My grandparents lived well into their eighth and ninth decades. They were happy, healthy and remarkably well preserved. They woke up early every day, ate a healthy breakfast and went off to attend to daily chores despite their advanced age. Their days were spent toiling on the farm (despite their children’s protests that they would provide everything for them and they need not work) and every evening they went home with farm produce to prepare for their supper. After an evening of banter with their grandchildren, they would then retire to bed early in preparation for the next day. They avoided alcohol except on special occasions and even then, it was taken in moderation. Obesity was unheard of amongst my grandparents and their peers. All this, in the 21st Century.
The scene described above still happens in some parts of Kenya. However, we are slowly descending into an unhealthy trend. There is a slow but definite decline in the lifestyle and quality of life amongst our elderly. This decline has largely been perpetuated by myths.
Myth about obesity in seniors: As you age, your metabolism slows down and you inevitably become overweight.
Close to 70 percent of people aged above 65 years in Kenya are overweight. This is mainly truncal obesity (increase in abdominal girth). This type of obesity has been associated with increase in heart attack, stroke, diabetes and is a known risk factor for aggravating arthritis. As you age, your metabolism will change but that should not automatically result in obesity. If you maintain a healthy diet and a good level of activity, you should be able to maintain an appropriate weight.
Red flag: Hormonal imbalances such as an under-active thyroid or low testosterone or high cortisol can occur in seniors and this can lead to unwanted weight gain. In addition, heart, kidney and liver disease can lead to unwanted ‘water weight’. Medication side effects can have similar effects. If you notice that you are gaining weight despite leading a healthy lifestyle, get a medical review.
Poor diet and low water intake
Myth: Seniors need foods that are easy to digest
Our current diet is laden with hidden salts, sugar and unhealthy fat. Most of the foods we ingest contain little fibre, which is needed for a healthy digestive system. It is also low in vital elements such as vitamin B and calcium. Elements such as calcium are essential for healthy bones and therefore, lack of this element can lead to brittle bones and abnormal spine curvature (stooping). Calcium is also needed for healthy teeth. The best diet for seniors is one that is rich in fibre (fruits, vegetables, cereals), calcium, healthy oils and low in salt and processed sugar. Most elderly people avoid high fluid intake due to concerns about urinary continence. However, unless prohibited by your doctor due to health problems, most seniors should be able to take in at least 2 litres of fluid a day.
Sedentary lifestyle and exercise
Myth: Exercise is unsafe for the elderly
In the past, the general thinking amongst society was that an elderly person needed to perform some form of physical activity daily to keep themselves busy. These days, we seem to have adopted the mantra that ‘seniors need to sit back and relax all day as they did their bit in their heyday’. This type of thinking is misguided. Exercise, including activities like gardening help strengthen bones, prevent muscle loss, improve mental function and maintain balance.
Myth: You cannot develop mental illness in your senior years
Contrary to popular belief, mental illness is a common problem amongst the elderly – specifically depression. Often, depression develops as a result of multiple factors including suffering from a debilitating disease such as stroke or Parkinson’s disease, retirement, death of a spouse or even alcohol abuse. Some seniors despair as they age as they feel as though their lives have no purpose once they are in their golden years. Depression in the elderly is treated in the same way it is treated in a young person through psychosocial support and in some cases, medication.
Myth: My medication ‘cured’ my high blood pressure/diabetes so I stopped taking it
It is not unusual to find seniors who have stopped taking their medication for diabetes or high blood pressure because, once their readings became normal, they thought that they were cured and stopped taking their medication. Often, these seniors present to the hospital in a crisis when their health condition is potentially life threatening. A few unfortunate cases have presented with a stroke, heart attack or in a coma. In most cases, medication for conditions such as high blood pressure or diabetes is life-long. People who have successfully been weaned off their medication have managed due to drastic changes in their lifestyle including weight loss. One should never stop their treatment because they have been ‘cured’. The normal readings you get after using the medication for a while mean that the medication is working – it does not mean that you have been cured.
There is a growing trend of alcohol abuse amongst seniors –especially, men. This leads to significant strain on their relationships at home and causes them to be estranged. It can also lead to financial decline. Alcoholism has been linked to poor mental function, sexual dysfunction and liver cancer.
The market is full of products that promise to reverse the effects of aging. In truth, none of these products work in the long term and a few have even been adulterated with harmful chemicals to help them deliver the ‘amazing’ results. If you want to age gracefully, change your lifestyle. Stop smoking. Limit your alcohol intake. Increase your physical activity, eat healthy and drink lots of fluids. Your body will thank you for it.
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