‘Senior’ is a Dirty Word

Try this experiment: ask a random group of people the following question:

If you had to identify the kind of person you are, using only 3 words, what would those words be?

I’m willing to predict that the vast majority of the answers concern their job, spare time interest, such as a sport, and perhaps a characteristic, like ‘kind’ or ‘energetic’. Some will mention religious affiliation, perhaps ethnic group or gender, some, that they are a parent. A very tiny minority will mention their age-group.

When I conducted this research myself, the only ones to fall into this latter group were people not yet 25 years old. I found that the older people were, the less they identified themselves by their age, or their relationship to family (many grandparents whom I know adore their grandchildren, did not choose ‘grandparent’ as one of their defining terms – or even ‘parent’). 

And yet, companies and government agencies talk to and about ‘Seniors’ and ‘Baby-Boomers’ as if they are an homogenous group with the same aspirations, fears and experiences. I may be a 40-something mother of 2, but if I came across someone marketing a product to me in those terms, I’d be pretty sure to run a hundred miles in the opposite direction because those are not the things by which I choose to define myself.

So if you want me to choose your product, you’d better pay attention to that. And when companies talk to 30 and 40 year olds, most of them realize this and refine the pitch. Why then, do we expect people to lay down their individuality at the doorstep of a particular decade?

We recently participated in National Falls Prevention and Awareness Week (#FPAD15), lead by the National Council on Aging, and other agencies. Here in Houston, there have been a few well-attended events connecting users of community centers with advice on exercise programs and home safety. But the response from the press and a number of ‘senior’ living establishments has been somewhat underwhelming.

I wonder how much of that is because the help is being broadcast on the wrong channels? Perhaps if we used more positive language we might gain more interest, and therefore be able to help more people. We should be using labels like #ageDisgracefully or #DontLeaveitTotheKids for the adventurous set, #golfersDoitStanding (change the sport as appropriate), #brainsloveoxygen for culture vultures, and so on.

People of all ages hate being told where they are weak. It’s time to celebrate how we are strong, and how to stay that way. 

People Who Inspire Us #1

Charlie is 67. A former military and commercial pilot, he confesses he still loves adrenaline sports. We met when iShoe conducted some balance testing in the community.

“I stay healthy because I want to keep snow skiing and scuba diving. Fitness is important to me,” he told me in the humid heat that was already building in central Houston.
 Dressed in workout clothes and a cap, fresh from a recent yoga class, he bristles with energy, his eyes alive and twinkling as we ask him to repeat the shot, try a different angle, speak to the camera.
 He was a high school athlete, a member of the relay team that broke a record. And although, like most of us, sport didn’t develop into a career for him, unlike most of us, he never slowed down either.
 He credits some of his dedication to staying in shape to his experience in the military, and then to the six-monthly physicals he had to undergo as a commercial airline pilot, but for the most part he lives by his mantra that to be a useful member of society he believes in being strong physically, mentally and financially.
 “What kind of a role model would I be to my son if I sat around all day and couldn’t do anything any more?” he asks. He still goes running with his son, who, in his 30s, doesn’t finish far ahead of his father, even now.
 But even Charlie, with his weight lifting regime and sprinting fitness, which are evident in his lean, muscled physique, has had to adapt some of his training as the years have passed. He still trains hard, but not every day, taking rest days so his body can recover.
 He has also realised recently that while he is strong, he is not flexible, so he started following his wife into her yoga class, an exercise he admits to finding difficult. He keeps at it because he’s determined to improve his flexibility, and reduce his risk of injury.
 “You gotta keep active,” he says. “I feel strongly about this. People need to do more, to keep themselves healthy and independent.”
 His energy and enthusiasm are infectious.  After our filming stops and we say our goodbyes, I find myself setting tougher targets for my own fitness. And going some way to achieving them too.

If you’ve ever had the flu …

…it won’t surprise you to know that it can seriously affect your balance. 

But did you know that even a mild cold will also have a detrimental effect?

We all know the symptoms that come with a cold: poor sleep, fatigue, difficulty concentrating. All these also affect balance. iShoe’s Director of Marketing, Andrea Case-Rogers, reports her first encounter with a balance test occurred “while recovering from a chest cold. I scored four out of ten on the scale, which worried me as I’d just seen a couple of sixty year-olds score 6’s”. When she was back to normal health, she measured herself again and scored a more comfortable 7/10.

Is there anything that you can do to boost your balance when you’re sick?

  • Concentrate on drinking enough liquid and eating well – which should also help your body fight off the cold.
  • Distraction is dangerous: give yourself extra time to complete tasks so that you’re not rushing or having to multi-task at a time when your mind is already distracted.
  • Be aware that taking cold medication can also impair your balance.
  • Try to get some gentle exercise to maintain flexibility in your joints and muscles.
  • Take a cat nap, or go to bed earlier if possible, to allow your body to rest, even if sleep itself is difficult.

Above all, recognize that at this time you are more vulnerable to falling and injuring yourself. By being more mindful, you can help prevent an accident.

Does exercise work?

Every day we read articles extolling the benefits of exercise, how even a little a day can make the difference between battling a host of problems, and living into healthy old age. But how do you know if it’s working? If you’re not doing exercise for weight loss, or for specific sport training, how do you measure whether it’s actually doing you any good?

I have to be honest and say that I get stuck in a rut with my exercise. For months, I simply go through the motions, following the instructor, or repeating the same old routine on my own. I can’t be sure that I feel much stronger. So is it actually doing me any good?

It turns out that doing a balance test would tell me. The reason is that many things affect your balance, and one of the simplest to improve is muscle strength and flexibility – especially for your core muscles and muscles in your legs and ankles. For elderly people, consider whether you shuffle, rather than lifting your feet properly when you walk. If you do, it may be a sign that you could benefit from strength exercises. But even if you walk normally, take walks as a form of exercise, you could be compensating for a weakness in one muscle area or another.

Perhaps your ankles are not particularly flexible, the thought of standing on one leg makes you break out in a sweat. As humans, our bodies adapt to the strains we put on them, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we are strong.

In order to improve muscle strength, the exercises you do should challenge you. Panting and sweating is normal when your muscles are working hard at any age, and using different muscle groups to the ones we use every day makes a big difference in overall fitness too. Believe it or not, it is still possible to improve your strength, no matter how old you are. Speaking to a fitness instructor can help you pinpoint which exercises are safe for you and will help you the most to boost your balance and put a spring back in your step.

For further information, you may find the exercises published by the National Institute for Health useful: nihseniorhealth.gov

Diet Tips To Keep You On Your Feet

It’s not enough to avoid stepping on banana skins. The food you put in your body can make you fall over too. 

An important component of any healthy lifestyle, proper nutrition can also help you improve your balance in both the short- and long-term.

Although the link between nutrition and physical balance is not as clear as the connection between exercise and balance, here are six nutrition-focused tips to help optimize your physical balance and reduce the dangers of falling:

  • Eat regular, well-balanced meals: In one study, researchers found that fasting reduced people’s ability to balance on one leg, along with other declines in common balance measures. Eating at regular intervals can help stabilize your blood sugar levels and reduce the risk of other side effects which can lead to falling.
  • Reduce alcohol consumption: While alcohol clearly has a short-term effect on physical ability—stumbling and slower motor skills, to name a few—chronic alcohol consumption can also damage your physical abilities. Ataxia, a loss of balance and coordination, is one condition that can result from nerve damage and vitamin B deficiency after long-term alcohol abuse.
  • Increase calcium levels: Getting enough calcium through eating whole foods or taking supplements can help improve your bone density and reduce the risk of osteoporosis. This can help minimize the likelihood of a debilitating fracture in the case of a fall.
  • Add a vitamin D supplement: Vitamin D improves muscle strength and balance, and some studies have shown it also has a positive effect on neural coordination and the signals in your brain that control muscle movement.
  • Increase protein intake: Do you know the recommended amount of protein you should be consuming for your height, weight, age and activity level? Older adults should be particularly careful in monitoring their protein intake, particularly if your goal is to build muscle through fall prevention exercises. Getting enough protein is important to the muscle-building process, which can in turn help you achieve better balance.
  • Drink water: You know it’s good for you for a number of reasons, but did you know that being dehydrated stresses your body, which makes it more difficult to balance? The National Institute of Health advises adults drink 8-13 glasses of liquid (ideally water, but juice, tea, coffee, soup also count) per day to stay hydrated.

Sleep Your Way to Better Balance

Did you know people who sleep for less than 5 hours a night increase their risk of having a fall by 50%?
Or that elderly men who suffer from poor sleep also walk more slowly and have lower grip strength compared to those who sleep well?
Or that elderly women who sleep poorly are slower to get out of a chair and into a standing position?
In numerous studies on sleep and health in adults over 65, researchers have found that those who sleep well suffer fewer other health problems than those who have insomnia or disturbed sleep patterns.
Poor sleep affects balance in 3 ways:

  1. It makes you tired during the day, so you are likely to be less alert. You may not notice your cat curled up on the rug, until you trip over it.
  2. Your reaction times become slower, so you need more time between noticing something that may trip you up, and being able to take avoiding action (step around the cat, for example).
  3. Daytime sleepiness also makes you less motivated to take your exercise class or go for a walk. But without daily exercise, you’ll lose the strength in your muscles and any stiffness will increase, which means your balance will become worse.

So what can you do to improve your sleep quality? 
Sometimes having a nap during the day can help catch up on one night of disrupted sleep, but if poor sleep is an every night problem for you, it might be worth reviewing your sleep habits

The following are known to help people sleep better:

  • Try to keep to the same routine, always going to bed and getting up at the same time each day 
  • Have a warm milky drink or a banana shortly before bedtime
  • Don’t drink caffeinated drinks in the afternoon or evening
  • Don’t drink alcohol: it might make you feel sleepy to start with, but it disrupts sleep quality
  • Don’t eat very large or spicy meals late at night
  • Take some exercise, even a walk, each day
  • Don’t watch television or use a computer as part of your night time routine, as the screen will stimulate your brain, not relax it
  • Keep your bedroom quiet, dark and cool, ideally 60-67 degrees
  • Listen to some relaxing music before bed
  • Read or listen to an audio book before bed
  • Think about changing your pillow or mattress if they are no longer comfortable and supporting

Further information, including regarding foods that can help promote sleep can be found from the National Sleep Foundation.


Are your Meds Making You Fall?

As people age, we find ourselves taking more medications. They’re usually prescribed to maintain our health, for example keeping cholesterol and blood pressure at good levels. Then we reach for over-the-counter remedies to take care of minor aches or temporary stiffness.

A quick scan through the over-the-counter remedies in my own bathroom reveals that the vast majority of them cite dizziness, drowsiness, nausea and fatigue as potential side effects. All of which will undermine my ability to stay on my feet.

Some drugs affect balance most when we start taking them. For example, antihypertensives, used to lower blood pressure, increase a patient’s fall risk most in the first 14-21 days of beginning the course of medication. Some of that risk is as the body adjusts to a different level of blood pressure, but the fall risk remains high for those patients changing from one type of antihypertensive to another. The body needs time to adjust to the new drug, to process what is basically a cascade of chemical reactions that can affect everything from your appetite to your inner ear sensitivity.

And, did you know that taking more than 4 medications dramatically increases your risk of falling? As we age, medicines take longer to break down in the body, causing different reactions compared with when we were younger. Drugs that didn’t cause side effects before can suddenly begin to do so. Even vitamins and alternative supplements can have an effect on each other and should be part of a discussion with your doctor.

Sometimes a particular formula suits one patient better than another. If you experience dizziness or other discomfit, it is worth talking through alternatives with your doctor, to find a solution that manages your condition without putting you at greater risk of a fall.

And in the meantime? Be extra careful by reducing trip hazards in your environment like loose rugs and cords; always switch on a light when entering a room, even for a moment; ensure your shoes are stable and comfortable.

For a complete list of home safety tips regarding fall prevention, click here

3 Ways Tai Chi Improves Balance

The idea that balance naturally degrades with age is a common misconception. While balance can worsen over time due to inactivity or other factors, there are many ways to maintain and improve balance throughout one’s life.

Tai chi is one practice that has been shown to help improve balance; in a study published in the Journal of Gerontology, researchers found that a three-times per week, 6-month tai chi program was effective in decreasing the number of falls, risk for falling and fear of falling while improving functional balance and physical performance in physically inactive people aged 70 years or older.

Here are three ways how tai chi can help you regain confidence on your feet:

Increase physical strength: Through slow, deliberate motions, tai chi targets flexibility and leg strength. These are key features of balance that also help improve posture, which enhances balance skills. The zero-impact nature of tai chi allows for the strengthening of muscles without intense impact.

Reduce fear of falling: Practicing tai chi can help improve spatial positioning and recognition while also making you more stable on your feet. These work in tandem to increase one’s stability confidence, and reducing a fear of falling has been proven to contribute to a reduced rate of falling.

Improved coordination: Gait problems can be addressed through tai chi movements that focus on appropriate weight transfer and proper movement of lower limbs—for example, lifting lower limbs from the knee rather than the foot. Smooth and coordinated body movements help to improve body awareness, range of motion and reflexes, all of which contribute to increased stabilization and better balance.

These three benefits of tai chi on balance health are just the beginning. To find a tai chi class in your city, try searching your city on the Supreme Chi Living website.

7 Myths about Balance and Aging

One in three adults over 65 will experience a catastrophic fall, and half of those over age 80. Falls are often expensive to recover from and can be followed by serious health problems brought on by even a temporary loss of activity.

So how much do you really know about balance and aging? Here are 7 myths that may surprise you.

Myth 1. Falling is normal

Falling is not a normal part of ageing. Although muscle strength does reduce with age, active people can maintain strength and suppleness. Other factors, such as worsening eyesight and loss of hearing can contribute to a higher risk of falling, but these are also conditions that can be managed.

Myth 2. If I limit my activity, I won’t fall

Actually, the more sedentary your lifestyle, the greater your risk of falling. With balance and exercise, it’s a question of use it or lose it. The current US physical activity guidelines say that to maintain fitness, all adults should aim to do 30 minutes of moderate activity 5 days a week.

Myth 3. If I don’t feel dizzy, my balance is fine

Good balance is the result of communication between various systems in the body. The brain receives sensory input from eyes, ears and limbs, processes the requirements of your environment, then relays instructions back to the muscles in the limbs. A weakness in any part of this chain will result in balance problems. Dizziness is just one sign of impaired balance and can be caused by a number of things, including low blood pressure, dehydration, medication, illness.

Myth 4. Once strength is lost, it can’t be regained

It’s never too late. There are simple exercises that anyone can do to start building strength and improving balance, even if they haven’t exercised for a long time. It is important to speak to your healthcare professional before starting any form of exercise.

Myth 5. I already exercise, so my balance must be fine

In order to improve balance, the exercise should involve the muscles required in balancing the body. Standing exercises are therefore more effective than those performed while sitting down. Tai Chi is more beneficial than walking.

Myth 6. I have already fallen, I’m afraid to try new exercise

There are many exercises that are safe, even after a fall, to strengthen your muscles and help get you back on your feet. Speak to your doctor or physical therapist about which exercises are best suited to you.

Myth 7. If I could measure my balance, it wouldn’t change much from one day to the next

A number of factors affect your balance. For example, a poor night’s sleep, being sedentary for a few days, being ill, or making changes to medication are likely to affect your balance.

For further information on fall prevention and exercise tips, the following resources may be useful:

American Geriatrics Society: www.healthinaging.org

National Council on Aging: www.ncoa.org