by Kimberly Allen, RN
One thing that is not a national secret is the fact that as a society we are getting older. In fact today there are more “old” people living in the world then at any other time in human history. During the reign of the Roman Empire the Romans had a life expectancy of 22 to 25 years of age. Then is took thousands of years for humankind to increase their life expectancy by just a few years. By the early 1900’s the average life expectancy had increased to around the mid 30’s. Remember that was a time when early childhood death was prevalent and death was more common in all age groups than it is today. For example, many more young women died in childbirth back then, while today it’s a relatively rare occurrence.
It was during the 20th century after the industrial revolution the average life expectancy had increased to 47 years of age. During this time there were significant improvements in public health, medicine and nutrition as well as new rules and regulations improving work place safety. The development of vaccines and antibiotics significantly reduced childhood deaths from serious illnesses like polio, diphtheria and measles as well as infections like pneumonia. It was also during this time that advances in agricultural technologies provided a more reliable food supply, which in turn lead to growing bigger and heartier. The average American adult male was around 5ft 7in tall and weighed around 146 lbs in 1850 and his average life expectancy was around 45 years of age, while by the 1980’s in his 30’s the average American male adult had grown to 5ft 10in weighing around 174 lbs and his life expectancy had increased to 75 years of age.
The advances in science and technology have created a cultural revolution in which health and safety standards have significantly improved our quality of life as well as our life expectancy. Food fortification programs in both Europe and America built vitamins into the food supply. Water was purified and milk was pasteurized. Public health improved as cities and communities began to establish a systematic method of garbage collection removing a significant source of life-threatening diseases. Refrigeration became widely available allowing people to keep food safely.
In addition to the advances in science and technology, education has played a huge role in increasing our life span. As local, state and federal governments introduced a range of laws and regulations involving everything from food and drug safety to work place and environmental safety various agencies and health care organizations began wide spread education campaigns. They educated the public on everything from proper food storage to prevent food borne illnesses and vaccines to prevent life threatening diseases to the importance of personal hygiene and good hand washing to prevent the spread of infection. Believe it or not, just the “invention” of good hand washing to prevent the spread of infection significantly impacted mortality rates, especially in hospitals. Before the introduction of hand washing, health care providers were spreading different infections and diseases from room to room and patient to patient. Once it became evident just how significant the impact of hand washing was in health care agencies began educating the public, signs went up in restaurants as well as other public places and there were public services messages on the radio and TV declaring the benefits of good hand washing.
Today around 10,000 Americans celebrate their 60th birthday every day joining what many have referred to in the past as one of the “old folks.” However, most of those turning 60 years of age today have very little in common with the “old folks” of their childhood. A study done by researchers at Harvard University indicates that not only are we living longer we’re staying healthier longer. Not so long ago people that were in that “old” category were very ill for the last 6 or 7 years of their lives and now that period of time is down to 2 years in most cases.
As the adults of today reap the benefits of the evolution that has occurred in our world extending our life expectancy experts estimate that approximately one quarter of the population in the US will be over 65 years of age by 2030. One of humankind’s greatest achievements is improved longevity, however, it also gives us one of our greatest challenges. Depending on how you choose to use them our added years can be either a gift or a burden.
Make your senior years about quality as well as quantity
It’s a fact that as a society we are living longer, but how well are we living those extra years? There are some that believe the only reason we are living longer is because the advances in medical science and technology have allowed us to cheat death. Well, to some extent that is true. More people are making full recoveries from heart attacks and strokes than ever before, not to mention the improvement in cancer survival rates. Just because you’ve reached that time in your life that has historically been referred to as “old” it doesn’t mean you have to feel old even if you have suffered a health crisis like a heart attack or stroke.
Yes, advances in medical science and technology can bring us back from the brink of death and help our aging bodies to function better, but it is the knowledge that has been gained about the treatment and prevention of disease that has increased the quality of the years that science and technology provides. This knowledge has lead to numerous educational programs not just in the US but across the world on how to take care of ourselves and maintain quality of life as we age.
You can improve and/or maintain your quality of life, which means how well you live your life, are you able to care for yourself and live independently? In a recent study researchers found that there are 4 bad behaviors in particular that can speed you to an early grave. They found that smoking, drinking too much alcohol and not exercising as well as not eating enough fruits and vegetables can basically age your body by up to 12 years. By making only a few lifestyle changes you can not only live longer but have quality years.
According to the experts the single most important thing you can do to improve not only how long you live but how well you live is to quit smoking if you are a smoker. According to a study that was published in the American Journal of Public Health “women who quit smoking by age 35 add roughly 6 to 8 years to their lives.” However, it is never too late to quit. the lungs are amazing organs and can start healing virtually immediately after you quit increasing your odds of survival even if there is already significant damage to your lungs.
Diet also plays a significant role in maintaining a healthier and better quality of life. By eating at least 3 servings of fruits and vegetables a day you can reduce your risk of heart disease by 76%. In addition to that the antioxidants in fruits and vegetables have great antiinflammatory as well as circulation-boosting abilities and they can even reduced wrinkles. It is also important to include high protein foods like fish, poultry, egg whites or tofu in every meal. Research has also shown that choosing organic over conventional or GMO foods is healthier as you are reducing your body’s exposure to chemicals and pesticides. Avoid processed and high fat foods as much as possible. Limiting your alcohol consumption is also important. While one alcoholic beverage a day for women and two for men have been shown to have health benefits, anything over that can be detrimental.
Regular exercise is as important as diet. Many people that are retiring today aren’t going home to sit on their porch watching the birds, they are staying active. In a study done in 2008, researchers found that regular high intensity exercise can increase your life span up to 4 years. Regular exercise may be the closest thing to a fountain of youth you’ll find.
Managing stress and socializing also have and impact on the quality of your life. It’s a well known fact that unmanaged stress can lead to numerous health problems. Learning stress management techniques to help you effectively manage your stress can prevent potential health problems and improve your quality of life. Loneliness can be just as dangerous as high cholesterol or even smoking. So develop a strong support system of family and friends can both reduce your risk of potential health problems and improve your quality of life.
Finally, get plenty of rest. If possible you should get 9 hours of sleep every night. It’s when we are in a state of deep restful sleep that our bodies enter a repair mode and produce growth hormone. When you have trouble sleeping you have lower levels of growth hormone and on top of that lack of sleep increases stress.
You can take charge of your “older” years and enjoy quality years instead of years limited by health problems by making just a few simple changes.
Kimberly Allen is a registered nurse with an AND in nursing. She has worked in ACF, LCF and psychiatric facilities, although she spent most of her career as a home health expert. She is now a regular contributor to HealthAndFitnessTalk.com, dispensing advice and knowledge about medical issues and questions. You can reach her with any comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.