Healthy Aging: What can you do?

This afternoon, I went to a lecture on healthy aging in Tårnby, Denmark. The theme was “Healthy aging – what can you do?

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Healthy aging is on the agenda in these years and older adults are encouraged to be active and live healthier. But to what extent is our health something someting we are in control of? What can you do yourself? And what factors can you not do much about?

Hear about the subject from two different angles: from the anthropological and from the biomedical.
1. Social communities and the perception that health is something that you can – and should – check. From postdoc Henrik Hvedegaard Mikkelsen from the Department of Anthropology and the Center for Healthy Aging at the University of Copenhagen
2. Training and protein rich diet – and the aspects of health, we cannot do much about. By Associate Professor Lars Holm of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Copenhagen

Henrik, the Anthropologist, started off by letting us know that he was not giving health advice but describing healthy aging from an anthropological point of view. He said that close social relations throughout the entire lifespan are important to our health and longevity. Currently, biology limits how we look at healthy aging and the conclusions we can draw about it. I also wrote about this in my PhD thesis, describing the shifting paradigm from a bio-medical model of aging to a psycho-social model of aging. In my research, I highlighted studies that looked into the differences in these two models of healthy aging. Results showed that even though people do not meet the biological criteria for healthy aging (for example, have the presence of disease or disability), they subjectively rate themselves as healthy agers and with high life quality.

Henrik described his recent PhD work where he studied active aging by looking at a group of men who gather to play billiards, smoke, and drink together on a regular basis. This got a few laughs that games, drinking, and smoking can be a form of active (and healthy) aging, but it makes sense. Although many of the men in the study had chronic conditions, they were enjoying life and their activities. These views and activities are, of course, culturally driven and culturally relevant. He described how social relations combat loneliness, and it is a common phrase that “loneliness kills” (shown by research that people who experience periods of loneliness tend to die younger and live in poorer health than people who are socially active). In many Western cultures, the elderly “pull back” from society, which is culturally-driven (e.g. they are not productive members of society or the economy) as well as caused itself by poorer health and wealth. Henrik went on to distinguish that it’s not loneliness that kills, it’s a lack of social relations. He then gave examples of two places in the world where people live the longest (high percentage of people over 100 years old):

  1. Sardinia, Italy:  Here, there is the highest concentration of men over 100 years old, and in addition to the recommended Mediterranian diet, they are very socially active. These men don’t go into retirement, and it is common that they will still go into the mountains to tend to their goats. They also have a daily ritual of “men’s lunches” which seem to be a central point in their healthy aging. They gather in the city center and have long lunches where they have conversations and tell stories.
  2. Okinawa, Japan:  Here, it is the women who are the notable long-livers. They eat a largely plant-based diet and in small portions. There are even rituals they practice in order to reduce their portion sizes (which is also likely linked with the calorie restricted diets and long lives). Henrik noted that this society has a long history of living a long time, so when people are born into a culture where it is common to live so long, aging and a healthy lifecourse are common concerns and themes in the society. Young people expect to live a long time, and therefore take better care of themselves throughout their lives, knowing they will have better health when they are elderly.

Another interesting point that was made, was about how in the United States, there is a danger that healthy aging advice can become moralistic and judgemental. Meaning, if you are given advice to stop smoking or exercise more or eat better, if you don’t do these things, you are seen as making poor moral decisions and are easily judged by others in the culture.

After about 40 minutes, we took a break and had homemade oatmeal buns, fresh fruit, nuts, tea, and coffee during the break. There were close to 100 of us attending, and maybe 10 of us were under the age of 40. We then started another 40 minutes with Lars Holm on exercise and protein rich diets.

Lars’s presentation was a bit harder for me to follow and grasp as there were a lot of technical graphs with Confidence Intervals, p-values, and data on protein intake and muscle growth or wasting. I got the impression that this would be a great presentation for other researchers, but not entirely appropriate for an audience of mostly older adults who likely are not researchers.

He gave information on various studies showing how much protein should be consumed each day to maintain muscles and specifically to build up muscles. Older men need more protein in their diets than adult men. With a hospital stay or other form of acute immobility, increasing the amount of protein in the diet can put limits on the amount of muscle mass that is lost. One statistic was that people (I can’t recall if they were adults or older adults) lose 400grams of muscle mass in their thighs after 14 days of inactivity. He recommends at least 35grams of protein per meal for older adults, particularly in the breakfast meal. Using whey-based protein gives a short and powerful effect (ranging 1-3 hours) but casein-based protein gives a longer and more moderate effect for sustained muscle building and maintenance. Regarding exercise in the elderly, more sets with the same weights (doing 6 sets of 10 as opposed to 3 sets of 10) led to significantly more muscle mass building, and even people in their 90’s and 100’s can build muscle mass.

After Lars’ presentation, there was a questions and answers session, lasting about 20 minutes. I was surprised that many of the questions at the end were about protein and muslce-building. One interesting question to the Anthropologist was on why social interaction is important to healthy aging. He said he didn’t know and research doesn’t fully show.

The field of Anthropology may not know, but Gerontology would have a different opinion. Gerontology combines the biological, psychological, and social aspects of aging, so it is a more holistic view as it’s field combines several scientific disciplines in order to understand what it is and means to age. Gerontology would say that it causes multiple types of stimulation in one situation. Smells, sounds, sights, feelings, touch, food, conversation, recalling memories and strengthening them (even if not tied to the conversation) as well as making new connections for memories.

Neuropsychology tells us that when we smell coffee, it activates our brains. Not only in the scent centers, but also memories of coffee before, perhaps people we were with or what we ate. And by recalling those memories, you are strengthening the bond to them not only through the practice of recall, but also through the connection with the new memory, and the two are now physically linked in the brain.

This stimulation of all the senses gives our brain a workout. It’s like taking your brain to the gym. You will hopefully also have further psychological benefits, like feeling good, laughing, smiling – all of which have been tied to good health and healing. You can understand why the more you socialize, the better it is for your mind and your body.

When considering people with dementia, in particular, the stimulation can easily become over-stimulation. There are a lot of smells, all the sounds of people talking and eating, and the music, can make it harder to hear conversations and to follow the story, there are a lot of people to look at, the lighting might cause glare or shadows, etc. As dementia progresses, and the brain has to work much harder to process information, it becomes increasingly important to have appropriate environments for social stimulation where the people can enjoy their time with others and not be over (or under) stimulated. Socialization is an important aspect of proper dementia care – they are people, and people benefit from social activities. In fact, socialization and meaningful activities are two of the most successful types of dementia treatment interventions.

The lectures were interesting and I definitely plan to attend them again. They are free and open to the public. The next lecture at the Health Center in Tårnby is on “Are we Danes the world’s happiest people?” This lecture will be on March 10th. There will be another lecture on April 7th about “Can warm hands be replaced by plastic and technology?” which I am particularly excited to attend because I addressed both of these topics in my PhD thesis.

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One thought on “Healthy Aging: What can you do?

  1. Pingback: Curriculum Vitae | Doctor Dementia and the Dementia Adventure

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