Growing old gracefully and healthfully
When you think about where and how you will grow old, what comes to mind? A dependent existence in a nursing home, with a variety of disabilities and a deteriorating mind?
That might have been the popular view of old age in the past, but it’s less so as the public recognizes that cognitive and physical decline isn’t an inevitable part of aging.
“It’s important to combat stereotypes of old age and show people that they still have something important to contribute both to their peers and to younger generations,” said Marcia G. Ory, Ph.D., MPH, associate dean of research and regents and distinguished professor at the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health and director of the Program on Healthy Aging. “It’s never too late to become meaningfully involved and adopt more healthy lifestyles.”
There are three determinants of healthy aging, Ory said. Who you are (your genetics), what you do (your lifestyle) and where you live (your location, especially the type of community you live in). Although there’s nothing anyone can do about the genetic hand they were dealt, lifestyle and location are mutable.
“There is no magic key, no one way to promote healthy aging,” Ory said. “But it’s important to have a full menu of programs and to tailor your interventions to what people want.”
Most people know that it is important to keep both mind and body active, but Ory doesn’t see any one type as being better than any other. “If you enjoy doing the crossword or playing brain games, that’s great,” she said. “But anything that challenges you will work well and may actually help regain cognitive functions.”
And although walking and gardening are the usual go-to exercise options for this age group, any activity is good, especially if it can be combined with social interaction. Being engaged with other people and with the community is an important part of healthy aging.
Of course, eating well is also essential. It can be difficult to maintain a balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, but it’s vital for maintaining health at any age.
The built environment around you affects lifestyle choices. “When stores and amenities are closer, people are more likely to walk,” Ory said. Therefore, much of her work has lately focused on community factors like sidewalks, bike paths and distance to the nearest store that sells healthy and affordable food. Many older adults don’t want to leave the homes they love, and instead choose to “age in place,” but it has become increasingly clear that transportation affects aging and many of our sprawling cities were not designed with aging drivers in mind.
Ory and other public health researchers are working with those across the university who specialize in everything from architecture and urban planning to computer sciences and engineering to study the planned community at the site of the old Austin airport. The new Mueller development, which includes several housing options just for those 55 or older, will serve as a great test of how a mixed-use community can promote healthy aging.
Researchers at the School of Public Health are working to combat the negative side effects of aging that once were considered unescapable. “It used to be that people thought falls were inevitable as they aged,” Ory said. “Now we know that’s not true. There are ways to prevent falling and associated injuries.”
Although older adults may share some common health issues, the personal and social impacts can be minimized. Programs that help people manage their chronic conditions—especially those led by other seniors—can be very effective. The School of Public Health has evaluated a program called Texercise that helps older adults meet their exercise and nutrition goals, and they found it to be very effective.
“We’re constantly working to test evidence-based ways to help older adults achieve optimal physical, mental, and social well‐being and function,” Ory said. “The whole community is our learning living lab.” It’s especially heartening to acknowledge the contribution of seniors during Older Americans month in May.”