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Growing Older: Integrative Approaches for Successful Aging

Growing Older Integrative Approaches for Successful Aging

In the past few weeks I have been surprised by how often fellow New York City subway riders have given up their seats for me. The most recent gift was from a woman who to me looked a bit older than my 62 years of age. I declined with thanks and then joked with her that I must be looking older lately. Her response, “Age is honor,” got me reflecting once again on the experience of aging in Western culture.

Most of us are very interested in the challenge of how to age and still look young, stay healthy, and enjoy a long life. We pay attention to reports in the news about how people who have grown very old may have accomplished this. What is their secret tip? A 106-year-old woman recently admitted that her secret was eating bacon every day and staying away from men. The media is especially full of advice on techniques to continue looking young while getting old. Those few celebrities who allow themselves to age naturally, without Botox, fillers, and plastic surgery, like the actress Frances McDorman, are refreshing exceptions to our fixation.

It seems that in our culture how we look as we get older is more important than how young or healthy we feel inside. Despite the fatigue and other side effects I experience from my ongoing cancer treatments, inside I still feel like my younger, or only, self and so I am caught off guard when offered a subway seat.

There’s no doubt that a healthy lifestyle, including a wholesome diet, moderate exercise, avoidance of toxins, and lots of key nutrients (such as the antioxidant omega-3 fatty acid) may increase our lifespan and decrease the risk of common chronic illnesses that cause poor quality of life in many older Americans.

But I have a personal theory that how “well” and successfully we age is related to our ability to acknowledge and cope with the stress that is inevitable in life. Although our bodily systems progressively age with time, Western studies now reveal that the physical sequellae of unalleviated chronic stress speeds the aging process in systems and organs. Our immune system is one example. Its mission is to provide and maintain balance of inflammation and immunity. Chronic stress provokes excessive inflammation thereby damaging joints and impairing circulatory, digestive, hormonal, and neurologic functions, while lowering ability to fight infections.

Chronic stress even impacts our telomeres, the special genetic ‘caps’ on the ends of our chromosomes that protect our genetic information against deterioration. Telomeres gradually shorten with age but the more severe and chronic our stress, the more rapidly our telomeres shorten and the less they protect us from age-associated chronic diseases. But the good news is that healthy lifestyles and mind-body practices help maintain our telomeres.1

Mind-body practices counter the high physical toll of stress on our bodies in many ways. Importantly, they turn down the overactive sympathetic nervous system with its flight or fight reflexes, abating the resulting body-wide negative effects. They stimulate our parasympathetic nervous system so that our brilliant body’s innate self-healing and self-maintaining functions are maximized. Mind-body practices encompass all types of moderate activities, from yoga and tai chi to hobbies such as playing billiards. A healthy 96-year-old friend of mine attributes his longevity to spending 3 hours a day at the pool table, connecting his mind and body this way.

I asked six of my friends age 75 and older, members of Body & Brain Yoga, about their experiences with successful aging. Anne, David, Fe, Harmony, Jeanne, and Joan all feel that they are stronger and healthier than others of the same age in their circle of friends and family, and attribute much of their success to the benefits of Body & Brain Yoga. They reflect on the acceptance of stress as part of life and make managing it a priority. This is made much easier with the tools, support, and perspective of this mind-body practice. All had tried other types of exercise programs, but found that none provided the unique Qi energy approaches of Body & Brain Yoga and the support of a community of caring masters and members of all ages.

David found great insights in Ilchi Lee’s book In Full Bloom.2 This book confirmed for him the importance of integrating our brains and bodies and strengthening both as we get older, to counter fears of becoming weak and of the unknown. He is grateful that Body & Brain uses knowledge of neuroplasticity to actually improve our brains, releasing negativity and "allowing" us to focus on being happy and useful—the best natural stress-reduction strategy.

So many of us baby-boomers are approaching old age at the same time now. We are suffering from many preventable chronic diseases that burden our later years, our society as a whole, and our younger generations. Perhaps by using mind-body practices to counter our chronic stress we can become more personally responsible for our physical, emotional, and mental health, and help shift Western medical perspectives and resources away from treating illnesses and toward preventing them. As we age, we can share our energy, imagination, and vision to improve ourselves and our world, not by doing less and less but by contributing more and more.

  1. Can meditation slow rate of cellular aging? Cognitive stress, mindfulness, and telomeres. Epel E, Daubenmier J, Moskowitz JT, Folkman S, Blackburn E. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2009 Aug; 1172:34-53.
  2. In Full Bloom. Ilchi Lee. https://www.changeyourenergy.com/shop/57/in-full-bloom
Written by Deborah Coady, MD
Deborah Coady, MD, is Clinical Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at NYU Langone Medical Center. She devoted a major portion of her medical practice to caring for pelvic pain, and currently writes, lectures, and mentors to promote integrative approaches to pain and chronic illness. As a five-year member of Body and Brain Yoga/Tai Chi, Deborah attributes her success in living with persistent cancer to this practice.
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