The most famous riddle in the history of the world is probably the ancient riddle of the Sphinx. The question: "What creature walks on four feet in the morning, two feet in the day, and three feet at night?" (We're paraphrasing, here.) The answer, supplied by Oedipus, is mankind, because man crawls on all fours as a baby, walks on two feet as an adult, and uses a cane in old age.
With modern medicine and today's vast knowledge of nutrition, we've come a long way. Seniors are now active much longer than previous generations, and more people are living to see 100. Last September, 64-year-old Diana Nyad swam for a consecutive 52 hours, 54 minutes, and 18 seconds, successfully crossing the open seas of the Florida Strait. The key to maintaining youthful vigor is a little bit of genetic luck, of course, and a whole lot of disciplined preparation. So, let's take a brief tour through what we can expect in the adult decades and consider what we should do at every stage of life to maximize our health and vitality.
Welcome to your fifth decade—your forties! The forties is the decade when some very real physiological changes begin to take place, for better or for worse (probably worse), which is why it's imperative to start paying attention to those changes now and preparing for the changes to come.
Muscle Loss: By the time we reach our forties, we're no longer growing; in fact, we're actually shrinking to the tune of about 1 percent of muscle mass per year. That's 10 percent of our muscle mass in one decade. To counteract this, lift some weights, take up yoga or Pilates, or ride a bike. We can help replenish our diminishing muscle mass by adding it through good, old-fashioned exercise.
Weight Gain: You may find yourself gaining weight around age 40. This isn't necessarily because you've become lazy or developed some passion for junk food; it's because around age 40 your metabolism—the process by which your cells harvest and use energy gained through food intake—has begun to slow. So, on a cellular level, you have gained a fondness for junk food because your cells are not processing your food as quickly and efficiently as they once did. Increase your intake of essential nutrients. Eat lean protein and fiber-rich foods, including fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Consider supplemental nutrients like fish oil, vitamins, and Ubiquinol, which has been shown to fuel the cellular release of energy and aid in the elimination of harmful free radicals.
Osteoporosis: Although osteoporosis affects both men and women, it afflicts significantly more women. With the drop in estrogen levels following menopause, bone density can begin to diminish, and the risk of fractures increases, particularly in the hip, knee, and wrist. Nutrition and exercise are always important, but osteoporosis can be efficiently fought by increasing your intake of calcium and Vitamin D. Other medications, such as bisphosphonates, are also available.
Hopefully, as you enter your fifties, your daily stress level has dropped off a bit. There's no telling, of course, but many people report higher overall stress levels—due to family and work commitments, primarily—in their forties. But, alas, the fifties is the decade when the body begins to suffer from all that accumulated stress.
Heart Strain: Blood pressure and heart disease should be paramount concerns in your fifties. Studies documenting the effects of stress on the heart are plentiful, and one study by researchers at Harvard University analyzed data on nearly 18,000 women in their fifties. Those subjects who experienced a high level of "job strain" were 40 percent more likely to have an adverse cardiac event than those who reported low strain. So, how can you relieve stress on your heart? Cultivate healthy, stress-free activities, such as gardening or casual walks. Why not make a massage a part of your monthly stress-reducing routine? Again, nutritional supplements, especially those rich in antioxidants, can be very beneficial starting in this decade.
Colon Care: The fifties are the decade when both men and women should be monitoring their colon health. Your doctor can tell you which tests to undergo, and you should be willing to have a colonoscopy upon the recommendation of your physician.
It used to be that your sixties were a time to retire and relax with the grandchildren. But now, as people are having children later and working longer, the sixties are a time of thriving and preparation. Keep getting those colorectal exams, keep monitoring your stress and cholesterol levels, and start taking those morning and evening walks, if you haven't already. To this list, you should add:
Eyes and Ears: For the eyes, have your eye doctor check for glaucoma and presbyopia, which effects one in 11 people over the age of 60. For the ears, at least 30 percent of people experience some hearing loss in this decade. Audiologists have developed finely tuned (and barely visible) hearing aids, should you need one.
Vaccinations: Because the body no longer fights pathogens as well as it once did, vaccinations against pneumonia are advised.
By the time you reach your roaring seventies, you have probably developed habits of healthy physical exercise and nutrition over the past few decades. But now it's important to remember to take care of your brain.
Brain Train: Be sure to give yourself some mental exercise. Research has shown very positive effects of mental stimulation in the aging brain: doing crossword puzzles, reading books, listening to music. Heck, find a buddy to play Scrabble with. Like lifting weights in your forties, mental exercises are essential in your seventies to keep your memory and mental acuity at its peak.
Now, as people move into their ninth decades, perhaps we can update the riddle of the Sphinx: What creature walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the day, and dances the night away?
- Slopen N, Glynn RJ, Buring J, Albert MA. Job Strain, Job Insecurity, and Incident Cardiovascular Disease in the Women's Health Study. Circulation. 2010;122:A18520