The environment you live in can harm you or it can heal you and, between these two extremes, there’s a wide range of ways your surroundings can affect you. On the harmful end of the spectrum are obvious environmental hazards like air pollution and leaded water (think Flint, Michigan). On the healing end, simply living in a neighborhood where there is vegetation and an abundance of bird life has been shown to produce positive mental health effects. But there are many other subtle ways our immediate environment either supports or undermines our health. In retirement our aging bodies and changing circumstances can make staying active more of a challenge; our environment can compound that challenge or, if we’re lucky or deliberate about where we live, our environment can, without us even noticing, deliver “health by stealth.” Understanding how to read our surroundings to know how they’re harmful or healthful is the first step toward overcoming their limitations or making a change.
Three Approaches to Staying Active: Which Are You?
Three “types” were identified. “‘Exercisers’ had engaged in sport and exercise throughout their life but experienced physical ill health and limitations as barriers. ‘Out-and-about-ers’ pursued social engagement and a variety of interests but experienced biographical disruption through retirement and loss of companions that limited social activities in later life. A final type characterized people who preferred ‘sedentary/solitary’ activities.”
Typical efforts to engage older people in the Norfolk community included familiar gambits like offering lower-impact exercise classes in gymnasiums, but the study found that only ‘exercisers’—already comfortable in gym settings—were drawn to such classes. The other groups, particularly the ‘out-and-about-ers,’ were used to activity as a byproduct of other pursuits like gardening or social outings with friends, and weren’t interested in “exercise” for its own sake. In the brainstorming session the study participants and community leaders developed innovative solutions, ranging from big investments like expanding walking trails and bike paths, to more easily enacted ideas like matching older people with younger neighbors to walk their dogs while they’re at work.
How Does Your Neighborhood Measure Up?
Think about the next ten or twenty years of your life. Inevitably, you’re going to slow down. Now think about where you live. Does your neighborhood—say, a quarter mile in every direction around you—have the infrastructure and amenities that will help keep you active simply as a byproduct of everyday life? Imagine living in a place where you can walk or ride your bike to coffee shops, restaurants, the grocery store, perhaps even a theater. A place where you don’t have to drive your car to get to your Lifelong Learning Institute. A place where there are parks and wildlife. And, best of all, your friends live there, too.
How does your neighborhood live up to this ideal? Maybe there isn’t a place exactly like this anywhere, but it makes sense to look at our surroundings through this lens and think about how it supports or undermines us as we age. (One simple proxy for this is your neighborhood “Walk Score.” You can enter your address and find your Walk Score here.) If your neighborhood undermines you, you may want to consider how you’ll compensate for its shortcomings and find ways to stay active as you age. If you’re planning to move in retirement, look for a place where the neighborhood geography delivers “health by stealth”!
Regular hot baths or trips to the sauna can fight lower back pain, and have been linked to lower blood pressure, healthier hearts, and lower rates of dementia. According to Dr. Ray Schilling, writing on his “Ask Dr. Ray” website, a research project links regular saunas to lower blood pressure and lower dementia rates, news particularly relevant to people in retirement.
Scientists in Finland tracked the lives of more than 1,600 men for more than 25 years and found, according to their article published in the American Journal of Hypertension, that men who went most frequently to the sauna had the lowest blood pressure. The same study showed that men who went to the sauna once a week had no “reduction” in dementia, while those who went 2 to 3 times a week had a 22% reduction in dementia and those who went 4 to 7 times a week had a 66% reduction in dementia.
Is it the Sauna Itself or the Social Experience?
Before you rush off to the sauna, consider the cultural dimension of the experience in Finland. There, going to the sauna is just as much a social a experience as it is a physical experience and, as we’ve learned from many other studies, regular socializing has been linked to lower blood pressure and dementia rates. (It’s a lot like going out for coffee with a friend, as I wrote about in an earlier Tuesday Tip.) So remember to sauna with a friend!
Always consult a qualified medical professional before using a hot tub or sauna.
“The Longevity Code,” by Belgian doctor and science writer Kris Verburgh, covers at least three related topics, each of which might easily have been a separate work. By trying to cover too much ground, however, the book only partially succeeds in any one of its topics. Subtitled “Secrets to Living Well Longer from the Front Lines of Science,” it covers the biological roots of aging and, briefly, gives an overview of new research proponents believe will lead to discoveries that will “reverse the aging process.” But at heart “The Longevity Code” is a diet book, with lots of valuable information in its pages if you want, as I do, to understand the role of our food choices in healthy aging and retirement.
If you’ve ever read a diet book from cover to cover, you know the formula. There’s a chapter at the beginning presenting the scientific theory behind the diet, followed by several more chapters laying out the day-by-day and week-by-week program the author wants you to observe, followed by recipes, recipes, and more recipes. Verbrugh turns this formula on its head, devoting most of the book to the science of what on his website he calls “nutrigerontology,” “which studies the impact of nutrition on the aging process and aging related diseases.” In the back of the book, almost as an appendix, there are twenty pages of recipes.
The core of “The Longevity Code” is a methodical journey through the science of how poor food choices age us faster and cause age-related diseases. The first part of the journey is a straightforward discussion of, in turn, proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. The second part steps into more complex topics like how diet affects the structure of our cells and of our DNA as we age. The third part sets forth what Verburgh calls “The Longevity Staircase,” moving from practical advice on “avoiding deficiencies” to coming breakthroughs that may (I’m skeptical) “reverse the aging process.”
The most accessible and valuable part of the book explains the role of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats in aging, and any reader of this section will come away resolved to make better dietary choices in each area.
“As time goes by,” Verburgh writes, “our cells become so filled with aggregated protein that they no longer function well. That causes them to age: Heart cells no longer contract properly; nerve cells do not transmit signals efficiently; digestive cells do not absorb food as well as they used to. Finally, many cells simply die, strangled in a web of proteins.” But there’s hope: “… certain substances in our diet, and our diet itself, can slow down the agglomeration of proteins in our cells.” There’s a clear hierarchy: white meat is better than red meat, omega-3 fatty acid fish (like salmon) is better than white meat, and vegetable protein—from nuts, tofu, beans, green leafy vegetables, and mushrooms—is better than fish protein.
“The intake of carbohydrates, and particularly of fast sugars, triggers the production of all kinds of hormones that accelerate aging.” These sugars spur the production of insulin and insulin-like growth factor (IGF) that cause cells to age and grow. Cutting out soda and candy is a no-brainer, says Verburgh, but that’s only the start. Whole wheat is better than white bread but, for best results, get your carbs from foods like oatmeal and fruit that release sugar slowly into the bloodstream.
While Dr. Verburgh’s writing tends to be stiff, he occasionally finds a telling anecdote. Most of us have read in the press or in weight loss books that diets high in carbohydrates can make us fatter than high-fat diets, but Dr. Verburgh’s story about goose liver pate drove that message home. To make pate, geese are force-fed grains, not fat. Remember that next time you sit down to a plate-full of pasta! Do you really want to do to your body what French pate farmers do to their geese?
As we age our fat moves from under our skin to places in our bodies where it can do great harm, like to our abdomens. “That abdominal fat produces all kinds of inflammatory substances that are released into the bloodstream,” writes Verburgh. “These substances make the blood vessel clog up faster, putting you at greater risk of a heart attack and dementia. People with abdominal fat have three times a greater risk of dementia.” The solution is to eat more “good” fats like walnuts, because “people who eat a lot of walnuts have a faster and healthier brain. In addition, walnuts are good for the heart and the blood vessels.”
“Desert Island” Retirement Foods
“The Longevity Code” swings from technical (and not always clear) discussions of organic chemistry and cellular biology and justified rants against the food industry, to straightforward advice about the foods you should eat and supplements you might consider. As someone who want to know why I should or should not eat certain foods, I found much of it very valuable, and it has already changed the way I eat and think about food.
The book made me think about what are the absolutely best foods to eat if you want to live longer and healthier, and I’m working on another blog post tentatively titled “20 Desert Island Retirement Foods.” Here’s the idea: if you could only eat 20 foods for the rest of your life, and wanted to create a list that would be both healthy and pleasurable, what would be on it? Look for that post before the end of April!
Now that spring is here (although there’s plenty of snow still on the ground in the Northern zone where I live) it’s time to consider one of the most health giving and enriching activities you can pursue in retirement. I’m talking about gardening, especially vegetable gardening, especially organic vegetable gardening.
Gardening is Good for Body and Soul
In a 2015 article in the journal Ageing and Society—”Exploring the health and wellbeing benefits of gardening for older adults”—the authors reported a mind-boggling array of benefits observed in their test gardeners, including:
increased exercise and physical activity,
better sleep from exposure to fresh air,
lower blood pressure and strengthened immune systems from being in and observing nature (like in a previous Tuesday Tip about birdwatching),
increased fruit and vegetable consumption, and more.
If you’re intimidated about getting started with vegetable gardening, start small, with a planter on your deck or porch. Grow some basil and heirloom tomatoes, and by mid-summer you’ll be making pesto or interlacing slices of mozzarella cheese, tasty tomatoes, and basil leaves, drizzling them with olive oil and balsamic reduction, and sitting down for a lunch with the best tastes of summer. Delicious!
While not reported in the study, I’ll give you two reasons why you should consider organic instead of conventional vegetable gardening. First, you’ll be saving your body from harmful herbicides and pesticides. Second, you’ll be adding a mental challenge to your gardening endeavors as you enrich your soil and plot to outwit the pests committed to eating your bounty before you do. Learning about and working with the ecosystem of an organic garden is like solving a challenging and beautifully-constructed crossword puzzle!
The blueberry is one of the miracle foods of retirement and successful aging. Those little blue globes of sweetness fight far above their weight, packing a left-right punch combination that should make it an essential part of your diet. Some of the benefits of blueberries are specifically age-related, while others come more generally from a diet rich in fruit of all kinds.
Eating Blueberries Slows Brain Aging
Dr. Kris Verburgh, in his new book “The Longevity Code,” detailed the blueberry’s benefits. “According to a Harvard study with more than 186,000 participants,” Verburgh writes, “people who ate these berries three times per week had a 26 percent lower risk of getting type 2 diabetes.” A 2012 study from the Annals of Neurology showed that regular blueberry eating “can slow down brain aging by several years.”
While blueberries stand out from the pack, eating fruit of all kinds is good for you. “For each portion of fruit people ate,” says Verburgh, “their risk of a heart attack was reduced by seven percent, according to a study that included more than 220,000 people.”
Don’t Rush to the Pancakes
Blueberries are great for you, but don’t get your fix with a plateful of blueberry pancakes drenched in syrup; that’s a big dose of unhealthy carbohydrates. Instead, try this delicious alternative: oatmeal dusted with cinnamon, topped with blueberries, a handful of walnuts, and a little vanilla-flavored unsweetened almond milk. It’s a great and tasty way to start your day!
You don’t have to strap an expensive pair of binoculars around your neck and head into the woods to benefit from birdwatching. According to a 2017 study published in the journal BioScience, simply living in an environment where birds are abundant can lift your mood.
Abundant Bird Population Tied to Mental Health
The study, “Doses of Neighborhood Nature: The Benefits for Mental Health of Living with Nature,” explored the relationship between natural residential environments and mental health. Study participants completed self-assessments measuring depression, anxiety and stress, and researchers measured the amount of vegetation, and the variety and abundance of birds in participants’ neighborhoods at two different times during the day.
Using statistical analysis, researchers found that “people living in neighborhoods with higher levels of vegetation cover and afternoon bird abundances had reduced severity of depression, anxiety, and stress.” They concluded that abundance was more significant than variety because most people can’t identify bird species, and afternoon abundance was more significant than morning abundance because that’s when people are more likely to be out of their homes.
Pay Attention to the Birds Around You
The study’s authors suggest that deliberate urban and community design policies that increase vegetation, and the birds attracted to it, might have a strong public health justification. In the meantime, if you live in a place where birds are abundant, take time to notice them. If you don’t, take a walk or a drive to where they are to lift your mood!
Walking won’t burn calories like running, bicycling or many other types of exercise, but slowing down can open the door to an experience that’s as good for the soul as it is for the heart. I’m a runner, and my usual practice when I run is to put in my ear buds and listen to a podcast. I tell myself it’s efficient–I’m learning and staying informed while I’m exercising… what could be better? Routine and focus have their place, but with my ears plugged and my eyes on the road I know I’m missing something. That’s when I need Henry David Thoreau to kick me out of my rut.
Walking with Attitude
Thoreau believed that every step out your front door was an opportunity for discovery, a chance for peak experience. “We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return; prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only, as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again; if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man; then you are ready for a walk.” I don’t think Thoreau was seriously suggesting that you start walking and never come home, but he was saying that if you act as if your destination is Mount Everest or the Kalahari Desert, you’ll be in the right frame of mind to see things you otherwise might miss.
Give it a try. The world is a beautiful place. Walk and imagine your eyes are seeing what no human eyes have seen before (and leave those ear buds at home). Walk heroically, like Henry David. Walk to refresh your spirit.
What is “successful retirement”? A hundred years ago only a few privileged people were in the position to ask themselves that question. Think about life back then at age 65, commonly thought of now as the “traditional” age of retirement. It’s safe to say that in 1918 most people in the world born 65 years before, in 1853, had long been dead. If you were fortunate still to be alive in 1918, you… perhaps weren’t actually that fortunate. If you were a man you probably had worked, beginning as a teenager, on a farm, down a mine, or in a factory. If you were a woman you had worked at home, or in someone else’s home, without labor-saving devices, cooking, cleaning and caring for children, some of whom had likely not survived infancy. By 65 you were worn out, impoverished, and dependent on your children to care for you in your remaining years.
The Invention of Retirement
Fast forward to 2018. It’s been an amazing hundred years, and one of the most significant cultural innovations of the period was the “invention” of retirement. The discovery of antibiotics and other medical advances, increased awareness of the importance of diet and exercise, and the transformation of work from physical to largely mental toil means that millions of people reach 65 with huge reserves of health and energy and the expectation of fifteen, twenty or more years to fill between full-time employment and the onset of physical and cognitive decline. Retirement, once a privilege, has become an expectation.
In America, retirement as a “lifestyle” experienced by millions of people emerged only sixty or so years ago, with pioneering innovations like Del Webb retirement communities in Florida and Arizona in the 1950s, and the first lifelong learning institutes in the 1960s—this was “mass” retirement’s first wave. Retirement’s second generation has made its own mark with innovations like the “aging in place” movement, pioneered in locations like Beacon Hill Village in Boston and Community Without Walls in Princeton, N.J. Now a third generation, 78 million Baby Boomers like me, are in the early years of or nearing retirement, and how our we’ll redefine retirement is still to be seen. The Retirement Whisperer will report and perhaps play a part in shaping this unfolding story, and communicate to you in ways that might help you enrich your own life.
Early Days for Baby Boomer Retirement
The Baby Boomer retirement is only in its opening chapters, but themes are beginning to emerge that point to a definition of “successful retirement.” We should start by acknowledging that retirement isn’t a static phase, the same at its beginning as it is at its end. No phase is. And let’s also acknowledge that retirement is, if not the last, then certainly the next-to-last phase of life. The Retirement Whisperer will focus primarily on positive stories, but will never ignore the darker side of aging—death is real, folks, and inevitable.
So is “successful retirement” the same as “healthy aging”? I think it is, especially if you listen to how older people themselves define it. Psychologists, gerontologists, and policy makers have put a lot of energy into drafting definitions—the World Health Organization, for example, defines healthy aging as the “process of development and maintenance of functional capacity that allows well-being at an advanced age.” That, to my mind, is a little too mechanistic and medical, so I was excited to read an article from a Brazilian academic journal—Revista Brasileira de Geriatria e Gerontologia—titled “Healthy aging from the perspective of the elderly: an integrative review” (Nov./Dec. 2017). It turns out that older people define healthy aging far more broadly than the World Health Organization does and that shouldn’t surprise anyone. After all, they’re living it.
Health Aging from the Perspective of the Elderly
The authors conducted their review by screening academic literature for studies asking older people how they defined healthy aging, and rigorously vetting the results to weed out articles with low research standards. At the end of the process every continent was represented and a consistent definition—with a few interesting outliers—emerged. They distilled “healthy aging” into four dimensions:
The Biological Dimension. Health aging means practicing “protective” behavior like exercising, eating healthy food, refraining from smoking and limiting alcohol, and getting regular physical examinations.
The Psychological Dimension. Older people told researchers that “being positive and optimistic is an essential part of healthy aging, with optimism understood as the expectation that something positive will happen.” Optimism also comes from a social support network and daily social activities. The study also found that “there is no well-defined concept for happiness as it varies according to the cultural and social context of each country.” A South Korean study “revealed an association between family and the perception of happiness.” In short, optimism, happiness, and social contact all seem closely linked.
The Spiritual Dimension. Many of the reviewed articles explored elderly perspectives on faith and spirituality, finding that faith provides support in the face of illness or personal difficulties. Other perspectives associate spirituality with healthy behavior: an article about the elderly in Thailand found a more holistic definition of spirituality; the food you eat and how you take care of your body are, for example, spiritual practices. Adherence to religious rules and practices—prohibitions against drugs and alcohol or extra-marital sex, for example—are cited by some as part of healthy aging. Finally, “faith can promote virtues such as humility, altruism, compassion, wisdom and gratitude.”
The Social Dimension. Elderly people around the world said that being surrounded by friend and family, having a partner, and staying involved in “collective leisure activities” were hallmarks of healthy aging. And it’s not a one-way street: “In addition to being supported, the elderly can also provide support. For many, supporting others is more important than receiving support, contributing to a strengthening of their self-esteem and social involvement. This can be seen by their social contributions and desire to do good through voluntary work.” Elderly people understand the value of socializing, but also think autonomy and independence are important. This belief wasn’t universally held, however; Thai elders value interdependence more than independence.
The Retirement Whisperer’s Take on “Successful Retirement”
As you might have noticed, there’s a lot of overlap across these “dimensions.” Is “doing good through voluntary work,” for example, in the “social,” the “spiritual,” or the “psychological” dimension? All three, I think.
There’s a great deal of wisdom in what the elderly around the world have told researchers, and it’s a great place to start in defining “successful retirement.” I’ve had long conversations with many Baby Boomers making the retirement transition and I’ve studied the pattern of innovation in retirement over the last sixty years; I would add a couple of things, slightly rearrange others, and posit these five areas as today’s keys to successful retirement, where innovation is likely to occur, and where The Retirement Whisperer will look for stories and offer advice:
Fitness, Diet and Health. A healthy body is the key to a healthy brain and absolutely the foundation for successful retirement. Aches, pains, and illness are almost inevitable, but behavior makes an enormous difference, and the generation that made running mainstream and organic a household word has still more to offer the world.
Socializing. Loneliness kills. Socializing is the cure. Baby Boomers are already finding new ways to socialize in retirement and they’re just beginning.
Learning. Baby Boomers are the most educated generation in American history. In retirement they’ll look for ways to learn—both in formal classroom-like settings and through experiences—what they never got a chance to learn in college (and make deposits to “cognitive reserve” as they do so).
Creativity. The psychologist Erik Erikson theorized that our later life stage is a conflict between generativity—leaving a legacy for future generations—and despair. Baby Boomers will find new creative ways to leave their legacy.
Spirit and Purpose. For a generation that’s been on a quest for meaning and purpose for seven decades, a calendar full of “activities” won’t be enough. Through volunteerism, more direct forms of spiritual practice, and new innovations yet unimagined, Baby Boomers in retirement will innovate in this area, too.
These are what I think are the five pillars of “successful retirement.” Now it’s your turn. Have I missed something? What innovations are you seeing in these five areas? Leave a comment below. I’ll look into it and report back to The Retirement Whisperer community.