“You have to meet Miss Fiona!” my friend gushed, knowing my passion for celebrating dynamic, thriving seniors. “She’s truly amazing!”
“Miss Fiona?” I replied.
“You’ll love her, just go with it.” All righty, then.
Miss Fiona (her name changed to protect privacy), 92 years young, greets me at the door of her gracious home with a smile and a twinkle in her eye. “I live alone,” she says, leading me with a brisk step into the dining area off the kitchen, “which mystifies my friends, but suits me just fine.” The light Irish brogue she retains, after some 60 years in this country, accents her lively spirit.
Over tea, I discover that Miss Fiona drives her own car and volunteers weekly at the local hospital. “One of the doctors there, he said to me, ‘Miss Fiona, you don’t look a day over 70’ and I said, ’70! Surely not! I don’t look a day over 65!'”
She laughs, leans in to me and says confidentially, “Just because you’re older doesn’t mean you should let yourself go.” She adds, “I swim every day. I wear a safety belt, just in case. I’m often the only one in the pool.” Of her two children in their late 60s she remarks, “I’m younger than they are! It’s all about attitude. They’re old fuddy-duddies.”
Miss Fiona is, first and foremost, an optimist, defined as a person who has a hopeful and confident attitude about the future, one who is positive about life. A survey of over 51,000 ethnically diverse Americans between the ages of 45 and 84 showed that optimists have amazing heart health. They are twice as likely to be in ideal cardiovascular health as compared to pessimists. Given that cardiovascular disease is, according to the CDC, the leading cause of death in the United States, a healthy heart is a significant contributor to longevity.
A 2001 Johns Hopkins study reported that even in adults at risk of heart disease due to their family history, a positive outlook offered the strongest known protection against heart disease – as well as or even better than maintaining an appropriate diet, exercise regimen or body weight.
So, it can be said that a “happy brain,” one filled for the most part with hopeful, positive thoughts, leads to a “healthy heart,” one that is less inclined to cardiovascular disease.
The reverse is also true: a “happy heart” is more likely to assure a healthy brain. The connection between exercise and cardiovascular health is well known. But recent research takes the benefits of exercise one step further.
Research led by Dr. Claire Stevens followed 324 identical female twins over 10 years, measuring their fitness and lifestyle habits. The twins were also given memory, learning and thinking tests at the beginning and end of the study. Surprisingly, stronger leg muscles, like those you develop when walking, or like Miss Fiona, when swimming, were the best predictors of healthy cognitive aging among the factors studied by the researchers.
Thus, the cardiovascular health you support when you exercise, especially when you focus on your lower limbs, also supports keeping your brain fit as you age. As my 55-year-old ballet teacher said to me recently after an arduous day of classes, “My legs are tired, so my brain must be really happy!”
If you maintain a positive hopeful attitude through the bumps and hurdles as you go through life and keep your lower body in motion, you’ll have a far better chance of saying, like Miss Fiona when she escorted me to the door after our visit, “I’ve been planning my 95th birthday, but I’m beginning to wonder if I shouldn’t be planning my 100th!”
What do you do every day to ensure you have a healthy heart and brain? What are you doing in your 60s to create a healthy aging regime? Would you consider yourself a confident, optimistic person? Please join the conversation.