||Keynote speaker Donna L. Weihofen, right, chats with Joan Schaefer. (Catholic Herald photo/Mary C. Uhler)
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MADISON -- Life expectancy has risen dramatically in the last two centuries. Trends now show that people are living longer and healthier lives. “People who turn 65 today have a lot of years ahead of them,” Dr. Dorothy Farrar Edwards told those attending the recent Catholic Charities Aging Conference held at the Bishop O’Connor Center.
“How to use that time is up to you,” she said. “You’ll have big decisions to make.”
Engaging with life
She suggested that healthier seniors are those who actively engage with life through regular physical activity (at least 30 minutes a day), keeping their minds busy, and socializing with others.
“There is no drug on the market that is as effective as aerobic exercise,” said Dr. Edwards. “It doesn’t cost anything. You can get it by walking every day.”
Dr. Edwards chairs the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is an investigator and core leader in the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center.
It’s never too late to get active, said Dr. Edwards. Studies have shown that even very frail elderly persons who began physical activity were able to restore muscle mass.
Besides regular exercise, Dr. Edwards suggested that older persons do strength training at least two days a week and do balance exercises a least three days a week.
She was one of the speakers at the conference, which focused on “Healthy Trends for Active Aging.”
Catholic Charities’ programs
In welcoming attendees to the second annual conference, Bill Hamilton, director of aging services for Catholic Charities, noted that the agency has expanded its services to aging persons, including its newest program, the Adult Day Center in Madison.
“We have a comprehensive set of programs at Catholic Charities, and we’re always looking for new programs,” said Hamilton.
The conference included two keynote speakers as well as eight break-out sessions and exhibits.
Importance of sleep
The morning keynote speaker was Dr. Steven Barczi, a specialist in geriatrics and sleep medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Medicine.
Although his topic was “Sleep Changes As We Age,” Dr. Barczi said it is a myth that “sleep inevitably declines as we age.”
The reality is that people of any age can sleep well. “There are things we can do that will definitely improve our sleep,” said Dr. Barczi, emphasizing that sleep is essential to good health.
“Our brain and our body accomplish many tasks during sleep,” he noted. Some of the benefits of sleep are that it enhances learning, memory, and creativity; it regulates emotions and mood; it boosts the immune system; and it modulates hormone processes.
Each person typically needs six to eight hours of sleep a day, which can be met by night-time sleeping and day-time naps.
Behaviors and activities can promote better sleep, said Dr. Barczi. These include maintaining a consistent bed time and wake time; letting our brain settle down before sleep, including avoiding watching television or using a computer for at least one hour before bedtime; avoiding the use of stimulants such as caffeine for at least eight hours before bedtime; and avoiding evening exercise (late afternoon is the best time for exercise, said Dr. Barczi).
Medical conditions and medications may also bring about poor sleep habits, so they should be considered when trying to improve sleep. He also noted that there are 90 distinct sleep disorders, so people with sleep problems should be diagnosed and treated.
Healthy nutrition habits
In the afternoon keynote address, Donna L. Weihofen, a nutritionist with University of Wisconsin Hospitals & Clinics, discussed “Seven Nutrition Habits of Highly Healthy Seniors.”
She emphasized that healthy eating contributes to over-all men-tal and physical health as people age.
Her seven tips were:
- 1. Build your diet with high fiber grains and nuts, and use less refined grains and sugars.
- 2. Eat lots of fruits and vegetables. For example, a diet high in berries can delay memory decline.
- 3. Be a fat finder. Check food labels to avoid saturated fat and look for monunsaturated fat. Eat more fish rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, which benefit health.
- 4. Take a multi-vitamin and check for calcium and vitamin D. She recommended caution in taking high doses of some vitamins; for example, taking too much Vitamin A and E and beta-carotene may actually increase the chance of individuals dying.
- 6. Drink plenty of fluids. Drinking tea and coffee are good for health. Drinking green tea can result in elderly people being more agile and independent. Coffee drinkers have less risk of type 2 diabetes. Drinking alcohol in moderation may lengthen life.
- 7. Be active and have fun. Regular exercise decreases the risk of colon, prostate, lung, and breast cancer. Among the books Weihofen has written is The Cancer Survival Cookbook.