November 06, 2019
Americans of all ages and genders are increasingly struggling with heart failure and the underlying behaviors influencing the growth of the disease. On the heels of a research paper I recently referenced in one of my articles comes a recent study published in JAMA Cardiology that describes a dramatic increase in the number of older people dying from heart disease.
While the study cites an increase in the aging population as a contributing factor, still other studies suggest that cardiovascular death rates are also rising among younger adults, due in part to widespread obesity and type 2 diabetes.
The common denominator? The need for more physical activity, a balanced plant-based diet, avoidance of smoking and heavy drinking, staying social and limiting stress.
Beyond these alarming statistics is the simple observation that the behavior of older Americans is being mimicked by the next generation and, as the numbers show, they’re beginning to pay the price. I'm a proponent of psychosocial models where motivation anchored in our emotional relationships sustains healthy behavior. And while these trends among middle age adults are disturbing, I see opportunity in the cries for a new approach to confront these lifestyle-induced conditions.
The opportunity is naturally imbedded in the inherently intergenerational nature of our most cherished loving relationships. Think about the classic motivators of older adults, particularly men. We want to dance at our daughter’s wedding, watch our grandchildren grow and, increasingly, pursue encore careers where we often collaborate with younger workers. Intergenerational relationships are built-into virtually all dimensions of our priorities.
This social proximity offers a tremendous opportunity to lead by example and contribute to a new culture of healthiness in the course of maintaining our own motivation to stay fit. As these loving relationships continually fuel our desire to stay healthy and enjoy the emotional benefits, they simultaneously send a message that can influence the next generation. We can show them the way.
What can a 50-plus person do to make their own installment in a new culture of health that stems these unwanted trends into future generations? Consider the following:
• Lead by example. To have any credibility and influence with the people closest to you, you’re going to have to lead a healthy lifestyle and become a role model. Beyond diet and exercise, you need to demonstrate that your lifestyle translates into a robust social agenda where you’re engaged with the people you love, doing the things that mean the most to you. Show how the lifestyle connects to the end game, your social agenda. Demonstrating this link is critical as it represents the “why” for healthy living.
• Be a coach, cheerleader and confidant. Relationships are complex and everyone is different, but the common denominator and the underlying support for health behavior is one’s social safety net. To the extent feasible and appropriate, be that safety net for the people you love. Living healthy is tough these days for all and particularly middle- aged individuals who are juggling their job, the kids and life in general. One of the biggest challenges to a healthy lifestyle is simply finding the time to exercise. Identify your niche and be there for them.
• Engage in the behaviors. The healthy-living men in my studies often exercise with their loved ones, and practice healthy dietary rituals with many of them. Again, everyone, especially when it comes to family, has a unique needs and interests. When you can, engage in healthy practices with your circle of family and friends. Whether exercise, diet or both, this is a team sport so cast a wide net for people who share your passion and belief in healthy behavior. By the way, sometimes you can pull in the grandchildren. Extending the intergenerational playbook to another level can be a real hoot.
• Don’t force it. If its one thing I’ve learned as a parent it’s our children do not automatically share our interests. Just because we like something doesn’t mean that they will, even when they’re adults. To have any hope of influencing decision-making the transmission process is as important as the behaviors themselves. Habits, routines and rituals have to seep into an individual’s personal values in just the right way and at the right pace. That’s why leading by example is so important. Its effectiveness is the strong message without a forceful process. Take your time.
The increase in heart failure among both older and younger Americans in the context of prior reductions is concerning. The fact that we’re struggling to find an effective response is even more worrisome. The truth is that pills and medicine can only go so far. The sustainable answer lies in our lifestyle. The key to our lifestyles, I believe, is right in front of us in the motivation to be found among the people we love and the passions we pursue. Yes, healthy living is a gift to ourselves, but perhaps even more so, one for the next generation.
Louis Bezich, senior vice president of strategic alliances at Cooper University Health Care, is author of "Crack The Code: 10 Proven Secrets that Motivate Healthy Behavior and Inspire Fulfillment in Men Over 50."