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Yoga for Healthy Aging

Presumably everyone wants to be healthy at each birthday, but the focus of healthy aging is often on those who are middle aged and beyond.

"Healthy aging may mean different things at different ages. It's a whole lifelong issue. The lifestyle you establish in your teens and 20s impacts what you are doing in your 30s and 40s. I think that what it really means is still being able to play tennis when you are 70, hit golf balls when you are 75, and still enjoy life when you are 80 and may need senior home care," said Brian K. Kennedy, Ph.D. and chief executive officer of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in Novato, Calif.. "It's about trying to maintain a disease-free and healthy and functional lifestyle for as long as possible."

Ultimately, it's about choices that individuals make as they age and not so much what they do once they feel they are aged. Choices about how a person manages stress in their life are relevant throughout their lifespan, as Kennedy points out.

"The sooner people grasp that and get a handle on those things, the better off they will be," he said. "It doesn't mean you can't start at 70 – you can start at any age. It may be doing simple exercises in the pool, or doing league bowling when you are 85. These are things almost anyone can do."

When one person makes a decision to age as healthily as possible, for as long as possible, it can benefit the greater good. According the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

“By 2030, the number of U.S. adults aged 65 or older will more than double to about 71 million. The rapidly increasing number of older Americans has far-reaching implications for our nation's public health system and will place unprecedented demands on the provision of health care and aging-related services.”

The CDC also notes that about 80 percent of older Americans have one chronic condition and 50 percent have at least two:

“Research has shown that poor health does not have to be an inevitable consequence of aging. Older adults who practice healthy behaviors, take advantage of clinical preventive services, and continue to engage with family and friends are more likely to remain healthy, live independently, and incur fewer health-related costs. An essential component to keeping older adults healthy is preventing chronic diseases and reducing associated complications.”

At the Buck Institute, an independent research facility focused solely on understanding the connection between aging and chronic disease, the mission is to increase the healthy years of life. In other words, healthy aging is not about turning back the hands of time or finding a clue to immortality, but about remaining one's best for as many years as possible through diet, exercise and other positive lifestyle choices.

"I don't think there is any evidence that we can stop aging," Kennedy said. "Find an exercise program that fits your lifestyle, a diet you can sustain, manage your stress levels and the benefits come in two different ways: quality of life issues and economic issues."

While there is evidence to support the theory those that are financially well off live longer, Kennedy points to what he calls a potential "economic disaster" with more than 40 percent of the population over age 65 and one in three with a chronic disease.

"Adopt behavioral strategies not to completely avoid but just delay the onset so you are not getting a diagnosis with diabetes," he said. "What we're trying to do is understand why aging is a causal factor and figure out ways to slow down aging as a way to prevent these diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, cancer, diabetes, and more."

How Yoga Can Help

As the practice of yoga has become both more popular and more controversial in recent years, people may question its benefits.

"The key is to address the individual needs," said Larry Payne, Ph.D. and co-author of Yoga Rx and Yoga for Dummies. "Schools of yoga that are one-size-fits-all can be harmful for someone who is aging."

The human condition is to be aging all the time, so this begs the question as to what age someone can benefit from yoga. There is no single answer to this question, but Payne says there are population segments to focus on.

"The latest boom is in 40-plus, which is the largest population bubble we have," he said. "This is the largest potential group that can benefit from yoga, and the most underserved population is men."

In focusing on people in their 40s and 50s and beyond, Payne says there are some specific poses in yoga to avoid, such as inversions like standing on one's head. As the body ages, one's yoga practice should adjust to what is best for their current state, he said. In a revised edition of Yoga for Dummies, Payne has a section devoted to yoga for aging bodies.

So what are the benefits of yoga? A study by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health found that yoga is "one of the top 10 complementary health practices used among U.S. adults."

There are numerous schools of yoga – Hatha yoga is the most commonly practiced in the U.S. and it emphasizes postures and breathing exercises. Many experts believe it can help with a variety of conditions, such as lower back pain, and to achieve fitness and relaxation.

Payne lists his own top five reasons to practice yoga:

  • Reduce stress. "The American Medical Association has said that 80 percent of all illness has a stress component," Payne said.
  • Improve circulation
  • Increase not only flexibility but also your strength
  • Increase your willpower. "This is helpful for people watching their weight," Payne commented.
  • Improve your overall sense of well-being

He recommends people in their 40s or older adjust their yoga practice to reflect their age rather than training like professional athletes, who are typically in their 20s or early 30s.

Brad Gibson, a professor at the Buck Institute and director of the institute's Chemistry and Mass Spectrometry Core, has a blog called "Yoga and Healthy Aging." He was a latecomer to yoga, taking on something of a challenge from his wife when he was nearing his 50th birthday.

"My interest started with wanting to find something that would improve my strength and sense of well-being," he said. "I was intrigued whether the practice would ward off some of the things I've seen as people age – mental issues, lack of strength."

Gibson has now maintained a yoga practice for 10 years and considers it beneficial, but continues to look for scientific data to prove these benefits. Although he personally did not have sleep problems or high blood pressure prior to doing yoga regularly, he is intrigued by these benefits of the practice for others.

"There is data that show yoga can reduce blood pressure related to stress," he said.

However, it's harder to put a number on things like a benefit to cognitive function from yoga.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health produced a series of videos on the scientific results for alternative therapies, including yoga. Individuals should always check with their own primary doctor if they have questions about practicing yoga, even after they have watched such videos.

When it comes to evaluating the risks versus benefits of a yoga practice, Gibson said he considered the alternative: "What's the risk of not doing anything?"

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