Healthy Mind at 90 Seeks Healthy Body at 60

Even moderate fitness extends life and mental acuity. It also saves money. What are we waiting for?

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Study after study, including some recent research, documents the common sense we all know. If you take good care of your body today, it "may" reward you in the future with good health, an extended life span and, of special importance, extended years free of Alzherimer's Disease or early dementia. I say "may" because we all know there are no sure bets here. People get on a treadmill every day for 20 years and then keel over with a heart attack from some undiagnosed malady. It happens.

[Use our Mutual Fund Score to find the best investments for you.] But the odds overwhelmingly support the notion that we can receive a huge future payoff from an investment today in better health, diet, and lifestyle choices. This choice also may save huge amounts of money. Spending on medical care is the single largest out-of-pocket expense faced by aging couples, averaging $250,000.

There is lots of research to support these conclusions. Sadly, the compelling logic of the wellness argument is often defeated by one of the cardinal rules of behavioral economics: People have a lot of trouble making a tangible sacrifice today in exchange for a possible reward in the future. Even if the sacrifice is modest and the reward enormous, the time mismatch is a game ender for many. It's like positioning the fulcrum of a teeter-totter near one end instead of in the middle. No matter how hard the person on the short end tries, it's just too hard to balance the board.

One way to correct this imbalance is to make the sacrifices seem less difficult and the rewards truly astronomical. And you see this happening all the time. Particularly with diet, the marketing messages stress how easy it is, how little effort is required before those pounds just slide away, you become irresistibly attractive, your life and career improve, you discover eternal life, and so on.

On our teeter totter, diet and exercise are perched on the short end, and improved health and longevity on the long end. And it's at the long end that some astounding future benefits await. Thirty years of vigorous living versus a wheelchair in a neglected corner of a nursing home. Or worse. Regular cardiovascular exercise is also associated with lower rates of dementia. Get your blood flowing, add oxygen, and marvelous healthful results may ensue. We're not talking about running marathons, either. Moderate exercise works if it's done frequently. Spend 30 minutes a day walking and you can be there.

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Earlier this month, The New York Times reported on a study of nearly 2,150 older adults who were, on average, 77 years old. The study was written up in a current issue of a medical journal, Archives of Neurology. "Evidence linking diet, one of the most important modifiable environmental factors, and risk of AD [Alzheimer's Disease] is rapidly increasing," the study said. The authors said earlier research established lower AD risk for people eating the Mediterranean Diet. Here's what the Mayo Clinic says about this diet:

"The Mediterranean diet is thought to reduce your risk of heart disease. In fact, a 2007 study conducted in the United States found that both men and women who consumed a Mediterranean diet lowered their risk of death from both heart disease and cancer. Key components of the Mediterranean diet include:

  • Getting plenty of exercise and eating your meals with family and friends.
  • Eating a generous amount of fruits and vegetables.
  • Consuming healthy fats such as olive oil and canola oil.
  • Using herbs and spices instead of salt to flavor foods.
  • Eating small portions of nuts.
  • Drinking red wine, in moderation, for some.
  • Consuming very little red meat.
  • Eating fish or shellfish at least twice a week."
  • In the current research, people's detailed food consumption was identified, broken into nutritional groupings, and correlated with their later incidence of Alzherimer's. The results found lower Alzheimer's rates among people who, well, ate a healthy diet: "high intake of salad dressing, nuts, fish, tomatoes, poultry, cruciferous [that's the cabbage family, according to Web MD] vegetables, fruits, and dark and green leafy vegetables and low intake of high-fat dairy, red meat, organ meat, and butter."

    That's not so hard, is it?

    Now, while it may be tough to balance on our behavioral teeter-totter, a recent study questions whether we're even trying. Chronic health problems among Baby Boomers aged 50 to 64 did not decline from a 1997-1999 study period to 2005-2007, according to an article in the April issue of Health Affairs. Looking at the two periods, the study said that more than 40 percent of people in this age group had trouble performing at least one of nine physical acts.

    "There was no statistically significant trend overall" between the two time periods, it said, "but difficulty with four specific functions related to mobility and the lower body -- namely, stooping, standing two hours, walking a quarter-mile, and climbing 10 steps without resting -- increased significantly over the 11-year period."

    [See Seniors Should Find Right Doctor Mix Now.]