Healthy Aging – What It Really Means and How To Do It Well

Dr. Sumi Misra, Geriatrician and Associate Director for the Geriatric Research Education Clinical Center, dicusses Healthy Aging. She describes what healthy aging truly means and how to attend to the important physical, psychological, and social elements in life that allow us the thrive no matter our age.

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07/21/2017 Wellcast: Healthy Aging

Bridgette Butler: Welcome to this edition of the Vanderbilt Health and Wellness Wellcast. I am Bridgette Butler with Health Plus. Today, we are speaking with Dr. Sumi Misra, Associate Director for the Geriatric Research Education Clinical Center and practicing geriatrician for over 15 years at Vanderbilt. Dr. Misra, our topic today is healthy aging. There are a lot of messages we are exposed to in our culture today, suggesting that when it comes to aging, what we should really be focused on is staying young, on trying our best not to age. This can be confusing, however, because the fact is we are all aging. It is an inevitable but also very natural process. So, what does healthy aging really look like?

Dr. Sumi Misra: So much is in our attitudes about healthy aging. It does absolutely mean a good quality of life, as defined by that person, which is very different for different people When we look at it, this definitely involves three components, which are physical, emotional and social. When I think about this, I ask myself, “What do people want most as they age,” and I’ve kind of honed down on five main categories. I think the first thing we want to do is we want to feel that we have dignity. The second is that we want to feel relevant to the community that we belong to. The third is we want to be peaceful. Peace is important as we age. The fourth, I think, is joy, and joy doesn’t necessarily mean being in a constant state of happiness. It actually means a deeper feeling of something that feels good. And last but not least, I think, as we age and what healthy aging looks like, is to feel safe. So, I think those are the five main elements. I do think, however, that healthy aging is a balance between two concepts. The two concepts are one, acceptance, and the second is effort. Let me tell you a little bit more about acceptance. I think it is the reality that things are not, and possibly will not be, as they were before when we were in our 20s, 30s, or even 50s. Accepting something does not mean giving up. It essentially means that we are okay with the way things are, and it brings with it a lot of peace and joy of being in the moment rather than looking back with nostalgia or looking ahead with worry. On the flip side, like I said, it doesn’t mean just rolling over. The other concept is also effort. It means that we are going to be as productive, as engaged, in the moment as we can be, and that takes a lot of active energy and work.

Bridgette Butler: What are the elements of healthy aging?

Dr. Sumi Misra: I look at it as a tripod stool. Each leg is important. If one leg is off, the stool is lop-sided, and we will topple or we will be unstable, and that is not a good way to feel in our lives. So, let’s kind of go through each one of them. So, when I think about the physical element of healthy aging, to me, it is being able to do the things that one wants to do. It is the ability to move and do things where you want, how you want, and when you want to do them. Two key words when we think of our physical well-being is strength and flexibility. The third one I think is really important is nutrition. It is a huge part of how we age and the health problems we collect along the way in terms of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, strokes, just to mention a few The second foot of the stool is psychological. So, going back to that point of acceptance, I think peace is a state of mind, and our psychological well-being is very much interlinked to how peaceful we feel. Peace is really a choice in many ways. We can choose positivity or negativity. It really does lie in our perception and is shaped by people, circumstances and experiences we surround ourselves with. Now, I understand that some we can choose and others we can’t; however, what we can choose is our response to events and people, and that is key. Now, the third element, I think, of overall well-being is the social aspect. We usually do well with interactions and thrive when we feel like we are accepted and that we are relevant and that we belong to some place, some people or some cause. It really does matter to us that we matter and we want to be relevant, and that relevancy always, always happens in a social construct. We typically don’t do well living on isolated islands.

Bridgette Butler: What are the drawbacks of not attending to these elements of healthy aging, the physical, the emotional and the social?

Dr. Sumi Misra: I tend to think of this at two levels. One is – what is the drawback for me, personally, and then what it is for society in general and the community that we live in. So, at a personal level, if we don’t attend to the elements of healthy aging, we simply don’t thrive. Our quality of life is not what we want it to be. We start feeling isolated, we start feeling irrelevant, and we might see ourselves spending a lot of time in doctor’s offices and in hospitals. All of these are a big blow to our sense of independence, our sense of dignity and our overall sense of wellness.. Now, at a society level, I think, when we are not at our best, we really aren’t able to share our experiences, our wisdom, and to be a source of inspiration and wisdom for the generations that follow us. You know, we all want to be looked up to and respected, and we want to be a beacon of hope for them as they look at their own aging process. So, I think how we treat ourselves is really important in one, how it affects us, as well as how it affects people who follow us.

Bridgette Butler: How can we address the elements of healthy aging in our everyday lives?

Dr. Sumi Misra: Two words – START EARLY. I would say have ingrained habits of support, good health and mental well-being, and again, going back to that tripod of balance that we were talking about. From a physical perspective, eat a healthy, balanced diet. Exercise daily or as often as you can. I know there are so many guidelines around what to do. Find something that you enjoy, that fits your lifestyle, and that you can do consistently, and of course, don’t forget to have those regular medical checkups and immunizations. The second foot of the tripod, which is the psychological aspect … it really is about having a network of people and social connections, and again, start early. There are lots to be said about having deep bonds and forging relationships that you can count on when things aren’t going quite so well in your life. It also means, in psychological well-being, to laugh often. Don’t hold grudges, because life really is too short to fester and worry about things that one cannot necessarily control or change. Social … this may sound “preachy,” but again, don’t watch so much T.V. or electronic media. Actually connect with people. That really has been shown to make a difference. Absolutely follow your interests as much as you can and try to be in the community physically that you want to so badly feel a part of. I think those would be my tips.

Bridgette Butler. That’s wonderful. Thank you. Thank you, Dr. Misra, for sharing your knowledge, your insights and your tips on healthy aging today.

Dr. Sumi Misra. You’re welcome.

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