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  • Writer's pictureMartha Calihan MD

The Many Facets of Healthy Aging

Healthy Aging is something, it seems, that appeals to most of us. It would be nice to reach our older years being physically strong, with minimal burden of disease and good physical strength.

And we can absolutely work towards this goal by focusing on our diets, exercise and fitness routines, making sure we are getting the nutrients we need, proper rest, the right exercise, etc. We can be screened for diseases and conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes, and treated, if needed. Modern medicine has made great strides recent decades and is able to help keep people alive, sometimes well beyond what would have been possible in the past.

But what really, are the markers of being healthy, and having wellbeing in one’s old age? What really matters? Is it just quantity of life? The number of years? Is it the quality of that life? And what determines that quality?

What if, as a part of our healthy aging plans, we also looked at the other components that we know contribute to our health and well-being? What if we looked at our spiritual lives, our emotional and mental health, our connectedness in our communities; our participation in groups or projects that are dedicated to helping others?

We know that social isolation is a major contributor to poor health, especially in the elderly. People who don’t experience the companionship of others tend to have poorer health.

We know the devastating effect that persistent stress can have on our health; stress has been implicated in many of the modern illnesses from which people suffer, from coronary disease to IBS and migraines. The stress response, while life-saving in an acute situation, can cause significant detrimental effects to the body over time, when it is chronic or recurrent.

And stress can be exacerbated by isolation and lack of connectedness, furthering the negative impact to one’s health.

We know that spirituality, and as I define it that means being connected to something larger than ourselves, also is a factor in people’s wellbeing. Whether that connection is with a formal group, a church, nature, friends, family; whatever it is that connection to the larger collective is important.

We are not isolated, individuals on this planet, and our connections and connectedness are important. Realizing our part in something larger helps give us perspective, it seems to me.

As we approach our older years, we ought perhaps to be considering some of these aspects of healthy aging, beyond just our nutrition and fitness goals.

Oftentimes, it is at this point of life when we finally have time, and this might be a good time to get involved with groups or organizations that are helping others, to share the knowledge gained over a lifetime of experience, to share gifts we each have. Helping others has always been a good way to help deal with our own stress; no reason this can’t still be true, and being connected lessens isolation as well.

What is it that really sparks your joy? What is important to your soul, to your heart? Leaving behind the ego, what is it that you really want to be spending your time doing? Our inner wisdom tells us, if we take the time to notice and to listen, what is true for us and in us; what our inner truth is. But how often do we pay attention to that? Are we more apt to be driven by our ego’s wants and needs and to ignore what our soul knows, what our inner wisdom knows?

Can we really be well if we are not in alignment with what we know as our inner truth? I think not. That disconnect sets up a persistent tension that will often manifest as illness. And it may be that it is not possible to change a situation in which we find ourselves, and that we will, for a variety of reasons, remain in a place where we are not, in fact, living our truth. But our wellbeing will be improved if we acknowledge that and understand the choices we are making, and to know what is true deep inside us.

Perhaps this is the time, as we think about how to stay healthy as we age, to think about these aspects of our wellbeing. And because healthy aging is a compilation of many factors, it is important to look at them all; to think about the impact of the various factors for each of us and where we might choose to focus our energy as we assess our personal state of health and wellbeing.

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