FEB 10 2012, 10:02 AM ET
When it comes to their well-being, older adults shouldn't act like victims to aging. They should be active—physically, socially, and spiritually.
To slow down the physical and mental decline that comes with age, drugs and exercise aren't enough. According to a study out of the University of Southern California, a lifestyle makeover is necessary.
This week on Professional Help, professor and occupational therapist Florence Clark shares five tips for seniors on sustainable, successful aging from herJournal of Epidemiology and Community Health paper (PDF). Thankfully, her method, while backed by rigorous research, is also surprisingly simple: walk outside, meet up with friends, go to church, and just be as active as possible.
It's never too late to go healthy. Anybody, young or old, can successfully redesign the way they live to be healthier. While we don't have a say in our own genetic makeup, greater than 50 percent of our mental and physical health status is related to lifestyle. You can even start small: ride public transportation, reconnect with a long-lost friend, join a ballroom dance class, or follow guidelines on how to safely move around the community. The point is, try something new and be willing to learn.
Take control of your health. Appreciate the relationship between what you do, how you feel, and their impact on your well-being. Our research suggests that social and productive activities are as important as physical ones for staying healthy. As we age, even deceptively simple or downright mundane pursuits like reading the newspaper, cooking a potluck dish, walking the dog, or going to church have a powerful influence on our physical and mental health.
Know thyself. The guiding principle of Socrates rings just as true today as it did in ancient Athens. Lifestyle changes are most sustainable when they fit into the fabric of your everyday life -- your interests, schedule, and self-concept. Identify supports on your journey that are strong enough to counterbalance the obstacles you face. Set goals that are challenging but still realistic enough to be achieved.
Anticipate how chronic conditions may affect your plan. Over 70 percent of seniors age 65 and older have a chronic condition, such as hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, COPD, or cataracts. Don't let these impede your progress. Before a big game, elite athletes visualize their performance in their minds' eye. So too should you be prepared for the potential ways you might have to adapt or improvise. And, of course, consult your physician in advance about any new activities.
Living longer can also mean living better. Our research demonstrates that maintaining a mix of productive, social, physical, and spiritual activities as you age can lead to increased vitality, social function, mental health, and life satisfaction, along with decreased symptoms of depression and self-reported bodily pain. Even better, activity-centric lifestyle interventions to ward off illness and disability may also be more cost-effective and have fewer negative side effects than prescription drugs.