Growing old and beautiful

Dr Jacqueline E Campbell

Sunday, May 14, 2017

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In recent times there have been many stories of people who are living to be 100 years old.One of my oldest patients is 98 years old and, as I examined her, I asked (her) if she wants to make it to 100. She chuckled and remarked: “Well, is not me give myself life you know. Let us see what God plan.”

That is a simple and profound statement. I have often wondered if I would want to live to be 100. I suppose that would be quite an achievement if I could live to be that age and be in good mental and physical health. It is not an impossible achievement.

A centenarian is a person who lives to or beyond the age of 100 years. A supercentenarian is a person who has lived to the age of 110 or more. Jamaica is blessed to be home to the world's oldest person, Violet Mosse-Brown, who is now 117 years old.

In 2012, the United Nations estimated that there were 316,600 living centenarians worldwide. As life expectancy is increasing across the world, and the world population has also increased rapidly, the number of centenarians is expected to increase quickly in the future. In 2013, the National Council for Senior Citizens in Jamaica reported that there was an estimated 300,000 elderly citizens in Jamaica, representing 11.3 per cent of the total population. The council further indicated that the figure was expected to reach 25 per cent by the year 2050, representing the fastest-growing segment of Jamaica's population. They concluded that “not only is the population of older persons a growing cohort of the Jamaican population, the age composition of the population is changing significantly, with remarkable shifts taking place within the 60 years and older age group”.

There are a number of reasons why people are living for longer periods. Infectious and respiratory diseases that affect babies in the womb are on a steady decline. Consequently, more babies are born healthy and that increases their longevity. Additionally, advances in medicine and improvements in hygiene have increased our life expectancy.

I have a patient who “has seen some years” and is growing older and more beautiful. God knows, she may make it to 100 years and beyond. I asked her about her secret for growing old and beautiful. Here's what she told me:

1) “I give God thanks every day for life. I do not worry about my age. The fact is that the only way not to get old is to die young.”

2) “Enjoy the simple things in life.”

3) “Surround yourself with what you love — whether it is family, pets, and books, whatever.”

4) “I surround myself with happy people. The miserable ones drag down my spirit.”

5) “Meditate. I have been doing this since I was 50.”

Research has shown that the brains of regular meditators have high levels of gamma waves and this is associated with attention, working memory and learning. They also discovered that when people begin meditating in middle age, they experience less loss of gray matter and attention levels when compared with those who do not meditate.

6) “I get eight hours of sleep each night.”

Research has demonstrated that adequate sleep makes us smarter. Sleep helps the brain bring together disparate pieces of information and interpret them correctly. Contrastingly, too little sleep leads to bad performance and mood disorders.

7) “I keep my brain active by reading. In fact, I am always learning something new. A brain is a terrible thing to waste. My friend says that an idle mind is an Alzheimer's workshop.”

My patient has a point because the brain can be viewed as a thrill seeker. New experiences stimulate the area that produces dopamine, a chemical involved in learning and memory. Studies show that doing new things builds brain mass and increases mental agility. In the absence of novelty, the dopamine-producing areas of the brain shrink. To keep your brain functioning properly, why not learn a new language or learn to play a musical instrument or take up a new hobby — any regular pastime that offers continual fresh challenge? Do not worry if you are not good at your new interest — you can still benefit.

8) “Laugh often, especially at yourself .”

9) “Sometimes when life hands you a curve ball, you just have to deal with it! Events will occur which make you cry — what to do? Cry, grieve, persevere and move on. Do not get stuck in yesterday.”

10) “Look after your health. Do not wait until you are my age — it may be too late. I watch what I eat. I do not overeat. I eat fish every day and I have been taking supplements for years.”

Caloric restriction, the practice of restricting calorie intake while maintaining good nutritional status, improves many aspects of age-related decline. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in fish such as salmon and sardines and are involved in nerve cell communication. They help protect against the cell damage that leads to Alzheimer's.

11) “Exercise.”

Dr John Ratey, an authority on the brain-fitness connection and author of the book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, calls exercise “Miracle-Gro for the brain”. Exercise produces large quantities of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that helps neurons (brain cells) survive and encourages the growth of new ones. BDNF helps the cells grow and makes them better and more resilient to future stresses. Brains with more BDNF have a greater capacity for knowledge. To boost BDNF levels, Ratey recommends moderate to high-intensity aerobic exercise. Other research shows that just walking brings substantial benefits.

12) “I like to go out with my friends!” The brain grows, even in old age in response to physical affection. Regular socialising keeps the brain sharp by reducing cortisol, a stress hormone.

13) “Tell the ones you care for that you love them. Shower them with love.”

Dr Jacqueline E. Campbell is a family physician, university lecturer and pharmacologist. She is the author of the book “A patient's guide to the treatment of diabetes mellitus.”





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