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The Real Fountains of Youth

Healthy aging? It sounds like a contradiction in terms. But for an aging population it means exercising and eating right -- plus a whole lot more, doctors say.

The Healthy Aging Campaign, a national health promotion designed to broaden awareness of the positive aspects of aging, breaks down four keys to growing old with style: physical fitness, social wellness, mental wellness and financial fitness.

Of those four, physical fitness is the key upon which the others turn, said Dr. Carmel Dyer, associate professor of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, and director of the Harris County Hospital District Geriatrics Program.

"The fountain of youth truly is exercise," Dyer said.

Exercise increases your muscle mass and flexibility, making it less likely you'll fall and suffer a fracture, Dyer said. It also helps you metabolize blood sugar better, decreasing your risk of diabetes. And it keeps your blood vessels open and dilated, which reduces your blood pressure, she said.

Dyer recommends exercising for at least 30 minutes three times a week, and adding days as your fitness increases.

Good nutrition, including a diet low in saturated fats and containing five or more servings of fruits and vegetables each day, also is crucial to good health. And if you're a smoker, quit -- it's never too late.

Another part of good health is making sure you get regular checkups, said Dr. Michael Fleming, a Shreveport, La., physician and board chairman of the American Academy of Family Physicians.

"It's important for everyone to have a personal physician you can have a relationship with, that knows you and your family and your risk factors," Fleming said, adding that everyone should have a "coordinator of your care."

Dyer agreed, adding that people should proactively plan for health screenings for conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and osteoporosis -- to name a few -- that could both prolong life and make it more enjoyable.

"Why not see your doctor once a year and get the proper preventative treatment?" Dyer said. "It puts you more in control of your health."

Seniors also should try to avoid unnecessary medications, Dyer said, noting that people taking eight drugs -- even vitamins -- have a 100 percent chance of suffering from some sort of drug interaction.

"I would have everyone ask their doctor for the reason for each medication, and what they could do in place of the drugs," she said, noting that physical activity or a healthy diet could supplant the need for some prescription drugs.

Having good health and being physically fit also can help keep your mind clear and healthy, both Dyer and Fleming said.

Just being active can go a long way to improving one's attitude as you grow older, Fleming said. "If you don't believe you can age actively, I'm pretty sure you can't," he said.

Seniors also should exercise their minds by traveling, learning new skills, reading, researching new interests or developing a hobby.

A healthy social life also can help seniors stay mentally sharp, Dyer said.

"Any type of activity is important because it keeps you more alert," she said. "When your social network starts to shrink, it becomes easy to get depressed. It's easier for people to take advantage of you. You may not eat well because you don't like eating alone."

Many seniors stay socially active by contributing time to their communities through local volunteer groups, religious organizations or civic groups. They also can attend classes at local senior centers or community colleges.

Experts also recommend staying in close contact with friends and family, writing or calling someone every day to be in touch.

Finally, people should take care to make sure they are financially secure as they enter their senior years, Dyer said.

Long before you near retirement, you should save at least 10 percent of your income and invest in savings plans that compound interest. And people on the verge of retirement should establish financial goals and prepare a budget for their post-employment years.

"People need to prepare for a stable financial future," Dyer said. "And make sure your money is in a safe place with responsible people. You want to be sure your funds are in trustworthy hands."

- More articles on Healthy Aging



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