The concept of aging gracefully may be defined differently from one person to the next, and some with fewer wrinkles than others, but healthy aging is a journey we all take if we’re fortunate enough to live long lives. You may have heard the statement, “Getting older surely beats the alternative!”
While we cannot turn back time, thankfully we have the chance to approach aging with a sense of gratitude, positive steps toward well-being, and support for our patients, peers and families. It’s also important to recognize that the aging process may look differently for each individual — not only physically, but also environmentally.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion recognizes September as Healthy Aging Month, which is an important time to recognize the health disparities that can have a range of effects on graceful, healthy aging. The National Institute on Aging, or NIA, defines health disparities as, “differences in any health-related factor — disease burden, diagnosis, response to treatment, quality of life, health behaviors and access to care, to name only a few — that exist among population groups.”
These disparities related to aging can be influenced by environmental, sociocultural, behavioral, and biological factors. In the categories below, we highlight steps and considerations in the areas of physical health, mental well-being and meaningful connections and how these may vary.
It’s no surprise that a healthy diet and physical activity can help build strong, resilient bodies now and into the future. For healthy aging, the NIA also recommends:
- Regularly getting enough sleep
- Quitting smoking
- Avoiding or limiting alcohol
- Visiting the doctor regularly
Though, this seemingly “one size fits all” approach may not be so simple to achieve; consider how socioeconomic factors or limited access to care and healthy food options could impact health outcomes for many. Also, family history and other biological factors could come into play.
Stress can affect memory and potentially increase the risk of dementia, so properly managing stress can make a long-lasting difference. And beyond our biceps, our minds need regular exercise, too, in the form of reading and other mentally stimulating activities.
Maintaining a happy mood and recognizing depression are also important steps to take to influence physical health and better cognitive control. Though, for example, consider the heightened mental health concerns of a gay male who has been bullied in the past and lacking a family support system; the time is now to create a safe space for him to heal.
Hobbies and special interests can help boost moods, reduce loneliness and strengthen social connections. The NIA shares, “Research on music, theater, dance, creative writing, and other participatory arts shows promise for improving older adults’ quality of life and well-being, from better cognitive function, memory, and self-esteem to reduced stress and increased social interaction. Even hobbies as simple as taking care of a pet can improve your health.” Remember that meaningful connections and “family” can be defined differently from one person to the next.
The NIA established a goal to identify and understand what is affecting quality of life and well-being for older adults, and to gather data to distinguish patterns among diverse populations. And with this information gathering, they seek to develop interventions to reduce health disparities, develop appropriate strategies for healthy aging among underserved groups, and advocate for diverse populations to be fully represented in research.
To educate and prepare culturally proficient practitioners and support systems, Equality Healthcare Consulting Group provides cultural competence training for healthcare professionals at organizational-wide and personal levels. Education is a solid first step to take to build and foster inclusive, supportive environments in which all patients can thrive and grow older with grace.
National Institute on Aging. (n.d.). Goal F: Understand health disparities related to aging and develop strategies to improve the health status of older adults in diverse populations. Retrieved from https://www.nia.nih.gov/about/aging-strategic-directions-research/goal-health-disparities-adults
National Institute on Aging. (n.d.). What Do We Know About Healthy Aging? Retrieved from https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/what-do-we-know-about-healthy-aging
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. (2022, August 29). September National Health Observances: Healthy Aging, Substance Use Recovery, Food Safety, and more.Retrieved from https://health.gov/news/202208/september-national-health-observances-healthy-aging-substance-use-recovery-food-safety-and-more