Jim Gordon

Aging Sagely

Conscious Aging 101

Aging well means...

Posted Mar 11, 2019

Dreamstime
What is conscious aging?
Source: Dreamstime

Conscious aging is an appealing term, but what does it mean? Well, that’s easy. The answer is as simple as doing a push-up and challenging as doing meditation about death. 

Overall, however, the phrase is fraught with new-age baggage suggestive of spirituality and mysticism. And while those two are aspects of conscious aging, most people are looking for simpler steps to start on the path to aging well. So, let’s look at the basics.

Conscious aging is summarized in the Seven Principles of Wellness, originally put forward by The Fisher Institute for Wellness and Gerontology-Ball State University. Those principles are the physical dimension, the environmental dimension, the intellectual, social, emotional, vocational and spiritual dimensions. (Ball St. U, Fisher Website-2011).

That seven-facet approach encapsulates gerontology’s full spectrum. It is a succinct yet useful outline of aging well, a user-friendly guide.

(Ironically, but perhaps not surprisingly, soon after introducing this progressive approach to aging well in 2011, Ball State University defunded the gerontology program and folded it into other academic tracks. The web site disappeared and the promise of the seven principles of wellness, needless to say, remain largely unrealized. However, the idea remains.)  

Each of the Seven Principles is an element of senior empowerment. Each has components that are useful for wisely shaping everyday actions by seniors. Taken together they are even more useful, serving as a map for conscious aging. In coming weeks, they will be viewed in more depth. For now, consider them strategically as a whole and embrace the synergy they offer.

For example, an elder walking through a forest with friends and family is getting significant physical benefits from walking, but also reaping benefits merely from the forest environment, through what Japanese researchers call “forest bathing” (Li. Q, Kobayashi et.al, 2016).  Moreover, in the presence of friends and family, a person’s intellectual, social and emotional and even spiritual dimensions are being stimulated, while moving among light-dappled trees with loved ones. This is not an afterthought, nor a new-age perk, for evidence abounds that a sense of spirituality and religious participation strongly correlate to aging well.       

The point here is simple, but useful, especially for busy caregivers. Think through a plan for added stimulus. Clinically transactional as that sounds, it is conscious aging; taking action aimed at helping ourselves or others age well. Fully realized, it helps us maximize moments together.

Need to get Mom out of the house and into the world for a while? It’s a great start, but don’t always walk the same old patch of street, even if it has her favorite bakery. A forest may be too far off, what about an art museum?  Studies show seniors benefit from exposure to art, which makes sense because visiting a museum stimulates our intellectual and social dimensions, as well as being the physical exercise of walking through the galleries.

Let’s Get Physical

Putting these ideas into action is the practical side of conscious aging, and it starts with the physical dimension. A forest bathing hike or a museum tour are made possible by walking. Popular notions have long portrayed seniors as shuffling along on weakening legs. Yet cultural expectation need not rule our fate, scientists have debunked the idea muscles wither as we age.    

“This study contradicts the common observation that muscle mass and strength decline as a function of aging alone. Instead, these declines may signal the effect of chronic disuse rather than muscle aging”. (Wroblesky, Wright et. al. 2011, abstract)

“Chronic disuse” is a polite name for the cultural phenomenon known as couch potato. Somehow, culturally, our sedentary lifestyle convinced ourselves that aging meant weakness.

Yet, as Dr. Wright put it, “The changes that we’ve assumed were due to aging and therefore were unstoppable seem actually to be caused by inactivity. And that can be changed.”

Indeed, researchers have shown that taking up exercise at any age or fitness level brings beneficial change to the person, in real time and over the course of time. The approach is straightforward to the extreme—begin walking where you are if that is all you can now do.

That doesn’t mean seniors should simply limit themselves to walking, Physical benefits of vigorous exercise are far reaching in surprising and encouraging ways. A 2018 study published in the Proceedings of the Mayo Clinic shows that adults who play tennis live 9.7 years on average longer than sedentary adults, and 6.5 years longer even than adults who are runners. Here again, note the synergy, researchers suggest socializing connected with tennis provides benefits absent in solo physical activity, a finding still being explored.

Consciously Doing More

Beyond longevity, our ability to benefit from vigorous exercise goes literally cell-deep, into the mighty mitochondria, even if we are 100 years old, or more.     

Joel Saget/ Agence France-Presse
Robert Marchand, conscious aging savant
Source: Joel Saget/ Agence France-Presse

Robert Marchand, age 105, is a French amateur cyclist who doctors describe as more aerobically fit than most 50-year-olds and who is demonstrably getting even fitter as he ages. Marchand, who only took up cycling after he retired from his day jobs in his sixties, set a record when he was 100 years old for the most distance traveled in one hour by a person aged one hundred years or older.

Five years later, he bettered his own record, after a physiologist proposed a more rigorous exercise regimen. Their study showed that Marchand improved in the key physiological measure VO2 max, measuring the efficiency of oxygen use.  

The New York Times wrote that Marchand’s achievement (which was reported in the December 2017 Journal of Applied Physiology) “may help to rewrite scientific expectations of how our bodies age and what is possible for any of us athletically, no matter how old we are.”

That Marchand is still biking daily at 105 strikes many as amazing, but the fact he was able to turn back his internal body clock is revolutionary in terms of standard geriatric physiology. It seems as we set out on conscious aging our physical possibilities may be greater than we considered possible. The human body actually is designed for resilience and aging well.     

Marchand’s workout is an example of High Intensity Interval Training or HIIT. Mayo Clinic researchers have discovered such HIIT training can reverse aspects of aging at the cellular level. By using interval training, (that is, mixing in short high intensity bursts with easy and moderate workouts in a regulated sequence), seniors are able to make the mitochondria inside their cell intake more oxygen and produce more energy. In effect, they turn back their body clock so cells and systems work like younger versions of themselves.

So while conscious aging is many things, physically we can start to make it work for us right now, from wherever our starting point may be.

It is worth noting the affable Frenchman’s own explanation for his remarkable health span affirms the value of the holistic approach to aging. Marchand cites exercise, of course, but also a simple diet, a daily glass of red wine, and many friends whom he sees often.

Next week, Aging Sagely will delve more deeply into the Seven Principles of Wellness and how it relates to conscious aging.

References

Ball State University, Fisher Institute for Wellness and Gerontology, Seven Dimensions of Wellness; http://cms.bsu.edu/Academics/CentersandInstitutes/Wellness/CloserLook7Dim.aspx

Wroblewski, AP,,et al Chronic Exercise Preserves Lean Muscle Mass in Masters Athletes, Phys Sportsmed, 2011, Sep, 39(3):172-8