Graceful Aging

Stave off aches and pains and other symptoms of aging by taking steps to improve your physical health at every age.

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Exercise with cardio, strength training and flexibility exercises such as yoga to prevent joint pain.

Photo by bowdenimages; iStock

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Most People complain about the symptoms of aging from time to time, whether it’s when we notice an uptick in the time it takes us to run a mile, or when we walk into a room and forget why we went in there in the first place. But growing older is also wonderful. Every day, month and year we’re alive is another opportunity to create new memories with our friends and families; to improve our knitting or painting or pie-baking or card-playing skills; to travel somewhere we’ve never been; or to watch our children or grandchildren or nieces and nephews grow. Yet the joys of these moments can be tempered by the ailments of growing older. Wrestling with your grandson is a little less fun when you’ve got chronic shoulder pain. And a night out with our best friends is always more fun when we feel we look our best (and don’t have to spend the whole night seeking the nearest bathroom!). The recommendations throughout this article are all backed up by research or experts in their field. We hope some of them will come in handy to make your golden years glow.

Aches and Pains

Aches and pains are a common complaint of aging, although chronic pain can afflict adults of all ages. Some of the most widely reported types of pain include joint and muscle pain. This can be caused by arthritis, but also simply because our ligaments, muscles and tendons become less pliant as we age, leading to aching and soreness. One of the best ways to combat aching joints is to commit to building and maintaining flexibility. Stephanie Siegrist, a doctor and the author of Know Your Bones: Making Sense of Arthritis Medicine, suggests the best way to manage pain is to consider ideal conditioning a three-legged stool, consisting of cardio (especially important to keep weight down, which will improve joint health); strength training (to maintain muscle density; stronger muscles also help keep ligaments and tendons aligned); and flexibility (which means daily stretching or yoga). She recommends older adults focus equal attention on all three — and never give flexibility short shrift. If back pain is a problem (lower back pain is the most commonly reported type of pain in the U.S.), focus on exercises that strengthen the core. That can include upright cardiovascular exercises such as jogging, as well as core-strengthening workouts such as Pilates and yoga. Read more about exercises appropriate for every decade on page 27. Consult with your health-care practitioner to determine whether any pain medication, supplement or technique is appropriate for you — especially if you have any significant health issues.

Herbal remedies can also offer a natural way to manage aches and pains. Unlike over-the-counter and prescription medication, many natural herbal remedies are safe to take daily over the long term. For arthritis pain, famed herbalist James Duke recommends standardized extracts of boswellia, derived from the same tree that produces frankincense. Devil’s claw, turmeric and ginger are other highly anti-inflammatory herbs that are frequently used to treat arthritis pain. Look for high-quality supplements or teas at health-food stores and follow label dosing instructions, or consult a certified herbalist or naturopathic doctor who can develop an herbal program specifically for you. Taking omega-3 fatty acid supplements, as well as glucosamine and the naturally occurring methylsulfonylmethane (MSM), are also supported by research. Don’t combine MSM with blood thinners.

Finally, massage, acupuncture and water therapy (bathing or hot tubs) are all research-backed ways to help manage pain. Several types of massage are recommended to help manage pain, according to the Arthritis Foundation. Try combining regular professional massage with daily self-massage. Massage is also beneficial to aid in sleep, which is a problem for many arthritis sufferers. Massage can promote deep sleep, which is when the body is most able to restore. And although acupuncture is somewhat controversial, its most well-researched benefit is pain management. In a study of nearly 18,000 patients published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, researchers found that acupuncture outperformed sham treatments and standard care in people suffering osteoarthritis, migraines, and chronic back, neck and shoulder pain. When it comes to bathing, opt for 20 minutes in warm (92- to 100-degree) water, and do some gentle stretching while the water is loosening your muscles.

Skin and Hair

As we age, our skin and hair can suffer from increased dryness and damage. Consider these tips to maintain your hair and skin’s youthful appearance.

For skin, an anti-aging regimen should consist of these broad approaches.

Protect: Sunscreen is one of the most important ways we can maintain younger-looking skin. People who regularly apply sunscreen have 24 percent fewer signs of skin aging than those who only use sunscreen on occasion, according to a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. But all sunscreen is not necessarily equal: Avoid sunscreens made with vitamin A; estrogen-mimicking oxybenzone; and SPFs higher than 50, which research indicates may not actually provide additional protection. Opt for a mineral-based natural sunscreen that lists micronized zinc and titanium dioxide as its active ingredients, at SPF 30. Learn more about the best brands at ewg.org/sunscreen.

Exfoliate: Because it sloughs away dead skin cells and unclogs oil and dirt from pores, exfoliation is particularly important for aging skin. As our skin ages, the natural exfoliation process slows and dry cells linger longer on the surface. Gently exfoliate mature skin once or twice a week with natural particles such as sugar, nuts or seeds. (Salt is typically too abrasive for facial skin.) Avoid products with plastic microbeads. These scrubber fragments move through drains and into the ocean, where they have become a concern to marine life.

Moisturize: As we age, our top layer of skin can dry and form microscopic cracks that make it more irritable and prone to inflammation. Regular application of moisturizers with natural emollients and ingredients can help: A popular active ingredient in anti-aging moisturizers, coenzyme Q10 may improve skin’s texture and elasticity, boost collagen production and ward off free radicals. Indian frankincense extract, also known as Boswellia serrata, has anti-inflammatory properties and may help reduce wrinkles. Vitamin B3, often called niacin or niacinamide on product labels, boosts hydration and reduces redness.


Magic Erasers

If you’re looking to eliminate age spots, try these natural remedies, as close as your pantry or refrigerator door.

The high acid content in apple cider vinegar makes it an excellent skin exfoliant. Dab some on your age spots before bedtime. If the solution stings, leave the vinegar on for 30 minutes and then wash it off.

Apply freshly squeezed lemon juice to age spots twice daily for a few months. The citric acid in lemons provides a natural bleaching agent that can diminish the appearance of the spots.

Raw fruit such as papaya pulp and pineapple contain enzymes that can accelerate skin exfoliation when used over time. Dab onto skin with a cotton ball.

Yogurt contains lactic acid, which can lighten and exfoliate skin. Apply a thin layer of yogurt to age spots and let sit for 20 to 30 minutes.


Bladder and Prostate Health

Bladder strength and urination can become issues for both men and women as we age. The National Institute on Aging, part of the National Institutes of Health, lists the causes of incontinence as weak or overactive bladder muscles; damage to nerves from diseases such as Parkinson’s disease or multiple sclerosis; blockage from an enlarged prostate in men; and diseases such as arthritis, which can make it difficult to reach the bathroom quickly.

One of the most effective methods of incontinence prevention is doing Kegel exercises. These exercises can strengthen muscles and work best when practiced early in the onset of urinary issues. To do these exercises, locate your pelvic muscles by stopping the flow of urine midstream. Empty your bladder, lie down, then squeeze and hold these muscles for a count of three, then relax for a count of three. Do this 10 times, and work up to three sets of 10 daily.

Lifestyle changes can also help improve bladder function. Excess weight can be a cause of bladder stress and can increase risk of incontinence, as can bladder irritants including tobacco, caffeine, alcohol, black pepper and other spices, according to famed physician Andrew Weil. Smoking is a particular risk — incontinence is twice as likely among smokers as it is among nonsmokers. Weil also recommends discussing bladder retraining programs with your physician. In these programs, you schedule a regular time to go to the bathroom (such as hourly), then gradually increase the interval between bathroom visits. Finally, keeping a bladder diary may be a useful short-term tool to help reveal triggers and patterns.

If these interventions don’t work, you may wish to seek more complex treatments. In biofeedback therapy, sensors are used to make patients aware of signals from the body, helping regain muscle control. To find therapists, contact the Biofeedback Certification International Alliance at bcia.org. Prescription options also exist for incontinence. They are frequently effective and can cause side effects such as dry mouth, constipation, blurred vision and eye problems. They’re not recommended for people with glaucoma, urinary retention or gastrointestinal diseases. Your doctor may also recommend surgery.

Prostate Health

For older men, urinary issues are often tied to an enlarged prostate. After age 25, men’s prostates begin to grow, due to the natural process known as benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH). BPH is benign and causes no symptoms in 50 to 60 percent of men. However, for others, BPH can lead to symptoms including hesitated, interrupted or weak urine streams; urgency; leaking or dribbling urine; a sense of incomplete emptying; or more frequent urination at night. The Harvard Medical School recommends these four steps for relieving BPH symptoms: Reduce stress by exercising regularly and practicing meditation; take the time to completely empty the bladder; talk with your doctor about prescription or over-the-counter medications you take, some of which can contribute to the problem; and avoid drinking fluids at night, particularly caffeinated and alcoholic beverages. Finally, saw palmetto is an herb frequently recommended for prostate health. While evidence is mixed on saw palmetto’s effectiveness, several studies suggest it’s effective for treating symptoms, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. A few studies have found saw palmetto as effective as the prescription alternative, and others have suggested saw palmetto may actually help shrink the prostate. Because many of these studies have been small and/or short, more research is needed. To try saw palmetto, find a high-quality supplement at health-food stores and follow label instructions.

Memory

Memory loss is a topic that can seem at once mundane and alarming. Most people report age-related memory changes and an uptick in forgetfulness. Changes such as taking longer to learn new things, or forgetting where we set our keys or glasses are considered normal forgetfulness and not a sign of serious problems. Some memory loss can be due to treatable issues such as medication side effects, vitamin B12 deficiency or infections in the brain — it’s always good to consult a medical professional if you are experiencing memory issues.

More severe types of memory problems include amnestic mild cognitive impairment (MCI). People suffering from amnestic MCI have more memory issues than normal but their symptoms aren’t as severe as those with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, and they can carry out normal daily activities. People with amnestic MCI are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than those without, but not all amnestic MCI patients develop Alzheimer’s disease. Dementia is a loss of memory, thinking and reasoning skills that seriously disrupts daily life. Alzheimer’s disease can cause dementia, as can other disorders. The National Institutes of Health lists the symptoms of dementia as: being unable to remember things; asking the same question or repeating the same story over and over; becoming lost in familiar places; being unable to follow directions; getting confused about time, people and places; and neglecting personal safety, hygiene and nutrition. Always seek a health professional if you believe you or a loved one is suffering from a serious form of memory loss.


Herbs for Memory

Ginko: Along with ginkgo’s usefulness for memory loss, studies have confirmed its effectiveness for mental fatigue, senile dementia and an inability to concentrate. Ginkgo improves blood supply to the brain, increases the brain’s ability to use oxygen, and increases glucose uptake and energy production, thereby increasing aptitude and alertness. A commonly recommended dose is 3 capsules containing at least 40 mg of standardized extract daily — or follow the manufacturer’s or your practitioner’s recommendations. It often takes about two months to notice ginkgo’s effects.

Gotu Kola: This herb has a longstanding reputation as a memory herb. It’s used in both Ayurvedic and Traditional Chinese Medicine, as well as by Western herbalists, for longevity and to improve mental function.

Rosemary: Rosemary contains more than a dozen antioxidants as well as several compounds that help prevent the breakdown of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Noted herbalist James Duke recommends using rosemary in shampoos and baths for its aromatherapeutic effects. You can make your own rosemary shampoo by adding a few drops of the pure essential oil to your shampoo bottle.


Remember This

Engage in Physical Activity and Exercise. Several studies have associated physical activity with improved brain function. In one study at the University of British Columbia, researchers found that regular aerobic exercise appears to boost the size of the brain’s hippocampus, responsible for verbal memory and learning.

Learn a New Language. People who speak more than two languages may lower their risk of developing memory problems, according to research from the Public Research Center for Health in Luxembourg.

Play an Instrument. In a 2011 study, people who spent at least 10 years playing an instrument scored highest on a comprehensive battery of neuropsychological tests, including nonverbal and visuospatial memory, naming objects, and taking in and adapting new information.

Limit Alcohol Use. While some studies suggest moderate alcohol consumption has health benefits, heavy or binge drinking over time can lead to memory loss and brain damage.

Play Games, Read Books, Do Crafts. In a 2011 study published in The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, scientists found leisure activities including playing games, reading books and crafting were able to reduce chances of developing mild cognitive impairment by 30 to 50 percent.

Play Video Games. Yes, you read that right. In England, members of the BBC Horizon program recruited a group of elderly volunteers to learn to play a popular driving game, logging around 15 hours of game time over the course of five weeks. Their working memories and attention spans were tested before and after, and both scores increased by about 30 percent on average.