Beware of changes that affect mind as body as you age

07/21/2014 12:00 AM

08/08/2014 10:25 AM

Those of us who live long enough will all go through the same changes. Some of these changes have become standard cliched jokes about aging, especially where vision and hearing are concerned.

Poor eyesight can often be corrected by that ancient invention eyeglasses. Yes, ancient. Eyeglasses were first produced in Italy over 800 years ago. Hearing aids aren’t really new; they were invented shortly after the telephone, in the late 1800s.

Both inventions can help the aging eye and ear. But there are other, more subtle changes that occur as time goes on, and technology has done little to help. That’s why it’s so important, once you pass the big 50, to adjust to these continuing – well, let’s be honest – declines. In fact, your health and vigor may depend on how well you adjust.

Here’s the science: Your ability to taste becomes less sensitive as you get older because taste buds start disappearing and atrophying. At the same time, your sense of smell may begin to decline, and smell is, surprisingly, a large part of taste. That can have a serious effect on nutrition. If you can no longer taste or smell a once-favorite food, you may no longer choose to eat it. Or if there’s a large decline in both taste and smell, you may have no interest in eating at all.

Match this to another fact: There is a natural decrease in appetite as we get older. So if food doesn’t taste or smell good, it causes some boomers to skip meals altogether, or eat repeated fast food burgers, or make a meal without planning for nutrition and just go for texture, thus existing on a diet of chips and other crunchy items. The resulting nutritional deficiencies can cause serious health problems.

This is where everything ties in together. One of the effects of age is a loss of muscle mass. This can begin in the early 40s, especially for those who are sedentary. Strength is signified by big muscles. Loss of muscle bulk also means a loss of strength. But being weaker makes it even less likely that important physical activity will occur. At the same time, stamina decreases, making exercise actually uncomfortable. So you don’t feel like eating (especially true for those who live alone and must do their own cooking) and you don’t feel like exercising.

At this point, there’s a fork in the road. Take one side to continue the present course, getting physically weaker until, within a decade or two, you become frail. Or take the other side, where you have to force yourself to eat properly with good nutrition along with an overall, well balanced fitness program that will help keep you healthy and energetic – and a great deal more comfortable as you continue to age.

But additional adjustments must be made to protect health against the effects of aging, especially mental health. Otherwise, you may be perceived as having dementia, and in fact, you may have an easily reversible form of that condition.

Here again, things tie together.

One: That feeling that always told you when you were sleepy often just disappears. You’re sleepy, but you don’t feel it, so you don’t go to bed. You get three or four hours of sleep instead of at least six or seven.

The result is a constant state of sleep deprivation. The mind becomes slow, easily confused and a lot more irritable. But this can be dismissed as aging, so you are the one who must diagnose yourself. If you are not getting the mental signal to go to bed, pick a bedtime and use the same one every night. Even though you don’t feel sleepy, you’ll usually drop into slumber fairly quickly.

Two: The crummy diet with its nutritional deficiencies? If you don’t get enough vitamin B12, that could cause pernicious anemia, with symptoms of slowness, confusion and irritability.

At the same time, many new medical studies show that boomers with low levels of vitamin D have increased symptoms of – you guessed it – mental slowness, confusion and irritability. It’s harder to get D from sunlight after 50, because skin becomes less able to absorb it. Those with vitamin D deficiencies may suffer from impaired thinking. Adjusting by taking supplements and eating a D-rich diet can reverse those symptoms.

It’s important to beware of changes that happen as the years go on. Protect both your body and brain, and you’ll enjoy life much more.

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