Brent Hill supervises health promotion and education for Salt Lake County Aging Services' Healthy Aging Program. He received his Masters degree in Health Promotion and Education from the University of Utah. Brent also works extensively with substance abuse prevention for older adults.

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It's Never Too Late to be Healthy

By Brent Hill

As a health educator for Salt Lake County, I often have clients ask me if it is too late to improve their health. The answer is an unqualified NO. Research continues to prove that any positive health behavior change at any age can improve quality of life. As Americans, our life spans have increased from around 47 in 1900 to close to 80 in 2000. Most people would agree that eighty years is a pretty good lifetime as long as those years are healthy. Now that we are living longer, how we live increasing determines our quality of life in our later years. Many people mistakenly believe that genetics determines their health. Indeed it does, but our lifestyle plays a more important role. This is good news as we can change our lifestyles and as yet, we cannot change our genetics.

There are three specific areas an individual should focus on the make sure that the body and mind we have will continue to serve us well as we age: exercise, nutrition and cognitive engagement. The most prevalent chronic diseases that afflict older adults are cardio-vascular disease and stroke, cancer, and Alzheimer's disease. These diseases not only are leading causes of death for Americans over 65, but are also responsible for disability and dramatic reductions in one's quality of life. While statistics about these diseases may seem daunting, the silver lining is that these diseases can be prevented or controlled by the three healthy behaviors.

Exercise reduces all of the risk factors for cardio-vascular disease including blood sugar, blood pressure, cholesterol, excess body fat and stress. One need not be a marathon runner or an Iron Man athlete in order to realize these benefits. The best exercise is one you enjoy. Exercise should be fun! Walking is something that almost everyone can do and has real health benefits. Most people have heard that the minimum amount of exercise they should do is ½ hour three times a week. There is some health benefit at this level of exercise, but minimum amounts of exercise will only provide minimum benefits. Newer recommendations state that an individual should exercise for an hour most days of the week. The hour can be broken into segments throughout the day. Many people say that they don't have time to exercise. The truth is, without exercise, you will not have time or physical energy to remain independent and do the things you would like to do.

Nutrition is an area that most people would think has improved in America over the last century. This is not the case. While most American's have more opportunities for better nutrition, most people don't take advantage of these opportunities. The recommendation of five to nine fruits and vegetables daily intimidates a lot of people. I often hear, "I can't eat that much food!" Let's discuss serving sizes. One-half of a cup of cooked vegetable or one cup of a leafy raw vegetable is a serving size. A medium size piece of fruit or ¾ cup of fruit juice is a serving size. If you have a piece of fruit or juice for breakfast there is one serving. A vegetable or salad with lunch provides at least one serving and a piece of fruit for desert or afternoon snack brings us to three servings. A vegetable and piece of fruit for dinner brings us to five. Fruits and vegetables contain a multitude of phytochemicals and micronutrients that neutralize damage and toxins that accumulates in our bodies daily. Many cancers can be directly tied to dietary deficiencies such as not eating the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables. Some researches go so far as to state that 90% of cancers are due to diets high in animal protein, saturated fat and insufficient fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Eating a better diet does not happen over night. Making one positive change a day will go far to make sure the changes are long lasting. These changes will also improve cardio-vascular health and improve how well the mind works as well.

Nutrition and exercise not only improve us physically, but these physical improvements also assist our brain to work better. Many dementias, such as significant forgetfulness, can be improved or reversed with better nutrition, exercise and using our minds. Cholesterol doesn't just clog the arteries that feed our hearts. It also clogs the carotid artery that feeds our brain. Without sufficient blood and oxygen supply, the brain does not work as well. The human brain has a limited ability to grow new brain cells, but it has an unlimited capacity to make connections between brain cells. These connections improve the brains ability to work well. The connections also serve as "rerouting circuitry" should there be damage in areas of the brain. The way to make more connections is to provide the necessary ingredients for the mind to work. Exercise boosts blood flow and oxygen to the brain. Nutrition provides the building blocks of tissue and helps minimize damage in the brain that occurs as a natural consequence of living. The third step is using our mind. The level of education one achieved and the amount one reads seem to protect against age-related dementia. Cross word puzzles, new experiences and learning opportunities help the brain make more connections each day.

In our efforts to live fulfilling, satisfying lives so that we can enjoy that which is important to us, many people neglect themselves. Most would agree that better nutrition, getting exercise and challenging the mind are all good things that I will do one of these days. That day is here. It is becoming increasingly obvious that the choice to improve our health is our choice. We have a gift of approximately 30 years that our ancestors did not have. How are you going to choose to use this gift?

- Brent Hill


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