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Men: Want More of a Life? You Can Put Years on the Clock by Following These Heart-healthy Tips

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Midlife heart

 

In this second installment on midlife health, I explore recent research findings on cardiovascular disease and the long-term benefits of keeping that ticker strong in midlife. Cardiovascular diseases are the number one killer of men (and women) in America, accounting for over 600,000 deaths in the U.S. every year. But we’ve known for a long time that we can significantly reduce the likelihood of heart disease by maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

Folks in midlife can offer up plenty of reasons to avoid keeping fit and eating healthy: career pressures, family demands, or those oh-so-delicious caloric temptations (yes please, I’ll have bacon on that). But a new study by researchers at Northwestern University and Yale finds that you’re likely to be around significantly longer and suffer from fewer chronic ailments if you practice some simple heart-healthy habits early in midlife.

The report, published in the journal Circulation, was based on participants of the Chicago Heart Association Detection Project in Industry. The long-term study (aside from being a mouthful of a name) consists of over 25,000 employed men and women who have been tracked for nearly 40 years. The study considered multiple factors for heart disease including blood pressure and cholesterol levels, diabetes mellitus, body mass index, and smoking. Participants were placed into one of four groups: those with favorable cardio health, those with potential for elevated risk factors, those with one high-risk factor, and those with two or more high-risk factors.

The current study’s findings should come as no real surprise. Researchers found that folks who had favorable heart health in midlife lived an average of four years longer than their fellows with at least two high-risk factors. Another startling finding is that participants with favorable cardiovascular factors lived nearly five years longer without other major diseases such as chronic lung disease, kidney disease, dementia, or cancer. Moreover, if folks in the heart-healthy group suffered from a stroke or coronary disease it was on average seven years later than those in the higher risk groups.

One of the study’s authors, Norrina Allen, PhD, said in a press release, “We need to think about cardiovascular health at all stages of life. The small proportion of participants with favorable levels in their 40s is a call for all of us to maintain or adopt healthy lifestyles earlier in life. But risk factors and their effects accumulate over time, so even if you have risks it’s never too late to reduce their impact on your later health by exercising, eating right, and treating your high blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes.”

Sounds like a good investment to me!

And in fact, the study also found that the heart-healthy group’s Medicare costs were approximately $18,000 less. So not only were they able to benefit from greater health during later years, but they were able to reduce medical costs at a time in life when many people are on fixed incomes and trying to stretch their budgets to enjoy life.

What exactly can we do to increase our chances of being in the healthy-heart group in midlife? Research out of the Center for the Prevention of Heart Disease at Johns Hopkins has shown that we can protect against chronic heart disease by adopting four lifestyle behaviors: avoid tobacco, get consistent physical activity, maintain a healthy diet, and keep our weight in check.

Benefits of participating in these activities were cumulative. Participating in a single behavior reduced risk of cardiovascular disease by 21 percent, participation in two by 39 percent, in three by over 50 percent, and all four by a whopping 81 percent. Engaging in these four behaviors also reduced by over 80 percent the likelihood of mortality from other diseases over an eight-year period.

But wait, if that wasn’t enough, there’s more! Other researchers have found that when getting adequate sleep (at least seven hours a night) was added to the magic of the four activities, even greater benefits were reaped. Findings from another study published by Hoevenaar-Blom et al. in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology suggest that adding the sleep component reduced the likelihood of a fatal cardiovascular disease event by 12 percent.

 So getting a good night’s sleep is like the deliciousness of adding bacon to your burger, except by reducing the likelihood of dying earlier. Ok, maybe that metaphor doesn’t work.

So what can you do to increase the likelihood of having a healthy heart? Research is pretty clear that the following three things set you on the right path.

Quit smoking: Seems like a no-brainer, but just had to say it. I know it’s not easy; I smoked for 10 years and finally quit, cold turkey when I turned 30. Quitting the siggy butts was the best gift I have ever given myself. Research suggests that of the four lifestyle behaviors, not smoking is the biggest way to reduce risks of heart disease and mortality.

Moving your body: Getting about two and a half hours of moderate physical activity a week is recommended by the Heart Association. It also does great things for your brain, such as reducing the likelihood of a stroke and increasing your brain size (I discussed this in an earlier post). Break a sweat, increase heart rate, and have fun.

Heart-healthy diet: Indulge in a diet that emphasizes fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, poultry and fish (sorry bacon), and non-tropical vegetable oils. Definitely watch intake of saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, red meat, sweets and sugar-sweetened beverages. If you still do reach for the red meat, go lean.

So keep your ticker in good shape! Research has proven that it’s one gift that keeps on giving. And like the tin woodsman in the Wizard of Oz opined, “I shall take the heart, for brains do not make one happy, and happiness is the best thing in the world.”

Here’s to your long and happy life!

Men: want to avoid dementia? Exercising your body builds bigger brains, not just brawn.

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midlife exercise

Exercising your body does more for your brain than brain-games alone, and midlife is the time to start.

I used to love doing crossword puzzles. Many Sunday afternoons when I was a kid and living with my grandma we could be found huddled over the weekly crossword puzzle. She swore that it would ward off dementia and keep her brain sharp. Unfortunately she suffered horribly from dementia in her later years, and I’ve since sworn off doing crosswords. In fact, recent research strongly suggests that grandma would have been better off if she had put down her pencil and laced up her joggers instead.

I know that midlife seems a bit early for men to be concerned about dementia. But a review of recent research on late adulthood by Kirk Erikson from the University of Pittsburgh, as well as studies out of the University of British Columbia, suggest that midlife is the perfect time to focus on activities and establish routines that will increase brain function and health in later years. Research is finding that moderate levels (about 120 minutes a week) of moderately intense physical activity (things that increase heart rate and make you break a light sweat) have the benefits of increasing cognitive function and improving brain structure and function.

Bigger, better, faster … your brain on exercise

Cognitive function includes things like our ability to reason, remember things, and focus our attention. These are essentially all of the things that allow us to handle and process information and build knowledge. Physical activity significantly increased cognitive function, especially in reasoning and problem solving abilities. It also decreased the risk of cognitive decline by 40 percent. That’s huge!

As we age, the brain’s structure can change through atrophy and loss of volume. Studies has found that physical activity regimes of six months to a year have resulted in increases in brain volume in portions of the brain that support cognitive function. Not only was there an increase in volume of the structures where brain functioning occurs (grey matter), but the volume of the structures that connect them (white matter) also increased. Win-win!  

Brain function is the ability of your dome to get things done as measured by efficiency, like how well and how fast. Increased neural efficiency during cognitively challenging tasks were found in older adults with higher fitness levels. Additionally, research found that connectivity between portions of the brain operated more efficiently.

So if you want a bigger and better brain for the third half of life, put down the pencil and get that heart pumping! Here are a few tips for getting started:

  • Don’t like to ride or run? Try other types of activity like swimming, stair climbing, tennis, or dancing. Anything to sustain an elevated heart rate and break a sweat.
  • Join a club or group. It helps with accountability and creates opportunity for midlife men to build relationships and ward off isolation and loneliness – another midlife challenge.
  • Set a goal and track your progress, especially useful for us men who are goal oriented and like to geek out on checking boxes.

Are you ready to set a goal to keep your noggin’ big and fit? What are you willing to commit to starting this week? Share out in the comments below!

 

 

Midlife Crisis? Or Just Bottoming Out on the U-Curve of Happiness

By | Mission, Mortality | No Comments

detour-1646152The myth that is the midlife crisis may be mortally wounded by current research. However there’s ample evidence of a midlife dip that’s more than just a pothole in the road of life.

In my last post I explored the origin myth of the midlife crisis. Research suggests that a midlife crisis may be far less likely to occur than originally thought. In fact, only about 10 percent of men actually experience a full-blown midlife crisis. The midlife crisis may be on the mat, but research has also confirmed a slump in well-being at midlife.

The (nearly) universal U-shaped curve of happiness

A growing body of research over the past decade has confirmed that our sense of well-being through life forms a U-shaped curve. As men in our 20s and early 30s we focus on external achievement and goals (that successful career, the perfect family, the castle on the hill). In our 30s and 40s we start to get tangled up in the stresses and trials of the real world and the challenges of achieving the goals we set early in life. Perhaps because of this, or other factors, our happiness quotient in the first half of life trends downward, bottoming out in our mid 40s. But then in our mid 50s we begin a slow ascent and happiness (or our sense of well-being) increases again … thankfully!

ucurve

This general finding is so striking because it has been consistently found across many countries and cultures (and even in other primates!). While definitely not found in all countries and generations, in a recent study of 46 countries, 44 had a clearly defined U-shape when well-being was compared across age.

The lowest point of the curve differed between countries, but was generally between 40 and 60 years. The low-point for folks in the U.S. was found at about 46 years of age. A 2010 study found similar results, with well-being of U.S. males bottoming out in their early 50s.

So midlife is, statistically speaking, the rock-bottom of our happiness in life? Now there’s something to celebrate … no wonder I’m so depressed …

Reframing the midlife story

This midlife dip may be what’s been generalized through the myth of the midlife crisis, and could explain how the crisis myth has such a strong hold in our culture. Most of us can expect to bottom out somewhere and in our own unique way in midlife, but few of us will have a full-blown crisis.

This reframe of the midlife experience provides some measure of comfort in that:

1. we’re not alone

2. midlife doesn’t have to be cataclysmic

3. there’s the hopefulness of an upswing somewhere in our 50s

Right, how lovely that we have a new la-ti-da story, but I want resolution! Just give me answers on how to avoid it or minimize it would you, or at least a pill to help ease the pain!

Unfortunately there’s no silver bullet here. There are also potential challenges in medicating our way through midlife. Unfortunately there’s still no clear explanation of why our sense of well-being bottoms out in midlife and then rises throughout the rest of late adulthood. But where there’s a will, there’s a way, and we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We just have to look to the survivors.

Following in the footsteps of the survivors – the climb up from midlife

So at this point you may be asking yourself, what do folks in their 60s and 70s have that those in the trough of midlife might be lacking? (I thought we weren’t supposed to trust anyone over 30 …)

In my next post I’ll dig into a few current ideas and observations that shed light on what might account for the bounce back in midlife. The focus is on the qualities and actions associated with people in later life, such as:

  • Creating a life of meaning (building and sustaining a sense of fulfillment or purpose)
  • Knowing ourselves and becoming what we are (understanding our deeply held values and living them)
  • Greater emotional intelligence (creating connection and communication by employing loyalty strategies vs exit strategies)
  • Reduction in perceived severity of stressors (drama management)
  • Increased capacity to self-regulate emotions (less likely to resort to anger or respond to anger with anger)
  • Ability to see situations positively (less likely to see other’s responses as negative or remember them as negative)
  • The perspective of time (that heals everything, right?!)
  • Reduced regret response (not mulling over or focusing on what’s beyond our control)
  • Increased wisdom (or more specifically the traits that come with it like compassion, empathy, respect for and tolerance of divergent beliefs, acceptance of ambiguity, ability to make decisions based on the good of the whole, levelheadedness)

I hope this post has provided some new insight on your midlife experience. I’ll look forward to see you again soon at the corner of Midlife and Thriving!

Successfully managing midlife? Which of the above strategies do you use to successfully navigate midlife challenges?  I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

 

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