“ . . . To me, old age is always 15 years older than I am.”–Francis Bacon
I recently ran across an inspirational story that was being shared across a multitude of media outlets. Jean Bailey, a 102-year old resident and fitness coach of Elk Ridge Senior Living in Omaha, Nebraska, has been leading fitness classes there, four times a week, for the past three years.
Bailey’s classes consist of exercises that go through a wide range of motion, designed to get every part of the body moving, including activities such as overhead reach, arm circles, neck rotations, and seated toes touches to name a few. Her classes last about 30 minutes. Bailey realizes that, like her, many of her fellow exercisers have mobility limitations or their bodies are different from day to day; however, she believes that everyone, including herself, can benefit from doing what they can do.
Bailey is redefining what it means to age. She proudly proclaimed in a recent interview, “If you don’t keep your mind and body busy, then why are you here?” Friendships have blossomed and flourished since she first began leading the classes during the pandemic when Bailey invited her neighbors to bring chairs into the hall and exercise with her at a socially safe distance.
Since COVID restrictions were lifted, Bailey has also been known to treat fellow exercisers with baked goods after class, especially in honor of someone’s birthday. This is because, as Bailey points out, birthdays at their age are noteworthy. When asked if she’ll ever quit, she replied, “When I get old, I’ll quit!”
I share this story as part of the 9th installment of the “Move Into Health” series. Bailey’s story serves as a direct contrast to those limiting beliefs, which can easily entrap any one of us, regarding adopting or changing certain healthy lifestyle habits as we age. However, even though our bodies change with age, according to numerous scientific studies, there is very little difference between an 18-year old brain and a 100-year old brain from a cerebrovascular perspective; thus establishing, we are never too old to mentally adopt new habits or overcome poor habits that may have crept in over the years.
Bailey is most likely an example of what scientists call SuperAgers, those living into their eighth decade, and beyond, who possess cognitive function similar to that of a middle-aged adult. In fact, neuroscientists at Northwestern University in Chicago have identified four specific habits of SuperAgers. Adopting these four SuperAgers’ healthy habits may help slow down the aging process within the brain (and the body), potentially staving off Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia, while boosting overall health; thereby, spending less time at the doctor’s office and more time doing the things you love.
The four habits of SuperAgers are listed below. While I am not a proponent of changing everything all at once, I do sincerely believe that taking small steps towards any of these habits can have a positive impact upon personal health.
Daily Movement/Activity. You know the old adage, “Move it or lose it.” Incorporating daily movement increases oxygen and blood flow–both of which benefit the brain. Regular bouts of exercise, even as few as twice per week, strengthen not only the heart and lungs but can also strengthen muscles required for stability to avoid falling, help maintain a healthy weight, and reduce the risk for Alzheimer’s disease. As an added bonus, exercise can reduce the symptoms of depression and anxiety and lower your risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and even some cancers.
Challenge yourself. Adopt habits of reading, puzzle solving, and learning. Experiencing the mild to moderate stress that often accompanies learning a new skill is good for creating and/or maintaining healthy neural pathways. Take classes, learn a new language, or choose any number of activities that get you out of your comfort zone. Mental challenges are good for you and your brain.
Get social. Meeting regularly with friends, engaging with others via group settings, or partaking in family gatherings allow for the maintenance of healthy social relationships. In fact, autopsies of SuperAgers reveals that the attention area of their brain has four to five times the amount of neurons responsible for social processing and awareness, when compared to others who lived into their 80s or later.
Drink, but in moderation. Moderate drinkers are less likely to develop memory issues, including Alzheimer’s disease. However, too much alcohol creates the opposite effect on memory as well as increased belly fat (the most dangerous type), increased blood pressure, and numerous other health conditions.
Two other beneficial habits worth considering that are also associated with aging well:
Adopt a MIND diet. MIND, in addition to being a huge buzz word in current medical research for the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive delays, is an acronym for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay. It is a plant-based diet that combines the Mediterranean Diet and the DASH Diets. The MIND diet encourages the daily consumption of plenty of fruits (specifically berries), and vegetables (especially leafy greens), whole grains, legumes, nuts, as well as limited amounts of poultry, fish, and olive oil. Not only are these foods good for overall brain health and cognitive function, but they also reduce inflammation and oxidative stress, two actions strongly associated with chronic health illnesses and disease.
Quit smoking. While I cannot pretend to know how hard it is to stop this habit, I do remember a nurse telling my mother-in-law during an emergency room visit that within 24 hours of quitting smoking, she would begin to reduce her risk of a heart-attack by 50% or more. It still took her several more years before she quit; however, I will forever admire the way in which she finally gave up the habit at age 71. Although health issues related to a lifetime of smoking remained with her until the end, because she did quit, she added years to her life.
Who among us will be the next SuperAger? No one can know for sure. To be certain, any one of us could follow all the so-called rules, and still develop Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, or other detrimental condition. Nonetheless, watching Jean Bailey lead her exercise classes on Youtube and Twitter videos certainly persuades me to keep moving into my own health, and her story further motivates me to continue to share this valuable information. Adopting any or all of these healthy habits can’t hurt any of us, and they just might add a bit more quality to the quantity of years we have remaining. Here’s to your health!