Friends and fun can make for healthier golden years

August 23, 2012 | by Alicia Di Rado

If 50 is the new 30, then who’s to say 70 isn’t the new 50?

Photo of seniors riding a tandem bicycleSome older adults live that out every day. Go to any marathon on the weekend and you’ll see men and women in their 70s and 80s crossing the finish line (often with a smile on their face). They’re playing golf with friends, traveling around the world, gardening or putting together elaborate crafts. They’re volunteering at the local animal shelter or caring for grandchildren.

Others, though, have a hard time just getting to the grocery store. Maybe the effects of a stroke or diabetes slowed them down; or maybe medications, depression and pain conspire to keep them isolated at home.

For them, 70 may as well be the new 90.

What does it matter whether older adults go out with friends or stay in, alone? It matters a lot. Activity and social involvement isn’t just a reflection of age and health – it’s a key influence on health, too. Ask Arti Hurria, M.D., director of City of Hope’s Cancer and Aging Research Program. She’s studying the factors that contribute to how well older Americans can tolerate cancer-killing chemotherapy.

Among other factors, older men and women who stay socially active — as well as continue their regular activities — tend to go through cancer treatment better.

“The good news is that there are steps older adults can take to stay as healthy as they can,” Hurria says.

Of course, a critical part of staying healthy is making sure to get medical checkups and taking medications appropriately. But there other common-sense, daily steps men and women can take, too.

After making sure with your doctor that it’s ok to start an exercise routine, says Hurria, “One important thing to do is just to get out the door and do something. It doesn’t have to be a marathon. It can be regular walks, whether you walk in your neighborhood or on a trail to get out into nature and see something different.”

Nurse Peggy S. Burhenn, M.S., C.N.S., A.O.C.N.S., stresses the impact of staying connected to friends and family and making new friendships. Data have shown that seniors with social support have better cognition (thinking), stay more independent and have better quality of life.

People sometimes underestimate the power of having a network,” says Burhenn, professional practice leader in geriatric oncology. “But having people you care about and who care about you is critical. If your network is distant, then writing letters or emails, or getting onto Facebook and talking with friends that way, can help you stay in touch with people.

“But it is also important to cultivate a local network, some suggestions may be to seek out local activities where you can meet people and connect to others.”

Some ways of staying connected include volunteering for a charity, going back to work part-time, getting involved in a church or religious organization, taking care of grandchildren or other family members or joining a club.

For those already struggling to get around, Hurria and Burhenn suggest turning to their geriatric doctor or nurse for options and ideas on how to get more active. They’re usually happy to give suggestions. Local senior centers often offer exercise classes customized for men and women with varying abilities, and they can be a great place to meet others and learn about outings.

And for all seniors, the National Institute on Aging has a helpful program called Go4Life online that provides ideas, tips and easy-to-follow exercise instructions to encourage strength, balance and flexibility.

“You don’t have to have the energy you did at age 20 to keep active and engaged,” says Hurria. “No one expects a 70-year-old to be like a 20-year-old, or even a 50-year-old. But there is so much that seniors can do to stay healthy, and today is a good time to start.”

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