Well Aged

Concepts of aging range from romance to despair. Wisdom of experience and mellowing of spirit as one moves beyond the impetuosity of youth are touted as benefits. We love our grandparents and appreciate elder statesmen as valuable resources of knowledge and, more importantly, for their longitudinal perspective. But with the passage of time, we also see the development of arthritis, osteoporosis, impotence, Alzheimer’s Disease, wrinkles; and the loss of vitality, muscle tone and strength. Wallace Stevens’ “old sailor, drunk and asleep in his boots, (catching) tigers in red weather” is a powerful image of the disillusionment of lost vitality and youth. So what do we do to maximize our time on the earth?

There’s no question that we’re living longer. . . statistics prove that point. But are we aging better? Is the quality of life good as we extend the years of our lives? Certainly, there are a variety of health conditions that we have deemed “inevitable” as we age. But there is much active research on the fundamental biologic changes that occur as we grow older. And, as results demonstrate benefits, these benefits are becoming available in modern health maintenance strategies.

The tenants of healthy aging have much in common with day-to-day healthy living. We’ve all heard “The best defense is a good offense.” Well, in this case, the offense is health-conscious living. Healthy lifestyles which include regular exercise, balanced and moderate food consumption, avoidance of cigarettes and recreational drugs, and the ongoing quest for self-improvement and joy, are basic ingredients in the “Good Health Formula.” Regular exercise includes the brain as well. Current research shows preliminary benefit in preventing Alzheimer’s Disease through committed mental exercises involving rigorous concentration on a regular basis. Obviously, if you have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes, these imbalances must be corrected to prevent long-term complications. Medications may be necessary in addition to healthy lifestyles to correct these problems. Please don’t delay appropriate treatment because of denial or never-materialized good intentions. You are jeopardizing your longevity and absolutely your vitality by minimizing the importance of these health risks.

Research is supporting the benefits or hormone supplementation as we age. Women go through menopause; men have variable declines in testosterone levels in aging. We can all develop under active thyroid glands. All of these changes can be measured through blood tests, and supplements can be individualized and monitored carefully. As with any treatments, individual health factors, family histories, and the risk/benefit of hormone replacement must be weighed with each person. But, it does seem clear that maintaining good hormone balance as one ages can promote an extension of the “vital years” of life.

What about supplements and replacement of vitamins, minerals, and trace elements? This question is being actively pursued in many research arenas. We know a great deal about the benefits and functions of these substances in our bodies, and it seems reasonable, even prudent, to maximize beneficial levels. Especially antioxidants seem to confer a particular benefit in minimizing the damage produced by free radical formation. I won’t launch into a biochemical treatise at this point, but if this radical concept is too much for you to absorb right now, there are a multitude of articles on the Internet explaining the process. In the last few months, I have been introduced to Kronos, Inc., a company that has developed a comprehensive battery of blood tests that analyze an individual’s levels of hormones, vitamins, minerals, trace elements, organ system parameters, and cardiac risk factors. From this data, individualized supplementation regimens can be created for each patient based on his/her unique profile. I am excited about their program because it combines scientific precision with evidence-based preventive medicine. Taking the “guess work” out of supplementation is a major advance, and it appeals to me on both personal and professional levels.

The chronology of aging is set, but our capacity to support our vitality over time is not. The Irish Proverb, “Twenty years a child; twenty years running wild;twenty years a mature man–and after that, praying” need not be a foregone conclusion. Research will continue in the arenas of anti-aging and general health maintenance. For now, make a commitment to healthy lifestyle. . . and know that aging well can be a realistic goal. I’ll conclude with a little romance–my favorite poem about “Old Age” by William Butler Yeats.

When you are old and grey and full of sleep
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

Stephen L. Hines, M.D.
July 2000