Aging Across the Lifespan
The thoughts feeding our minds and the foods we put in our bodies
affect our lives from the cradle onward.
Aging. Say it slowly. Let the word breathe like you would a wine. Still, the same images come to mind: wrinkles, liver spots, graying hair. We tend to think about aging as getting old, not older. Yet aging is a series of many complex processes involving our physical, mental and spiritual development that are connected from birth—and even before that, say some studies—onward.
“Aging and personality, all of these things develop over a long period of time, and they never stop developing from birth to death,” says John Santos, PhD, psychology professor emeritus at the University of Notre Dame.
Likewise on the nutrition front. “What you put into your body has long-term consequences on a daily basis,” says Mark Smith, PhD, executive director of the American Aging Association.
To help smooth the aging process for you and your loved ones, we’ve asked bestselling self-help author Wayne Dyer, PhD, Santos, Smith and other experts on physical and mental wellness to highlight the essential ingredients for healthy aging from the cradle onward.
Physical: “Be proactive and preventative,” says Maoshing Ni, PhD, DOM, LAc, author of Second Spring (Free Press). The two most essential minerals the doctor of Chinese medicine points to for your children are calcium, for skeletal and neurological development, and magnesium, for muscle development. The urgency on calcium: Kids drink high-phosphoric acid sodas, which can leach calcium. “Also a big animal protein diet, as well as a big dairy diet, can work in reverse and lower calcium and magnesium absorption,” Ni says, suggesting vegetables, leafy greens and beans and legumes.
“Try to encourage vegetables for snacks,” adds Christine Gerbstadt, RD, MD, of Sarasota, Florida.
“Get them accustomed to liking them.” In addition to the calcium that Ni cites, veggies will help replenish some of the other minerals and vitamins often missing in youth: vitamins A and C, and folic acid. But don’t create an emotional link to food by forcing the greens, Gerbstadt cautions.
Mental: Dyer says parents should be guided by their input from conception to birth: virtually nothing. “If there’s nothing to do you just practice non-interference; you just allow, you practice trusting,” Dyer says. “There’s a wonderful concept called the continuum concept, when you raise your children based upon the idea that they already know who they are and what they are here to do. When they are inside a mother’s womb you don’t go being concerned whether their fingernails are going to show up in the right place at the right time. There’s nothing to do; you just allow.” Dyer says “everything we needed for this physical journey was handled in the very instant we were conceived.
That means our purpose in life, our personalities, what we’re here to do, what our life is about, if we just begin to practice non-interference and letting go.” (For more on Dyer, see here.)
Of course, parenthood isn’t entirely a hands-off proposition. What happens in infancy can leave “indelible marks,” says psychologist Santos. “Parents have to be careful. Those early years are so very important in terms of what they set up.” Santos saw that firsthand working with the impoverished in Brazil: Children there who were given little attention developed depression.
From ages 2 to 6, children develop a sense of the emerging self, gender identity, morality, conscience and concepts of achievement. “You want to encourage children to talk and not be embarrassed by talking about these things,” Santos says.
From 6 to 12, children are being shaped by factors beyond the family: peer groups and teachers. Parents should learn to be sensitive to children when they encounter issues like bullying or feelings of being left out. “Try to put these things into context,” Santos says. “Try to introduce realism into the situation so the child can use that as a way of evaluating things in the future. You’re building attitudes and opinions: ‘Johnny, remember that the teacher has other students…’”
“Try to explain what’s involved to give the kid some kind of basis for understanding what is happening instead of just getting mad,” Santos says. “You can’t always achieve this, but you have to work in that direction. Teach kids not to be too biased one way or the other, to evaluate situations fairly.”
Physical: At this stage, notes Gerbstadt, “growth is crazy, hormones are crazy and appetite is out of control, especially in boys. This is also the time for girls when eating disorders rear their ugly heads.” So parents need to encourage positive body image and self-esteem, and translate that into healthy eating.
Hormonal development at this stage, adds Ni, means young people should be getting two essential ingredients: zinc and essential fatty acids. “Zinc is a trace mineral; you don’t need a lot of it, but it’s critical as a hormonal carrier and essential in the manufacture of all the hormones,” Ni says. “It’s also often deficient.” The food with the most zinc is one that Ni doesn’t expect adolescents to be eating too much of: oysters. Instead, he recommends nuts and seeds, which also provide the omega-3 and omega-6 “good fats” that can be found in olive and vegetable oils as well.
Says Smith, “Everyone is an awkward teenager, but it’s the ones who become socially outcast or pick up really bad eating habits in order to get through the emotional changes they are going through, that will [find that those habits] stay on with them as an adult.”
Mental: Dyer says it’s especially important now to take a laissez faire approach to your kids. “They are what we call a man child or woman child,” Dyer says. “They’re in between that stage of life when their bodies are capable of biologically being parents, and in a different time they would have been. So you can’t be imposing. These are the years children are really saying ‘I have to be me.’ Oftentimes children get disrespectful toward their parents, and it isn’t really disrespect so much; it’s just ‘I want to be in charge of myself.’ ”
Santos used to tell his psychology students about the similarities between adolescents and senior citizens. “If you think about it, both of them are going through some major biological changes. Quite frequently, both of them have economic problems and they end up on the fringe of things. You don’t really know whether you can trust that adolescent, and you don’t know whether you can trust Grandpa there.”
Because of the potential for a seniors-teens bond, grandparents can play the role of confidante and help teen development. But whether it’s the parent or grandparent helping to ease a teenager through life, Santos recommends: “Try to build as much solidity, balance and ability to look at both sides of the issue as possible. We would call this building maturity. There’s no gene that explodes at a certain age and suddenly you become mature; there are building blocks along the way.”
Young Adulthood (18-25)
Physical: This is the “height of the reproductive age,” but Westerners have delayed parenthood so young adults should eat to preserve their “fertility potential,” Ni says. “This is the time when amino acids become critical for preserving reproductive potential as well as continued brain development. Studies show the brain continues to develop up until 25 years of age.” For protein without much fat, try white meat from chicken and turkey, as well as fish, beans and legumes, he adds.
Mental: To the degree possible, truly nourish your purpose. Find work you love, advises Santos. “All of us have seen friends or family where someone is forced into a career by necessity, did not have the money, or where a lawyer [in the family] pressures a kid to go into law, and later in life…you wonder if that’s what they were meant to do.”
“It’s no longer a declaration of independence; it’s a life of independence,” adds Dyer. “That’s the time when they are really discovering themselves and their intellect and what they’re here for.”
Physical: To take the burden off the nervous system during this potentially stressful family- and career-building period, Ni says vitamins B6 and B12 can help people maintain calm, tolerate stress and, for women, reduce the imbalance that arises from PMS. “Both vitamins,” Ni says, “are essential in the function of a healthy nervous system as well as blood building.”
For reproductive health, Gerbstadt says women should make sure they’re getting enough folic acid for healthy blood and to help prevent birth defects. It’s a good time to emphasize calcium intake, too, she says. Though symptomless until later, osteoporosis can begin to develop by age 30.
Mental: Santos says it’s important to maintain a healthy marriage as well as a stable support system of friends. “When problems come up, you may not want to go to your family and you need to have good friends,” he says. “You need a support network to fill in the gaps.”
But Dyer says this is a time for self-reliance. “Everybody has a calling,” Dyer says. “I call them the callings of the soul, and no one else can understand them so sharing them with other people is a waste of time. A lot of people find themselves doing what somebody else programmed them to do.”
Middle Age (40-64)
Physical: Menopause and andropause, its male equivalent, begin to make their mark. That puts a renewed emphasis on consuming fatty acids from nuts, seeds and fish oils. “We also need to bring the zinc back in because zinc is a hormone carrier,” Ni adds. Similarly, calcium and magnesium remain important because of the threat of osteoporosis. Gerbstadt says it’s also important to check your vitamin B12 levels from 50 to 60 to stave off neurological problems later.
Though metabolism slows after 40, Smith says, many people continue to eat like they are 20 and don’t exercise enough. Men are most vulnerable to weight gain between ages 20 and 40, Gerbstadt says, but the threat, and possibly the tummy, looms larger in women after 40.
Mental: “One of the biggest excuses is ‘I’m too old,’ ” Dyer says. “Don’t die with your music still in you, what you came here to do. Just say to yourself, ‘This is my dharma, this is what I came here to do. I’ve been putting it off. I’ve been listening to other people. I’ve been trying to fulfill the destiny that someone else has imposed upon me. I’m not doing that any longer.’ ”
Physical: From 65 on, people do not digest and absorb nutrients as well. That makes digestive enzymes an important addition to a supplementation program, Ni says, because amino acids protect muscle and bone integrity. Ni adds that your diet should be broad to help ensure you’re getting the full spectrum of nutrients you need. And he says to avoid caffeine, which can act as a diuretic and leach minerals, and to minimize alcohol intake.
If you’ve had a vitamin B12 deficiency, it could show up at this stage in the form of degenerative nerve disease in the spine, Gerbstadt says. In addition to supplements, B12 can be found in animal foods like meat, fish, poultry, lamb, pork and eggs. Similarly, she says, heart disease in your 40s and 50s could lead to brain dysfunction in your senior years, so keep eating those fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats. In particular, don’t forget your proteins to keep muscle mass from dwindling. Try for three extra servings a week of lean fish or poultry.
Mental: When the people you care for start dying, the world can look threatening, unpredictable and frightening, Santos observes. At the same time, what’s going on inside our bodies isn’t very
encouraging either: arthritis sets in, maybe loss of hearing and vision. “You’re caught in a bind,” Santos says.
Focus on the positive: “Pay attention to your grandchildren, to your hobbies, things out there that will grab you and hold you,” Santos says. Smith says this might be a good stage of life to strengthen your ties to your place of worship. “It gets you out of the house,” Smith says. “It’s engaging. It gives you a sense of purpose. It gives you a sense of belonging.”
This is the time of life when what you’ve come to believe about aging manifests itself, Dyer says. “If it means declining health, declining abilities, if it means your memory starts to go, if it means you’re not as active as you were, if it means your mind doesn’t work as quickly and your memory goes; if those are the things you’ve internalized,” your senior years will resemble that. The alternative:“Grow up believing you don’t have to get old,” Dyer says, “and that your body is not who you are and that you’re perfectly capable.”