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Diet, exercise, social engagement keep bodies and minds in shape

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — We all know the drill for staying healthy: Eat right, get enough sleep and exercise.

Engage socially, contribute something meaningful and challenge your mind.

Don’t smoke and if you drink alcohol, imbibe moderately, one drink a day for women and about two for men.

Local physicians say those guidelines become more important as we age.

“It’s what you do every day for most of your day that matters most,” explains Dr. Dion Gallant, primary care medical director at Presbyterian. “If a patient is overweight and still smoking, we need to start talking about that. Otherwise, you’ve missed the elephant in the room.”

Gallant, a fan of a Mediterranean-style diet, says recent research champions its benefits. A Harvard Medical School report in February discussed a study that showed an overall reduced risk for metabolic syndrome, a cluster of symptoms that play havoc with the body and stir up cardiovascular disease and diabetes among other things, in a group of 780 Midwestern firefighters, who ate along the Mediterranean diet principles. That diet is based on vegetables, legumes, lean protein and whole grains, with healthy fats like extra virgin oil, nuts and seeds.

Dr. Duane L. Ross, medical director, government programs at Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Mexico, says wellness as we age is discovering “how can they maximize their function and their quality of life with the cards they’ve been dealt.”

Deciding to accept limitations isn’t a good idea, says Ross, who after turning 50 became even more aware of his activity and exercise: “It’s wrong to be fatalistic about age. To decide that I can’t do this and I can’t do that sells ourselves short. Don’t decide this is my lot in life. You don’t have to accept that.”

Even when arthritis or other aches and pains make an easy chair look inviting, moving is better for major systems like respiratory and circulatory systems as well as the joints that ache from arthritis, he says. A warm swimming pool is a great place to start if you experience stiffness and pain, because it takes weight off the joints, he says.

If exercise involves other people, it’s even more beneficial. Studies show that exercise and social interaction help keep us in better shape emotionally and mentally, he says.

“If we think of exercise as medicine, it’s dose dependent,” explains Ross, who says he runs, cycles and lift weights for fitness. “We start at a low dose and ratchet it up. I’m a bit of a zealot. Exercise is the cheapest medicine we have. All you need is a pair of good shoes.”

Body and brain

Along with physical exercise, mental exercise helps keep our minds sharp.

“Many have heard about doing crossword puzzles, but the real trick is to do something you haven’t done before. …In fact, like exercising muscles, it is probably best to try several different things. Try learning a new language, take up painting or switch to math puzzles; just make sure to break your routine periodically and challenge your brain,” Ross says.

Human connection, diet and exercise can improve many areas of our lives, Gallant says.

Sex, for example, changes for most people as they age. More important than behaving like 20- or 30-year-olds, is communicating about intimacy, needs and desires wwith your partner, he says.

“Not everything that you come to the doctor for has to do with pills. I recommend walking or bike riding instead of Viagra. At least try those first,” he says. Benefits of regular exercise include improved circulation and an improved mood. “We can always go down the other path if that doesn’t work.”

Grief and loss strike more often with age, as people lose those they love. Having someone to work through the difficult emotions is a better place to start than a prescription, he says.

When to check

Some symptoms can be subtle or vague but still need medical attention, Ross says.

Fatigue that wasn’t there, a new ache or pain that appears without an injury and especially vision decline all need attention, he says.

Gallant agrees, even though most everyone suffers some decreased stamina, memory and joint pain: “When you can’t do what you want to do, it’s time to call the doctor.”

Other symptoms that need attention are unplanned weight loss, an unexplained fever, new lumps or masses, bleeding and difficult swallowing. Gallant urges his patients to pay attention to growths and changes in their skin because of the high prevalence of skin cancer.

Things tend to get better over time after transitions from middle age are finished, Gallant says. Most women go through menopause in their 50s and life changes like children leaving home also occur for many in that decade. “There’s great data that people are happier in their 70s and 80s,” he says.