebanon County.

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