It's easy, in a Midwestern winter, to shut yourself indoors, veg out on the couch and stare at the TV for hours on end. But for some people, including seniors, that lack of activity can be dangerous.
For one, we know that there's a strong link between a sedentary lifestyle and the likelihood of developing Alzheimer's, other dementias, or age-related memory loss. We also know that muscles that aren't regularly challenged quickly begin to atrophy (shrink), so inactivity can create mobility issues.
It's also tempting, in the winter, to survive on microwavable meals, processed foods, and other easy-to-make comforts.
But those foods tend to be high in fat, sodium, and calories — not to mention artificial preservatives. Dependence on them for daily nutrition can cause weight gain, exacerbate underlying heart conditions and cause diabetes.
So, how can Cincinnati seniors stay healthier this winter? Here are four things to do:
1. Get up out of your chair
Clean the house. Start a project. Go to the mall and walk. Do anything but sit around.
You don't have to be Superman or Superwoman. You don't need to be particularly frenetic. You just need to increase your activity.
An active lifestyle can help keep your weight well managed, which in turn prevents the development of insulin resistance ("pre-diabetes"). It can also keep your mind focused and engaged, which could reduce your chances of developing early memory loss.
Try to do a little more each day, until you just reach the point at which you look forward to your night's rest. And be careful not to overdo it, too.
2. Get the right nutrition
Instead of processed and preserved foods, full of saturated fats and loaded with carbohydrates, try to eat more produce (luckily, we live in an era in which fresh greens, veggies, and fruits can be purchased year-round!) and lean proteins.
One of the best rules of thumb, for seniors who want to stay well-nourished without having to resort to vitamin supplements, is to “eat the rainbow.” When you go grocery shopping and peruse the produce aisle, try to put as many colors as possible in your shopping cart.
Blueberries, pink grapefruit, purple cabbage, orange bell peppers, green spinach, red berries, yellow squash — the more varied the colors of the fresh produce you eat, the broader spectrum of vitamin and mineral intake you’ll enjoy and the healthier you’ll be.
Try also to "shop the perimeter," as they say. Most major U.S. grocers stock processed and pre-packaged foods in the center aisles, because those items have longer shelf lives and tend not to require refrigeration. Fresh produce, eggs, dairy, and meats, however, do require refrigeration, so they're usually kept along the supermarket's walls, where long refrigeration units easily fit.
Instead of purchasing several days' worth of groceries at a time, try visiting the grocery every day, or every other day, and only purchasing fresh foods for yourself.
You'll eat healthier by default, won't have to worry about things going bad in your refrigerator before you have a chance to eat them, and force yourself to be more active by getting out of the house more.
3. Turn off the TV or computer earlier and sleep better every night
Did you know that watching too much TV or staring too long at a computer can disrupt your sleep cycle and increase your anxiety level?
It's true. Both radiate quite a lot of high frequency/short wavelength blue light, which has been shown to increase mammals' (humans included) alertness and trigger anxiety.
This makes sense if you think about it: the sky appears blue to us because our atmosphere tends to absorb light toward the red end of the visible spectrum. Conversely, it reflects light toward the blue end of the spectrum.
In the daytime, when there's a lot of blue light bouncing about, our mammalian ancestors were more visible to predators.
So, it makes sense that biochemical mechanisms evolved to make us more alert and anxious during times when blue light is plentiful — blue light primed our ancestors to defend themselves or flee in the event of a predator's attack.
Unfortunately, that evolutionary mechanism works against those of us who stare at the tube, or at our computer screens. We feel more chronically stressed. Our Circadian rhythms get short-circuited, and we don't sleep well.
With too much stress and not enough rest, we become more susceptible to illness and, maybe, dementia.
So, try not to watch TV or surf the web after dark. Read a book instead. Make sure you’re getting seven to nine hours of rest per night. And, if reducing your TV and computer use doesn't help you to sleep better through the night, see your doctor and find out what strategies you could use to get more rest.
4. Stay hydrated
Most Americans don't drink enough water. Many of us walk around chronically dehydrated. Unfortunately, that can throw off our carefully balanced blood chemistry.
Dehydration can cause sugar and electrolytes, like sodium and potassium, to become too concentrated in the blood. That, in turn, can cause confusion, negatively affect our physical coordination and even throw the heart out of rhythm.
Chronic dehydration also makes us more susceptible to illness. Our skin dries and cracks, allowing more germs in. Our mucous membranes, like the lining of our noses and mouths, and our eyes, become more permeable to viruses and bacteria.
Chronic dehydration can even damage your major organs — especially your kidneys. It's been linked with chronic kidney stones, pyelonephritis and urinary tract infections.
Drink the right amount of water, seniors, and you could improve your overall health.
Use these four tips to stay healthier this winter.
There you have it: Four simple changes. Easy to manage, easy to incorporate into your lifestyle from here on out.
Because these aren't just lifestyle changes that seniors should make during the winter. These are positive changes that will keep you healthier year-round, and keep you "living well into the future."