There are very few certainties in life. Barring tragedy, one is that we age. Our bodies, minds, and social world all change as we grow older. For some people, these changes can be remarkably subtle, whereas for others the passage of time is accompanied by turbulence and devastation. Aging can also be a time of exploration. Many older persons are financially comfortable with fewer pressing responsibilities. With retirement and the departure of grown-up children, the later years can be filled with opportunities for growth and learning. And contrary to popular belief, older persons do not simply sit around and dwell remorsefully about the past. Most are active, engaged, and doing the things they never had time for.Of course, health becomes more important as we age. Health-related issues of aging fall into three categories. First, everyone undergoes some normal changes associated with aging. Most of these are minor, such as the graying and thinning of hair. Some memory changes are also universal, including the slowing of retrieval of names and telephone numbers — the “tip of my tongue” phenomenon when the answer’s right there in our brain but we can’t find the words until someone prompts us or it comes to us a couple hours later. The second type of health issue is disease. As we age, we accumulate chronic diseases such as high blood pressure (hypertension), diabetes, heart failure, and arthritis. About four in five persons aged 65 years or older live with at least one chronic disease. Although some may be preventable by good health and lifestyle habits, others are determined by our genes, environmental factors, and many other causes that we still do not fully understand. More recently, UCLA and other researchers have been examining the wear and tear on our organs as we grow older, even in the absence of disease. This concept of damage before diseases have been diagnosed, or “allostatic load,” can take its toll on longevity and ability to perform daily tasks. Finally, lifestyle and conditioning are exceptionally important determinants of health in older age. Physicians commonly use a term called “deconditioning” to describe the loss of strength accompanying inactivity, whether related to an acute illness, hospitalization, or simply due to too much time sitting on our bottoms. Some recent research suggests that the mind also may benefit from activities such as crossword puzzles and board games, rather than the more passive television watching.The more we learn about aging, the more we realize that it is not a passive process. Each of us can take an active role in determining how we age and how to make the most of our later years.
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