Forget things that go bump in the night, global warming, Congressional paralysis, creepie crawlies and assault weapons. There are five other worries that make the hearts of middle-aged folks leap into their throats on a regular basis. The good news is it’s totally within our power to chase these evils away — or, at least, diminish their hold on us.
1. Declining memory Sporadic forgetfulness, slower reaction times and other glitches in cognitive processes can result from an aging brain. Some symptoms may point to dementia and Alzheimer's; others shouldn’t trouble you.
On the bright side, the latest research tells us there are many things we can do to take advantage of the brain’s natural plasticity to reverse the aging process, sharpen our abilities and ward off debilitating brain disease. Examples:
- Preserve mental health and acuity by engaging with the arts, particularly dance.
- Eat less saturated fat from animal products, which cause the brain to produce beta-amyloid, a protein that contributes to Alzheimer’s. Instead we can consume brain-protecting foods like Vitamin E-rich nuts (about 1.5 ounces or 8 milligrams a day will do), vegetables, beans and a small amount of fruits and whole grains.
- Exercise! Walking briskly just three times a week for an hour has been shown to boost the connectivity within brain circuits.
- Get a good night’s sleep. A recent study, published in the journal Science, proves that during sleep the brain cleans out the toxic cellular waste products it creates during the day, thereby preventing their build-up. Remain curious, challenge yourself to learn new things and explore things you’re passionate about. By deepening knowledge and skills, we help our brains to thrive.
2. Increased loneliness and isolation Society is now afflicted with a growing isolation epidemic. More adults 50 and older are not only living longer, they're living apart from family members, divorcing, and becoming separated or widowed. In addition, they begin interacting with fewer people, a fact of midlife.
But people who describe themselves as lonely are at far greater risk of developing dementia and other health problems. It’s vital that we seek out ways to engage with others. Here are some ways to do that:
- Make new friends, both young and old. Sign up for classes, get active in social media platforms, hit the gym and join networking groups. Above, all, open your mind and heart to the possibility of fresh connections.
- When retiring, think about living close to your friends and family members instead of moving far away, as so many people do.
- Rehab your relationship dynamics by following Dr. Terri Orbuch's (aka "the love doctor") expert advice on Next Avenue. Overhauling unhealthy habits and participating in therapy sessions may be among life’s more difficult missions, but they can help you secure peace of mind and critical emotional nourishment.
- Consider a communal living arrangement — the options are numerous and include co-housing, NORCs (Naturally Occuring Retirement Communities) and living with one or more roommates.
- Mentor others. We can derive great satisfaction from passing on our knowledge and, in the process, forge enriching bonds.
3. Big debts, little savings The 50+ crowd is facing a perfect storm: the prospect of living on a fixed income at the exact time that government entitlement benefits are at risk of being curtailed and health care needs and costs are soaring.
Many are counting on their ability to continue to work well into older age, yet they will need to sustain good health and secure employment despite the known difficulties of landing a job after the age of 55. Suggestions:
- Analyze how much money you will need to retire and still be able to afford the lifestyle you expect. A good online calculator, like the Ballpark E$timate from the Employee Benefit Research Institute, can help.
- Work on reducing debts, especially credit card bills, which carry high interest rates.
- Prioritize saving. Evaluate all aspects of your lifestyle to see what you can cut back and then apply the ax. This may even mean downsizing your home. You should also contribute as much as possible to 401(k) accounts, reallocate your investments to reduce related fees and build a health care emergency fund.
- Hire an astute financial adviser to help you devise a smart plan, which may include delaying Social Security benefits.
- To find a job, implement these well-proven strategies: shorten your resumé and incorporate keywords into it, spend more time networking and less time using broad-based job boards and develop a strong, positive online presence.
4. Greater physical frailty and risk of illness The majority of us are carrying extra pounds; many have high blood pressure, diabetes or high cholesterol; and our knees, feet or back may be aching.
There’s no question that the aging process itself leads to increased frailty, but lifestyle behaviors magnify and accelerate health problems. Changing just a few of our habits can go a long way toward enhancing vitality and longevity. Here's how:
- Opt for a Mediterranean diet that emphasizes olive oil, fish, legumes, fruits, vegetables and unrefined grains — and vastly reduce your consumption of sugar and salt.
- Try intermittent fasting, which provides enormous health benefits: Eat a Mediterranean diet (about 2,200 to 2,400 calories a day for men; 1,600 to 1,800 per day for women) five days a week and consume only a quarter of your usual calorie intake the other two (non-consecutive) days.
- Sit less. Recent studies have shown that sitting more than three hours a day can cut life expectancy by two years even if you exercise regularly during the week. Get up at least a couple of times every hour when working at the computer or watching television and move around. Also, stand up while talking on the phone.
- Instead of skipping your workout session because of aches and pains, learn how to adjust common exercises to accommodate your infirmities. To make exercise a priority, schedule your sessions in your calendar and find a workout buddy, which will help keep you motivated.
- Reduce stress by practicing meditation, allowing yourself to focus on one task at a time, using relaxation apps and choosing to be happy.
(MORE: 30 Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Die)
5. Death Every day, we get a step closer to "the end." Although we are living longer than ever, by this point many of us have witnessed the passing of one or more loved ones and the final stage is all the more real and perhaps also scarier to us. To reduce your fear of death:
- Take serious inventory: Think about how you would like to spend the second half of your life, what you would like to accomplish and what regrets you would like to resolve. Dr. Lissa Rankin advises that you be “unapologetically you.”
- Connect with the most vibrant part of yourself — the child-like spirit that is endlessly curious, appreciates adventure and learning and dives readily into new things. Allow your dreams and passions to ignite you.
- Practice forgiveness, which is about remembering and telling your story, confronting and absorbing it fully, refusing to give in to anger and revenge and holding on to your humanity.
- Stop fighting your enemies. Anger and hostility and the underlying aspects of ourselves that fuel these emotions hold us captive. They are our worst enemies. We can transform our experiences with adversaries into deep learning experiences by recognizing that they are, in fact, our teachers.
- Mend rifts with adult children and parents. Give up the need to be "right" and work on yourself (perhaps with the help of a professional counselor) to avoid repeating the same offenses. This will help you shape a new, healthier dynamic.
Remember, some of the fiends that haunt us are of our own making. But even if they aren’t, we can take action to bust the boogeymen.