As brain research advances, experts are finding that some physical and mental changes typically associated with aging may not be normal, but the result of treatable and preventable health conditions.
By some estimates, only 30 percent of physical aging can be traced to genes. The rest is up to the individual.
According to the AARP Andrus Foundation, developing and maintaining "cognitive health" is as important to a person's quality of life at any age as maintaining good physical health.
A series of four booklets, Staying Sharp: Current Advances in Brain Research, provides information and tips based on research. The booklets were derived from public forums conducted in partnership with the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives and featured the country's foremost researchers, scientists and physicians working in the field of aging and the brain.
One of the key research findings is that diet and exercise are crucial for physical well being and mental acuity at any age.
A person's food choices can make a difference in the likelihood for many conditions that cause premature death or disability, including heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes.
Three long-term studies being conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health suggest that:
A diet rich in vegetables may help prevent breast and prostate cancer.
Colon cancer is more common among people who eat more red meat.
High-fat diets increase the risk of heart disease, stroke and some cancers.
A diet with too many refined carbohydrates increases the risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
Some nutritional changes are associated with aging, But for the most part, what was considered a healthy diet at age 40 will still be a healthy diet at 60 or 70.
Health experts recommend planning a diet that emphasizes whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables. Additional dietary recommendations include:
Drink eight to 10 cups of fluid daily. At least five of the cups should be water.
Limit caffeinated and alcoholic beverages.
Reduce the amount of saturated fat in diets.
Replace with mono-unsaturated fat in olive, canola, sunflower, safflower and soybean oils.
Snack on fruits, vegetables or whole-grain products.
Many health experts believe that regular exercise is the single most important thing to improve overall health and well-being.
New studies show that aerobic activity increases levels of brain chemicals that encourage the growth of nerve cells, which may be the reason moderately strenuous exercise is associated with enhanced memory skills.
Some ways that exercise can help retain mental capacity include:
Reducing anxiety and stress.
Improving mood and possibly alleviating depression.
Increasing energy levels.
Slowing the rate of bone loss.
Enabling the body to use insulin more efficiently.
Improving cardiovascular health.
Controlling weight and preventing obesity.
The National Institute of Aging suggests incorporating four types of exercises into lifestyles. The types include:
Endurance exercise like walking helps increase stamina.
Strength exercise, with free weights or resistance weights, increases metabolism and may help prevent osteoporosis.
Flexibility exercise like stretching or yoga prevents and aids recovery from injuries.
Balance exercises like standing on one foot help prevent falls.
Castle Valley residents may download the Staying Sharp series from the association's website at www.andrus.org/sharp or request copies by calling the foundation toll-free at 800-424-3410. The booklets are also available by mail at AARP Fulfillment, 601 E Street NW, Washington, DC 20049. Residents should request series D17561 for booklets in English or D17461 for copies in Spanish.