Aging Well When You Have a Chronic Illness

We’ve all heard the saying “you’re only as old as you feel,” which is just another way of saying that aging well is important. It’s a priority for most people. No one wants to feel tired, frail, or “old” as they age.

Aging without too many blemishes, sickness, or ailments, and having access to all of our faculties is a reasonable desire. However, for people with a chronic illness, it’s not always easy to age gracefully. You might think those desires are unrealistic, or that there’s nothing you can do to keep the effects of aging at bay.

That’s not necessarily true.

In many cases, simple lifestyle changes can go a long way. You can age gracefully and healthily by assessing current habits and choices and making changes where it’s necessary.

Not sure where to get started? Maybe you’re feeling overwhelmed by the idea of taking care of your condition and making changes all at once. It doesn’t have to be that way. Let’s take a look at some of the most effective ways to age well when you have a chronic illness, so you can make the most of your golden years.

Managing Your Condition With Medical Care

The most important thing you can do to stay healthy throughout the aging process is to make managing your chronic condition a priority. Depending on your illness, you can take care of yourself through things like diet, exercise, and other lifestyle changes (which we’ll touch on later).

However, you should also make sure you’re regularly seeing a doctor and/or specialist to make sure your condition isn’t getting worse, and to learn what you can do to weaken the symptoms. Dealing with a chronic condition without the right medical care can hinder your quality of life and speed up the aging process.

For example, if you’re dealing with a digestive condition like GERD, changing your diet can help to keep some symptoms at bay, but talking to your doctor and taking the right medications can make it even easier to live comfortably without the condition taking over your life.

The same goes for conditions like arthritis, heart disease, or even diabetes. There are medical solutions to almost any condition. While they might not completely cure the illness, they can make it easier to manage on a daily basis.

If you don’t want to visit your doctor in person, at least consider utilizing telemedicine. Nowadays, it’s easier than ever to stay connected with a medical professional without having to leave your home. Your doctor can give you test or lab results, talk to you about your concerns and help you formulate a wellness plan to manage your condition. Telemedicine isn’t a replacement for all medical care, but it’s certainly better than not talking to a doctor at all.

Staying Physically Active

The secrets of healthy aging aren’t really secrets at all. In fact, one of the easiest ways to both look and feel your best as you get older is to stay as active as possible.

No, that doesn’t mean you need to run marathons or hit the gym every day. Don’t feel like your condition limits you from being active. No matter what you’re struggling with, there’s likely some way to be physical every day, even if it’s only for a few minutes and you have to adapt certain exercises to fit your needs. For example, if you deal with arthritis and working out is hard on your joints, try things like:

  • Swimming
  • Walking
  • Cycling
  • Ellipitcal machines
  • Dancing

One of the biggest mistakes people make as they get older is letting their muscles get weaker. With every gram of muscle mass you lose, your skin starts to slack, your connective tissue becomes weaker, and even your bones become affected and can become more brittle and fragile. You don’t have to lift weights to train your muscles. Bodyweight exercises are often just as effective and won’t cause you to strain.

Maintaining your cardiovascular health as you age is also essential. It will keep your heart healthier and stronger while boosting your immune system. That makes it easier to “fight back” against your condition and can help to prevent any more illnesses from creeping up and causing problems.

Maintaining a Healthy Diet

Most people know they aren’t going to feel their best when they eat foods that are high in fat, sugar, and preservatives all the time. While you don’t need to deprive yourself of the things you love, it’s important to manage your diet as you get older – especially when you have a chronic illness.

There are countless benefits of eating healthy food. You’ll have more energy, you’ll give your body the nutrients it needs to function properly, and it can improve your health by:

  • Decreasing the effects of illnesses
  • Balancing blood pressure
  • Lowering cholesterol
  • Lowering your risk of certain cancer

In addition to making you feel better physically each day, eating a healthy diet can make it easier to manage your mental health. Fruits, vegetables, and foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids have all been found to boost mental health and lower the risk of conditions like depression. Alternatively, foods that are heavily processed can have the opposite effect, causing you to feel both physically sluggish and mentally “down.”

 

Maintaining a healthy diet as you age will make it easier to navigate your illness and keep your body functioning as it should, so make sure your dietary habits reflect prioritizing your health.

Getting Enough Sleep

As you get older, you might have more free time on your hands. While you might think that means you can sleep whenever you want, as much as you want, that isn’t always the case.

You might be able to sleep more, but are you really taking advantage of that? More importantly, how consistent is your sleep? Do you tend to go to bed at a different time each night, and wake up whenever you feel like it?

Getting enough sleep is crucial to maintaining a healthy lifestyle and helping your body stay strong enough to fight back against illnesses. However, it’s just as crucial to make sure you’re forming healthy habits and that your sleep hygiene is working to improve your health. By making a few changes to your sleep routine, you could get a more restful experience each night and wake up feeling more energized and refreshed. Consider implementing some of the following practices to boost your sleep hygiene:

  • Going to bed at the same time every night
  • Waking up at the same time every morning
  • Using your bedroom only for sleeping
  • Creating an ideal sleep environment
  • Avoiding electronics before bed

If you have a hard time falling asleep, whether it’s due to your illness or something else, try something like meditation, deep breathing exercises, or yoga. Or, consider reading a good book or writing in a journal for a few minutes before bed to wind down both your mind and body. If you’re tossing and turning in bed, don’t stay there. Get out of bed and go to a different room to unwind. As you start to feel tired, head back to your bedroom. This will help your mind and body develop a better understanding that your bed is just for sleeping, and will make it easier to fall asleep quickly each night.

Stay Connected

One of the biggest risks people face as they get older is isolation. Loneliness is a huge problem, and we saw just how damaging and dangerous it can be throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Research has linked loneliness to higher risks of several physical health conditions, including:

  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Obesity
  • A weakened immune system

Isolation can also contribute to mental health decline, increasing your risk of depression, anxiety, and other cognitive issues. It can even lower your mortality rate. Obviously, when you’re already dealing with a chronic condition, it’s important to stay as physically and mentally fit as possible, so isolating yourself from others isn’t healthy.

You might find it difficult to get out and spend time with people every day, especially when your illness flares up. However, there are often ways to stay connected even when you’re dealing with a condition. Consider inviting a friend to your home for dinner or a cup of tea. Visit a close family member and stay with them for a few days. Take a walk around the neighborhood or relax in a nearby park with others.

While face-to-face interaction is best, if it’s not always possible, utilize technology. Call someone you care about, or do a video chat on Skype or FaceTime. Anything you can do to interact with someone on a daily basis will make a big difference.

Even if you don’t have close friends or family members nearby, consider taking a cooking or art class with others. Join a gym and exercise with other people your age. Or, connect with people online through different forums or social media groups.

As you can see, aging well when you have a chronic illness doesn’t have to be an overwhelming process. It’s all about making lifestyle changes that fit your needs and prioritizing your health. Keep these suggestions in mind and put some of them into practice, so you can age gracefully and enjoy yourself every step of the way without letting your chronic illness define you.