As we get older and chronic conditions surface—whether it's high blood pressure, another form of heart disease or diabetes, for instance—taking medication becomes vital. Yet lifestyle changes are important as well. Sometimes these are necessary to help your medication be effective, such as the dietary changes needed when you have hypertension. In other cases, they can both make you feel better and prevent your condition from worsening.
The same lifestyle changes often have beneficial effects on an entire host of chronic conditions. For example, changes you make to help manage or avoid heart disease may keep you from developing diabetes. Though simple, these changes do require a shift in habits that may be very ingrained in your everyday life. Walking for 20 to 30 minutes, even at a slow pace, might seem like a huge adjustment to make if you are rarely active. But walking doesn't cost you anything, doesn't require an insurmountable effort and doesn't involve learning a skill—you just need to want to get in the habit.
Here are five lifestyle changes that can bring the greatest results for the smallest effort.
- Watch blood sugar levels. Keeping blood sugar levels in check helps maintain your cognitive function and makes for healthier aging. Recent studies have shown that certain regions of the hippocampus are vulnerable when blood sugar levels are regulated, leading to more severe symptoms of dementia. Time-honored ways to help keep blood sugar levels steady call for simple lifestyle adjustments and involve the next three suggestions—exercising, getting sleep and eating better.
- Get the right amount of sleep. Though seniors do tend to sleep less, to feel your best, start by getting enough sleep—try to log at least seven hours a night—and stick to a regular schedule, going to sleep and waking up at the same times as often as possible. Sleep patterns that vary can negatively affect blood pressure as well as blood sugar—you'll also feel more alert and have a better outlook in general.
- Get more exercise. This is important for those who want to prevent illnesses like diabetes and high blood pressure as well as people who need to actively combat them. The more sedentary you are, the worse it is for your overall health. Most experts suggest a three-part approach that includes heart-healthy cardio exercise, strength training and stretching, but don't let that deter you—you can start with even just 5 to 10 minutes of walking a few times a day and build from there. Working with a physical therapist, especially if you have arthritis or another mobility-limiting condition, will enable you to get a personalized regimen that can progress in intensity as your abilities improve.
- Watch your diet and watch your calories. Some studies have shown that you can improve your health and increase longevity by cutting back on calories as you age. Of course, good nutrition is still important—especially if you are eating less, each calorie needs to deliver essential nutrients. One diet (for maintenance or weight loss, depending on the number of calories eaten) that consistently shows healthful benefits is commonly referred to the Mediterranean Diet. The natural diet of people living in the countries around the Mediterranean Sea, with its abundance of fresh seafood, emphasizes the good-for-you monounsaturated fats in olive oil, fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes and whole grains. As part of an overall plan that includes exercise, it may also have a preventive effect on dementia and even depression.
- Find ways to reduce stress. Stress impairs thinking even in people with no cognitive loss, and when stress exists along with Alzheimer's disease, it can create greater impairment in your cognitive function. You might think that stress is limited to people with taxing jobs or demanding schedules, but stress affects everyone and can stem from minor annoyances and problems. It's not always possible to get rid of all sources of stress, but you can find ways to let handle it. Try deep breathing, a relaxing practice like tai chi or the meditation suggestions in Yoga for Heart Health.
It takes effort to make these changes, but you will feel the benefits of even the slightest improvements you make, and you'll feel them almost from the moment you start to make them.