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Q&A with Vivien Brown

In a world rife with anti-aging potions and serums, Toronto-based family physician Vivien Brown has zeroed in on the keys to aging gracefully, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally as well. Brown lectures around the world about healthy aging and women’s health, and her book A Woman’s Guide to Healthy Aging, shines a spotlight on the unique issues facing women during the aging process and gives them the steps they need to take now to age better later.

You identify seven key areas of women’s health with regards to healthy aging. What are some simple, practical steps women can take toward healthy aging?

One of the most important things is quitting smoking. It has a huge impact on your overall health. It has an impact on cardiac health, on brain health, it has an impact everywhere. We also look at exercise as being really important because it keeps your weight appropriate for your height, keeps you strong, and keeps you fit. What that also does is helps you maintain balance. When we look at osteoporosis in older women who have a hip fracture, it’s often a woman who may not be as fit as she could have been or may not have the balance that she should have had at that age. When we look at prevention, it’s so important to prevent some of the vaccine-preventable diseases like pneumonia and influenza. Those are some of the leading causes of death in Canada. When you have a significant case of pneumonia, when you are admitted to the hospital over the age of 65 for influenza, about 10 per cent of people don’t go back to independent living. We can’t control genetics and we can’t control getting older, but if we control the modifiable risk factors, we’ll be able to handle those diseases in a healthier way.

So the purpose of this book is not about how to stay young longer, but how to maintain good health as you age.

Right. So at any age, how would we define being in good health? We would define it as living independently, being able to make our own decisions, being socially connected. You see some women in their 60s that may be physically fit and they look like they’re in their 40s, but we also see women in their 40s that may look and act like they’re in their 60s and 70s. I think we want to be the best that we can be at whatever age we are. I have a [patient] in her very early 90s who gets annoyed with me when I’m running late, because she has a tennis game to get to. Well, that’s the way I want to be. I want to be independent, I want to be living a healthy lifestyle, and I want to still be doing sports and activities at age 90, not living in a wheelchair in a chronic care facility.

What is one thing you learned in your research for this book that surprised you?

I think the thing that surprises me the most is that 70 per cent of new cases of Alzheimer’s are in women. One of the things we can do to help prevent [brain] deterioration is social connectedness, learning new things, taking care of our hearts – because heart health and brain health are connected. Taking care of our blood pressure, our cholesterol, exercise – all of these have an impact on brain health. If you do have some trauma, or an accident or whatever, you want your brain to be able to adapt to that, and all of that is the healthy choices we make when we’re younger.

How do you maintain health and wellness in your own life?

I’m very socially connected. I’m connected with all kinds of projects and people and things that I’m interested in. The second thing I do is, for the last couple of years, I’ve been wearing a Fitbit and I’ve been working hard, no matter how many hours I’m in the office, to get my 10,000 steps a day. I don’t get 10,000 steps every day, but I’m aiming for it. I also talk a lot about immunization in my work and I will share with your readers that I have been immunized for everything. I really believe strongly that if we can prevent some of the vaccine-preventable diseases, then we can have a huge impact on our health.

Have you been to the spa, and if so what was your favourite spa treatment?

Of course I go to the spa! I think that relaxation and downtime and, if you go with a friend, socializing is really important. One of my favourite treatments to get is a massage where I really just relax my muscles. I like it when I get a Thai massage and they help me do some stretching at the same time. 

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