For some older adults, thoughts about health and aging begin each day after a poor night's sleep is interrupted by an alarm clock that prompts a creaky-kneed morning walk to the medicine cabinet for the daily ritual of trying to remember (some days more successfully than others) which medications should be taken when.
Others may worry about the state of their health and how it will affect -- or be affected by -- the state of their finances. Or they may be concerned about extending their longevity, maintaining youthful energy levels or delaying the visual signs of aging.
These are all valid concerns, and fortunately, we live in an age when great strides are being made in the understanding of health, aging and longevity. So before we spend another night in bed staring at the ceiling and bemoaning the passage of time, we should keep in mind that there are some factors that benefit our health and wellbeing as we get older.
We've found several benefits to your health with the passage of time. Keep reading to find out what they are.
In a recent poll, 75 percent of people over the age of 55 reported they ate a healthy diet (compared to 47 percent of 18-to-34-year-olds) [source: Adweek].
This is due in part to necessity: As we age, our awareness of health issues increases, as does our awareness of the important role diet plays in maintaining good health. Additionally, we develop a keen interest in extending longevity and slowing both the physical and mental effects of aging.
One contributing factor to aging that can be counteracted through diet is the damage free radicals cause to our cells. These oxygen molecules that run amok can hasten the onset of many different diseases, such as heart disease, osteoporosis and even Alzheimer's disease [source Zelman]. Antioxidants -- such as beta-carotene, lutein, lycopene, selenium, vitamin A, vitamin C and vitamin E -- are commonly found in fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains. It's believed that antioxidants help protect cells from the damaging effects of free radicals.
While consuming antioxidants may help prevent disease and postpone aging, avoidance of other foods can have the same effect. Saturated fats and trans fats (as well as sugars and starches) pack on the pounds, put you at greater risk of heart disease and diabetes, and trigger an inflammatory response in your body that can cause cellular damage over time.
To stay healthy, you need access to healthcare, and that's one thing aging can secure for you. We'll talk about that next.
Improved Medical Access
In early-to-mid adulthood, income and health care coverage are usually the results of steady employment. But what happens if the job market tanks and we find ourselves unemployed for long periods of time? For many, it means losing medical coverage, while for others it may even spell homelessness.
You may believe Social Security for older Americans should be a moral obligation, a privatized scheme, left alone or abolished completely. But once you qualify to receive it, you may find it's a lifeline.
The introduction of Social Security in America -- and subsequent improvements to it -- has coincided with decreased mortality rates among older adults. In fact, 1 in 3 beneficiaries count on Social Security for at least 90 percent of their total income, and more than 4 in 10 older American adults would live in poverty if not for Social Security [source: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation].
Having a guaranteed source of income means seniors have improved living situations, improved access to healthcare and less financial stress.
The implementation of Medicare -- which provides nearly universal health care coverage for adults age 65 and older, as well as for the disabled -- not only provides greater access to needed medical care, but also eliminates the out-of-pocket spending that previously accompanied an uninsured senior's trip to the doctor or hospital.
As we'll discuss next, stress is for the birds -- and for the young.
As we get older, some of life's major stressors -- such as career worries, finding a mate and raising children -- only appear in the rearview mirror. That's not to say stress is eradicated with age, but one major benefit of getting older is learning better ways to deal with stress when it arises.
Stress worsens preexisting health conditions and can cause headaches, insomnia and weakened immune systems. It affects our mood and our ability to focus. Chronic stress has been shown to cause damage to genes within cells, speeding up the aging process [source: Stein]. However, having dealt with stress all our lives, many of us are eventually forced to take a stand as we age, making a conscious decision not to feel bowled over by the seemingly never-ending stressors that present themselves.
This can be done through exercise, self-expression (either in a journal, through art or music, or to a confidante) and better time management.
Being older also allows us to pursue our passions with less worry of how it will affect our careers or loved ones. We may have more time to travel or help others through volunteer work. And our life experiences enable us to examine problems from many different perspectives, or we may even know right away how to deal with recurring issues as they arise.
Next: Bar fights and motorcycle wheelies -- no thanks.
Better Lifestyle Decisions
Not too many older adults spend their Saturday nights drag racing cars down a freeway or trying out new street drugs. Older adults are also less likely to binge drink or use tobacco [source: Office of Applied Studies]. And when tragedy strikes during a dangerous stunt being filmed for posting on the Internet, the injured reverse bungee jumper rarely has a head of gray hair (at least immediately before the stunt).
As we get older, we gain a growing sense of mortality and make a series of proper adjustments to put off said mortality as long as possible. Those who aren't willing to make better lifestyle decisions are simply less likely to reach an advanced age, dying early from the effects of tobacco, alcohol, poor diet or other lifestyle factors.
Older adults are more likely to have mammograms and prostate exams, increasing the likelihood that cancer will be detected early enough for treatment [source: Fleck]. Older adults also tend to maintain regular doctors' appointments and be more receptive to their physicians' advice. There's even a health benefit derived from sexuality at an older age: Older adults are a lower-risk demographic for STDs, including HIV/AIDS [source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention].
While making us more self-aware about physical vulnerability and personal safety, advancing age has a way of turning our attention to spiritual growth, leisure activities, regular exercise, interpersonal relationships and self-accountability for our own health, all of which are factors that contribute to a healthier lifestyle [source: Peralta-Catipon and Hwang].
Next: Leaving the unhealthy tasks to the young.
For most people (excluding camp counselors and fitness trainers), the workplace isn't an especially healthy environment. Many jobs involve long hours of sitting, possibly mixed with high stress, chain smoking, unhealthy snacks, fast-food lunches, and too much caffeine during the day. Then, after a hard day's work, many people will consume too much alcohol at night attempting to relax.
Other jobs are physically demanding or dangerous, such as those found in the military, on construction worksites and on farms. In 2007, around 40 percent of workplace fatalities occurred while driving [source: Whelan]. The most dangerous jobs are fishing, logging and piloting.
So in addition to extra time and less stress, retirement may signal a decidedly safer phase of life. While older adults may continue to work past retirement age, they're less likely to dig holes on the side of the interstate, stock warehouses, or work on roofing crews.
That's not to say that physically demanding jobs don't have health benefits, but as long as we get proper exercise (especially using weights to build muscle and strong bone), we can duplicate the health benefits of hard labor without all the physical risks.
Finally, one undeniably great thing about getting older is that when a heavy box needs to be lifted and moved, it's the younger people near the box who are expected to become unwitting "volunteers."
Keep reading for lots more information about how your health gets better as you age.
Think you're going to die young? You might want to rethink that. According to new research, your preferred life expectancy influences when you die.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Basic Statistics." HIV Surveillance Report: Diagnoses of HIV Infection and AIDS in the United States and Dependent Areas, 2009. Feb. 28, 2011. (May 10, 2011)http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/topics/surveillance/basic.htm#hivaidsage
- Dolliver, Mark. "Nobody Here (Almost) But Us Healthy Eaters!" Adweek. March 13, 2006. (May 10, 2011)http://www.adweek.com/news/advertising/nobody-here-almost-us-healthy-eaters-84420
- Fleck, Carole. "Poll: Older Adults More Likely to Live Healthfully." AARP Bulletin. May 1, 2011. (May 10, 2011)http://www.aarp.org/health/healthy-living/info-05-2011/older-adults-lead-healthier-lifestyle-poll.html
- Healthwise. "Stress Management." WebMD. April 22, 2009. (May 10, 2011)http://www.webmd.com/healthy-aging/guide/stress-management-topic-overview
- MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. "Antioxidants." April 22, 2011. (May 10, 2011)http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/antioxidants.html
- Office of Applied Studies. "2007 National Survey on Drug Use & Health: Detailed Tables." Dec. 30, 2008. (May 10, 2011)http://www.oas.samhsa.gov/NSDUH/2k7NSDUH/tabs/Sect2peTabs1to42.htm#Tab2.1A
- Peralta-Catipon, Terry and Jengliang Eric Hwang. "Personal Factors Predictive of Health-Related Lifestyles of Community-Dwelling Older Adults." The American Journal of Occupational Therapy. May/June 2011. (May 10, 2011)http://ajot.aotapress.net/content/65/3/329.full
- Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. "RWJF Investigators Link Social Security to Improved Health." March 9, 2011. (May 10, 2011)http://www.rwjf.org/humancapital/product.jsp?id=71994
- Stein, Rob. "Study Is First to Confirm That Stress Speeds Aging." The Washington Post. Nov. 30, 2004. (May 10, 2011)http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A20394-2004Nov29.html
- Whelan, David. "Most dangerous jobs aren't what you may think." Forbes. March 17, 2011. (May 10, 2011)http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/42074304/ns/business-forbes_com/t/most-dangerous-jobs-arent-what-you-may-think/
- Zelman, Kathleen M. "The Anti-Aging Diet." WebMD. 2006. (May 10, 2011)http://www.webmd.com/healthy-aging/guide/anti-aging-diet