Sensible steps to healthy aging

Published February 27, 2007

"Optimal aging," writes Dr. Robert Palmer, "has nothing to do with wrinkle-free skin or an active libido as you sail into your 90s. It has everything to do with maintaining your ability to function and remain autonomous, independent, mobile and cognitively sound until then."

And his Age Well! Cleveland Clinic Press, $14.95 proves to be a 200-page "how-to" for achieving those goals.

Palmer, the head of the prestigious Cleveland Clinic's Section of Geriatric Medicine, distills his two decades of treating the medical and psychological issues of growing old. Yet he writes as if he were chatting with a friend.

Ensuring that the technical aspects of aging are never too complex for us, Palmer has leavened his 10 chapters with anecdotes and lists of examples.

Lists? To define the nature of aging, he summarizes in the first chapter 11 theories for the physical and mental changes we experience as we grow older.

That chapter also includes brief explanations for 17 of those changes, from the brain's slower response time to the liver's decreased metabolism of food, alcohol and drugs (which can increase the potency of the latter two).

Palmer suggests that generally we should not be "hitting the downhill slope" until we reach 80. To help forestall that slide, the doctor lays out his "nine habits of highly successful agers."

There are even eight appendices of lists, ranging from resources for caregivers to which kinds of drugs can affect sexual performance in men and women.

While such lists serve as quick cues for the reader, I found it was Palmer's plainspeak in discussing the physical, biological, mental and emotional facets of aging that made his book worth reading.

If that sounds familiar, it is because this is a version of the advice offered by Life Times columnist Dr. David Lipschitz.

Palmer says there are three stages in the "arc" of aging: young-old (ages 65-74), old-old (75-84) and very-old (85-plus).

He offers "actions you can take prior to and during each stage to remain healthy, active, independent (and help) you recognize the signs and symptoms about things that should not be going wrong, so you can seek proactive rather than reactive treatment."

I found it encouraging to read Palmer's rebuttal of the popular presumption that genetic inheritance determines longevity and health. Instead, the doctor emphasizes that it is more a matter of what we have been doing to ourselves, for ourselves, by the time we reach our late 40s that "plays a far more crucial role in longevity."

So there is detailed advice on eating well and on maintaining an optimistic outlook and multiple relationships. And there is a chapter on exercising - "the closest thing there is to a fountain of youth."

Finally, lest you worry that you've ignored all this good advice until it is too late, Palmer explodes some myths about growing old.

You'll be reassured to know that the majority of people 75 to 84 were found to have no significant disabilities, and that losing your teeth is not automatic as you age.

And on a topic discussed in the extensive report on Alzheimer's in this issue, Palmer says that memory loss "is not a normal part of aging (although) a slowing in the ability to recall recent information (i.e., recent memories) is common."

Make a note to check with your favorite bookstore or Web site to get a copy of Age Well! when it publishes in April. Then, follow the doctor's advice.

Robert N. Jenkins can be reached at (727) 893-8496 or bjenkins@sptimes.com.

Fast Facts:


So how old are you, really?

"We age on two clocks," notes Dr. Robert Palmer in Age Well! "Our chronological clock tells us how old we are in months, days and years. Our biological clock . . . indicates the wear and tear that has taken place . . . on systems and organs to determine what physical 'age' our body actually is."

It's worth 15 minutes of your chronological time to follow Palmer's suggestion and use the free calculator at www.realage.com to get that comparison.

You'll be asked to check or fill in blanks on several interactive pages. For instance, if you check that you have Type 2 diabetes, a following page will ask you to note which medications you take.

Other pages ask about your exercise, diet and such stress relievers and creators as how many friends and family members you see, and if you recently have endured the death of a family member or a job change.

You'll be asked how many miles you expect to drive, and even if you have a pet and what kind.

You'll get an e-mail response within two hours. My first result showed I was 3.8 years past my chronological age. Below this was a "Benefits and Costs Chart" of my lifestyle.

I got a 10-page printout detailing how to improve my health, in 90 days, and add years to my life.

I'll report back to you in three months.

Robert N. Jenkins