March 23, 2011

SAUDI ARABIA: How Old Are You?

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia / Arab Times / Life & Style / Health / March 23, 2011

By Mariam Alireza

How often did you wonder about the age of the person you are about to meet or you have met? It is probably the first question that occurs to your mind when you are introduced to someone new. You try to fit that person in a category by his or her age. By guessing the age, you are trying to assess that person’s level of mental maturity, reactions and responses to situations, experience, emotional intelligence, wisdom and even the way of thinking. We usually take age as a guide to how we deal with people. Most of us do that automatically.

Toddlers and children are instinctive; their first questions are “What is your name?” and “How old are you?” They want to relate to you in some way or the other. We all do that. But is it true that the number of years you have lived on this earth necessarily reflect the biological age of your body, internal organs, level of energy and motivation, the extent of brain power and memory, and the ability to learn and adapt to situations? Let us see if this is the way it works.

Very often, the number of years that lapse interferes with reaching potentials, outlook on life, future plans and sometime desire to live. Such depressing thoughts are a menace to our ambitions, our need for change and sometimes our will to live. Comments like these are often heard: “I am 40, I cannot afford to change jobs and start all over again”; “I am too old to learn a new skill or go to college at the age of 50”; “At my age, I have no energy to exercise.” Such morally discouraging remarks make us feel even older than our chronological age, thus causing us to age even faster than our time. Our thoughts influence our physical and mental well-being.

Some 25-year-olds can have the body age of a 35; others at 50 can have the body of a 40 year-old. This depends on the way the body is maintained and one’s outlook on life.

Unfortunately, most of us start worrying about ageing looks and wrinkles as early as 40 when we are actually in our prime years, ignoring ageing organs, illness, infirmity, mental and cognitive decline, and dependence. The media add to our fears and anxiety. The cosmetic industry and plastic surgery prevalence fuel this apprehension by constantly producing and advertising endless spectrums of anti-ageing products, botox, collagen, liposuction, make-over operations and “quick-fixes.” By making us dread the advancing years, we neglect health and impacting lifestyles on body, brain and longevity. These factors are the true promoters of physical and mental fitness, vital energy and disease-free health.

To the surprise of many, what determines our ages is not the number of years, but our physiological age and the operational efficiency of our bodies, cells, tissues, bones, vascular system, organ functions, skin, mental and intellectual responses, spirit, activity, energy output and productivity are deciding factors to our biological ages. We wonder why some individuals with good postures, beaming faces, hale sturdy look and energy, and love for life look younger than their actual years. We tend to attribute their youthful appearance to their good “genes,” but to the disappointment of many it is not only the “genes.” Health-maintaining lifestyle habits determine our biological age (the ages of our bodies) as we advance in years. Let us see what these influential habits are.

Before I get into details of lifestyle practices, I would like to emphasize a very important health aspect that can guide you effectively in embracing and maintaining such habits. The secret of success is in the word “moderation,” which is easy to say, yet so difficult to practice. The “magic bullet” of 80-year-old Omar is “moderation” in all his habits. If you are able to apply it in all your daily practices you are on your road to remaining “ageless.” The decision is yours to take. Let us proceed, now, with the other aspects that maintain health and wellness.

The most effective lifestyle behaviors on physical and mental health are keeping a balanced nutritious diet, regular activity, stress free life, family and social interaction, and a positive attitude.

I have discussed a balanced nutrition many times, but there is no harm in repeating myself just to emphasize its importance. Your diet should consist of whole organic foods such as whole fruits, vegetables (and their fresh juices), grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, essential oils (omega-3-6-9), fish, free-range chicken and dairy, and very little meat. A hygienic diet should be free of the following healthy-damaging foods and items: Refined carbohydrates and sugars, processed foods, fast fatty fried foods, preservatives, additives, chemicals, artificial sweeteners, soda and sweetened canned drinks, candies, pre-packed meals, hydrogenated and trans fats, saturated fat and alcohol. What you consume influences your vascular system, heart, your brain and immune system, swinging your body age either way. Lifestyle behaviors can impact our bodies, brains, and health, even more than our genes.

Regular activity, deep breathing and therapeutic exercises (yoga, tai chi) can bring harmony and equilibrium to physical and mental health. Deep breathing rejuvenates the cells and increases oxygen in the bloodstream, organs, and brain. Therapeutic exercises create emotional, psychological, and physiological balance and reduce stress.

Social and family connection and interaction have been found to benefit mental, emotional, and physical health. In studies, individuals who stay connected remained healthier and happier; retained more active memories and cognitive skills even at an older age; kept their bodies and brains younger; and extended energetic lives than their reclusive counterparts. A positive attitude and optimism are important factors that maintain health and youthful body and mentality.

Japan’s longest living active medical doctor and educator (97 years old), Shigeaki Hinohara, wrote a book after the age of 75 called “Living Long, Living Good” and he is the founder of the New Elderly Movement. He advocates that “Energy comes from feeling good.” He warns against excess weight. He proposes to “always plan ahead.” His schedule is full all through to 2014. He advocates against retirement, especially now that humans are living longer. He advises that when a doctor prescribes surgery, you should ask him if he would suggest it to any of his immediate family. To keep fit, he suggests climbing the stairs two steps at a time like he does. He says not to pay too much attention to the material world and to live your life and enjoy it. These are Dr. Hinohara’s recommendations for a healthy long life.

Last but not least is to keep your brain active, by constant stimulation. The more you learn new skills (a language, an instrument), play games, or solve puzzles; the more your neurons (brain cells) interwire and become weblike. The saying that goes, “Old dogs cannot learn new tricks,” is a big misconception. Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) said, “Learning starts in the crib and continues until the grave.” Use it or lose it.

If you are keen in assessing your biological age, check your eyesight, blood pressure, pulse rate, lung function, blood, urine, heart and teeth. Your weight, waist to hip ratio, your Body Mass Index (BMI), your skin fold thickness, your muscle and bone mass, your flexibility and your body balance. These are good indicators of your biological age. They are done in specialized clinics (in Europe and US) with advanced equipment, which are quite accurate in their assessment.

The next time anybody asks your age, you should reply “I feel 25 years old,” the very reply of 80 year-old Omar. It is not how old you are, but how old you feel. You work on your body and health and you will remain as young and fit as you want to be. It is your choice. Go for it!

Mariam A. Alireza is a holistic science specialist
© 2010 Arab News