Aging to Perfection: Part 1 - Maintaining Functional Capacity


My patients often say to me “It’s hell getting old.” My reply is always the same, “It beats the alternative!” Growing old is not for the faint of heart. This is the first of a two part post called Aging to Perfection. Part 1 is about how to maintain functional capacity and Part 2 is about wisdom.

5 Requirements for Aging to Perfection

  1. Good health.
  2. Functional capacity.
  3. Active engagement with life.
  4. Maintaining interpersonal relationships.
  5. Staying productive.

3 Dimensions of Functional Capacity

  1. Cognitive Capacity
  2. Physical Capacity
  3. Emotional Capacity

Cognitive Capacity

Does having a “senior moment” like forgetting a person’s name or where you put your glasses or car keys signal that you brain power is declining and it is the beginning of your decline into Alzheimer’s disease – probably not.

In fact, a growing number of studies suggest that the aging brain is simply taking in more data and sifting through a larger volume of information. Think about it this way, when retrieving a thought or memory, a 70 year old brain has a lot more information and memories to review than a 20 year old brain does.

Though it is true some brains do deteriorate and Alzheimer’s disease strikes 13 percent of Americans 65 and older. That is scary! There are 5 million Americans suffering from Alzheimer’s disease today. According to the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, it is estimated that by 2050 that number could triple to 16 million. The reason is – we are all living longer. But Alzheimer’s is a disease, it is not a normal part of aging.

Since we don’t yet know how to prevent or cure it, the best defense against this disease is a good offense. Stay mentally active and engaged; stay physically active and fit; nurture strong interpersonal relationships. It’s the best you can do. We humans seem to be “use it or lose it” creatures – whether that is our minds, our bodies or our spirits.

Physical Capacity

Just because we are living longer, doesn’t mean we’re living better. Maybe we aren’t dropping dead at 62 the way we used to, but if we can’t move around because we haven’t moved around in years – living longer may not feel like such a blessing. The fact is, with every passing decade people tend to become less and less active just at a time when we really need to become more and more active.

There was a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine that suggested people who are physically active may actually be biologically younger than couch potatoes. Without going into the gory details of the study, it found that adults who participate in regular physical activity (for an average of 199 minutes per week) are biologically younger than sedentary individuals.

Being overweight will become more of a burden, too, as you get older. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, obese people over the age of 60 are twice as likely to have some sort of disability as older people of normal weight. The extra weight takes an added toll on knee and hip joints, increasing arthritis pain and limiting mobility.

The point is not to be a geriatric athlete – though there’s a lot of pleasure to be found there if you are interested in going for it. The point is to maintain your mobility so you can go about your activities of daily living comfortably and avoid falls. (Falls can lead to catastrophic injuries like hip fractures and are to be avoided at all costs!) Doing exercises like squats may not seem like much fun, but if they enable you to get in and out of bed or on and off the toilet without help – they may turn out to be the thing that keeps you out of a nursing home!

Can you do the following easily?

  • Walk a quarter of a mile without becoming short of breath or having to stop and rest?
  • Walk up 10 steps without resting, stooping, crouching or kneeling?
  • Lift and carry 10 pounds?
  • Stand up from an armless chair?

If you are struggling with any of the above, you may want to rethink your reason to exercise. If you are not a regular exerciser, you may want to think about how prepared you are for growing older. Remember, we are trying to age to perfection, so you shouldn’t wait until the last minute if you want to have a good ride.

3 Types of Exercise Required

  1. Aerobic exercise – 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week – minimum! (walking, biking, swimming, or running)
  2. Strength training – two or three times a week (alternate upper and lower body and have at least one day of rest before working the same body part again). Where strength training is concerned, you want to work muscles to fatigue each session and it is during the rest periods in between workouts that your muscles get stronger.
  3. Flexibility and balance training – yoga or tai chi. Improving balance reduces the risk of falls. Continued practice of these meditative disciplines (particularly yoga) will remind you why life is good and why you want to hold on to it as long as you can.

Emotional Capacity

Growing old gracefully takes courage, resilience and an unbelievably good sense of humor. In part 2 of this Aging to Perfection post I will talk about wisdom. In my opinion, wisdom is the reward given to the old for having survived. While the young are blessed with beauty and physical prowess and seemingly endless restorative powers, elders – if they are lucky – become wise.

In closing this post, I want to share with you my philosophy for Aging to Perfection. This doesn’t come from any studies and I can’t back it up with any science – it is just what I think.

I believe every age has its own perfection. And I believe the secret to living a full, happy and enriching life is to reside fully in that moment of perfection where you find yourself right now. Whether you are 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90 or 100 years old – wherever you are at this moment – this is where life has delivered you. Every age has its perks and its purgatories.

A twenty year old is buffeted between exquisite passion and painful inexperience. A forty year old has gained some degree of mastery, but senses for the first time the inevitable decline. A sixty year old is taking a measure of what has been accomplished and considers what is left to do. A seventy year old, whether still vigorous, chronically ill or somewhere in between, begins to measure out the remaining years. The ninety year old having lost physical prowess has hopefully gained wisdom and some measure of peace.

I hope wherever you are in your life right now that you feel a sense of your own perfection. And I encourage you to honor that – with your thoughts, your deeds – and with all your heart.

Look for Part 2 of Aging to Perfection next week when I will write about wisdom.

So talk to me. What do do you think about what I’m saying here?

This information is offered for educational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, prescribe or treat. For that please seek direct care from a health professional.

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