The Secret to Aging Well

Recipe for living better, longer & stronger

A good recipe for living a long and healthy life reflects what our moms told us while we were growing up. We find ourselves telling our own kids and grandkids the same thing today. “Eat your vegetables. Do your homework. Get off the couch. Get your rest.” Is the secret of longevity really as simple as eating right, stimulating our minds, exercising and getting our rest?

“We’re mortal,” Dr. Patricia Coon, a geriatrician at Billings Clinic, one of the first two fellows at John Hopkins Geriatric Fellowship reminds us. “You won’t live to be 200, but no matter how many years you live, you want to be as healthy as possible until the last months or years of your life. Your lifestyle choices directly affect your life span.”

The “usual” aging process, unfortunately, includes the potential of developing a whole host of chronic diseases. It seems many of us don’t escape high blood pressure, diabetes, elevated cholesterol, obesity or the dreaded heartbreak of Alzheimer’s, a form of dementia.


When it comes to this cognitive breakdown, Dr. Coon says cases of dementia are on the rise. “It’s on the cusp of becoming a major epidemic. Alzheimer’s is the costliest chronic disease and is the 6th leading cause of death in Montana and in our country.” Dr. Coon gives a sobering statistic in that 19,000 Montanans aged 65 and older currently live with this debilitating disease. The number is expected to grow to 27,000 over the next decade. A staggering 48,000 caregivers bear the burden of the disease. “At this time, there is no cure and no effective treatment.”

Billings Clinic Geriatric Nurse Practitioner Miranda Meunier breaks down these startling numbers, as well as, the cost. “Over 50 percent or more of people in nursing homes have dementia, with 20 percent of Medicare dollars going to patients with dementia.”

If you look at the most recent research, these high numbers of dementia cases point mainly to the lifestyle choices we’re making. Both Dr. Coon and Miranda Meunier say how we live our lives accounts for 75 percent of our longevity, with genetics to blame for the other 25 percent. “Risk reduction is what we are looking at,” says Miranda. “Heredity can play a part, but, if we can reduce the risk, there is a chance to reduce the number (of chronic diseases).”

What exactly are the risk factors for acquiring cognitive impairment (dementia) and other maladies like high blood pressure, diabetes and such?

Dr. Coon reiterates there is really no way to prevent Alzheimer’s, however, we can cut our risk of developing it. “It’s all accumulative,” she points out. Smoking is one of the biggest threats and when you combine that with other risk factors like an unhealthy diet, lack of exercise, and poor sleep, your vascular health and brain health are both in jeopardy. Dr. Coon shares how our vascular and brain health are intertwined. She says if there is an underlying vascular issue like clogged arteries, it may cause a heart attack or stroke, which affects the brain. The lack of blood flow to the brain may then bring on dementia. Bottom line, if you want to live better, longer and stronger, you really have to look at the big picture. “We focus on the global picture of patients,” says Miranda, a Great Falls native who received her training at Duke University. “We look at the whole picture as it’s all interrelated to live our best.”

What does ‘living our best’ entail? The experts say it all boils down to a combination of dynamics — the choices we make — that we actually have some control over.



Social connections play a powerful role in staying mentally fit as we age. “It’s mental gymnastics,” exclaims Dr. Coon. “You want to build cognitive reserve with brain-training. Keep your brain active with social networking.” What is your cognitive reserve? It is basically your mind’s resilience and strength to prevent deterioration and damage. How do you build it up? Be social. Talk with family members, go to the movies or out to dinner with friends, watch something positive on TV or catch up with the kids and grandkids on Skype or Facebook.

George E. Vaillant, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, author of the book, Aging Well, concludes, “Individual lifestyle choices play a greater role than genetics, wealth, race, or other factors in determining how happy people are in later life.” He also speaks on the importance of marriage, coping skills for handling stress, being content and lifelong learning.

“Learn a new language or do other activities that stimulate your brain,” recommends Dr. Coon. “What you strive for in the middle of your life may be more important than when you’re older for building and maintaining cognitive reserve as you age.” Doing so lessens the risk of memory loss later on in life. In Dr. Coon’s words, “Since people with Alzheimer’s begin to have memory problems one to two decades before they have symptoms of dementia, building a cognitive reserve in mid-life may delay onset of symptoms of dementia.”

There are a number of ways you can stockpile your reasoning abilities and to help alleviate becoming part of a health crisis. Working remains a good way to fuel the brain. Puzzles, games and quizzes are effective, too. Keeping the mind active and engaged is one of the best tools in your aging well box. 



Activity in your leisure pursuits offers its own compensation during the course of aging. It’s a chance to participate in what you enjoy. “Golf, dance, read, advance your degree, bird watch!” proposes Dr. Coon. Perhaps, a cruise is on your agenda or a weekend camping trip. “It all reduces stress,” adds Miranda.

We know how stress leads to possible burnout on the job or at home when things don’t seem to be going smoothly. Stress levels spike sometimes sending hormones and tempers through the roof. How you deal with the stress makes a difference. Research on aging well finds that people who eat a healthy diet, sleep well, enjoy a craft or hobby and exercise moderately tend to cope more effectively with the throes of stress.  Less stress means better cardio-vascular health. And, as we have already discussed, better cardio-vascular health means a healthier brain.



Exercise deflates stress hormones in our bodies while inflating our energy levels. There are good reasons for being active. “Take your dog for a walk,” suggests Dr. Coon, “or walk with a friend.” Now, you’re getting your exercise and tending to your social time. There’s an added benefit to your heart health with physical activity and also with keeping an eye on your diet and healthy weight as well. Whatever type of exercise you do, the goal is to get the heart rate up several times a week. The treadmill or boot camp at the gym work great. That walk you take with a friend does too. “Studies show people doing moderate exercise each week do as well as those at the gym,” adds Miranda.

Aging well takes work, but it is well worth the time and effort. “Make wise lifestyle choices,” cautions Dr. Coon.  She adds that you can’t change your genetics, “but you can make sure you age as successfully as possible.” And with each and every healthy choice, you reap the benefits socially, mentally and physically, living longer and stronger along the way.

There’s support for you

The Billings Clinic Caregiver Support Group is a group designed for those who are responsible for the decision-making and care of an aging spouse or family member. The group meets generally the 4th Monday of each month from noon to 1:00 pm in Billings Clinic Basement Conference Room 1. Registration is not required. For more information, you can call (406) 657-4773. 

Memory Loss Does Not Equal Dementia

Are you concerned you’re experiencing the onset of Alzheimer’s? Most of us can relate to walking into a room and asking, “Why did I come in here?” This is normal, unless you go into the room and don’t recognize it. “Then, it’s an issue,” says Geriatric Nurse Practitioner Miranda Meunier. “Or, if you lose your keys and you think people are stealing them. This is an issue.” Dr. Patricia Coon, a geriatrician at Billings Clinic adds, “It’s forgetting significant events and consistently doing so,” says Dr. Coon. “It’s forgetting to pay your bills and you can’t balance the checkbook anymore. Or, you’re having difficulty recognizing things, forgetting to bathe or you get lost when you are out of your home.” For more on the facts and symptoms of Alzheimer’s, visit 

Working to provide people and caregivers with help

The Montana Alzheimer’s/Dementia Work Group, in collaboration with the Montana Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, Billings Clinic Center for Clinical Translational Research and the Montana Department of Public Health & Human Services are working to improve the lives of individuals in our state with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. Town Hall meetings have been held across the state this past spring eliciting information from caregivers, family members, and community members concerning what supportive and healthcare services are needed in the community, what assistance is needed and what critical needs caregivers face. The goal of the work group is to help fashion a statewide plan to identify care and service needs, provide a listing of available resources, improve public awareness, early disease detection, diagnosis and more. For more information or to join the work group please contact Holly Garcia at Billings Clinic, 406-238-2287 or the Alzheimer’s Association at 406-252-3053. You can also check out published Alzheimer’s disease state plans across the nation, at




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