Employee & Community Health

5 'magic' ingredients for healthy aging

9/21/2017 by Dr. Ericka Tung


At 95, "Gretchen" is vibrant, active in her faith community, attends the theater, enjoys the arts and engages in family activities. Every day that classes are offered, she heads to 125 Live Center for Active Adults to take water fitness. This is despite chronic heart conditions, which require her to take several medications. 

"Jake" is a retired farmer in his mid-90s who moved closer to town for better access to care for his diabetes. The first time I met him, I asked how he got to the appointment, and he told me he walked. Every visit since then, no matter the season or the weather, he makes the three-mile trek to the clinic. 

What magic ingredients keep Gretchen and Jake going strong into their 10th decade? Actually what they do isn't magic. Healthy aging is pretty simple, doesn't cost much (or is free) and anyone can do it, no matter your overall health or mobility .The "magic" lies in embracing these five "ingredients" and making them part of your daily life. 

Ingredient #1: Maintaining an active lifestyle. Movement really is the fountain of youth! Not only can physical activity prevent chronic illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease, but it also can help control these conditions and promote mental and cognitive/memory health. 

Physical activity can take many different forms. You don't need to join a gym or workout with a personal trainer. Just choose something that's enjoyable and sustainable. It's nice if it combines aerobic, balance, strength and flexibility elements. Some ideas include chores around the house and yard, gardening, walking, swimming, water fitness, dancing, stretching, yoga. 

Ingredient #2: Staying social. As we age, children start their own lives, friends and family move away, and it's easy to become less social. But having strong relationships with friends, family, your faith community, people who share the same hobbies and activities and connections with your community, are essential to healthy aging. 

For a lot of my senior patients, the internet and social media -- whether it's Facetime, Facebook or other social media -- are a great way to stay connected with family and friends, especially when it may no longer be easy to visit. 

Ingredient #3: Eating for health. Cooking for one or two can be a challenge, making it tempting to indulge in frozen meals, convenience foods and fast food. But eating a variety of nutrient-dense foods, including lean protein, whole grains and colorful fruits and vegetables, really is magic in the way it supports good health. And it's not complicated. 

I advise my patients to use the "plate method" as a reminder: One-half of the plate should be devoted to fruits and vegetables, one quarter to protein and one quarter to whole grains. 

Ingredient #4: Exercising your brain. Like your body, your brain needs exercise every day. So just keep learning: read, learn a new skill, pick up a new hobby, study a new language, play a musical instrument, take a different route on your daily walk, join a current-events or study group, do any kind of puzzle, play cards. Brain exercise is so important and costs almost nothing. 

Ingredient #5: Finding a good care provider. Choose one who will take a holistic view of your physical and emotional health. Be honest and open with your primary care provider about your health goals and concerns and partner with them in achieving these goals. 

Dr. Ericka Tung is an internist and geriatrician in Employee and Community Health's (ECH) Division of Primary Care Internal Medicine (PCIM). She practices across the community in clinic, skilled-nursing facility and home-care based settings. She also directs the Mayo Clinic Geriatric Medicine Fellowship training program.