An Interview with Dr. Ollie Harper

Retired from active practice in 2011, Dr. Harper is board certified in Family Medicine and Geriatrics and currently volunteers his time at Mission of Mercy and St. Vincent de Paul volunteer clinics. He also teaches in the doctoring program at University of Arizona College of Medicine in Phoenix. Dr. Harper is serving his second year on the Experience Matters board of directors.

Q:  Given your medical background and professional experience with aging, what recommendations do you have for us to continue to feel our best as we age?

A: I like to consider the main components of healthy aging as inter-related. Like a 3-legged stool, they are equally important and help our overall health remain balanced. Those components are:

  1. Physical health, including exercise and nutrition
  2. Mental acuity
  3. Social interaction and relationships

When we are physically active and healthy, we’re more likely to be mentally alert. That ability to think and perform cognitively makes us more likely to engage in social activities and experience success in our relationships. Our relationships give us the feedback to continue taking care of our physical health and staying engaged in our social circles.

Q:  Okay, let’s start with physical health. What guidelines can you recommend to remain fit?

A:  It doesn’t have to be anything remarkable, like running or strenuous competition. Walking, bike riding or swimming for 30 minutes 5 times per week will take good care of your heart. Strength training using stretch bands, light weights or programs like pilates or yoga contribute to muscle strength, coordination and bone strength – all important as you get older. Muscle strength leads to your long-term physical independence and helps you continue to perform activities of daily living like carrying groceries, opening doors and climbing stairs. Strong muscles and balance are great prevention against future falls, which can really challenge your independence and sense of well-being.

Statistics show that only 30% of adults age 50 – 65 and 25% of adults age 70-80 are getting the recommended 150 minutes per week of aerobic exercise and 15 minutes of strength training twice each week.

Q: What about nutrition? Any advice?

A:  For most people, a diet of whole grains, green leafy vegetables, cold-water fish (omega 3 fatty acids), nuts, beans, lentils and healthy fats will keep you feeling your best. It’s also important to incorporate foods with calcium. Of course, those that have been diagnosed with food allergies or Celiac disease will have to pay attention to adjusting their diet accordingly. A gluten-free diet is specifically designed for those diagnosed with Celiac disease.

Q:  We all want to stay mentally sharp. Any tips for maintaining our cognitive function as we age?

A:  Challenge yourself with new learning experiences. Continuous stimulus and processing of new information from a variety of sources is good for us.

  • Take an ASU extension course
  • Use Rosetta stone and learn a new language
  • Enter a new social group
  • Take on a new career opportunity

Q:  Why are our relationships and social interaction so important to our well-being?

A:  It’s been shown that people who have been challenged by a major stress in their lives (physical, emotional, financial, etc.) are more resilient and able to bounce back better when they have a solid surrounding social structure. Build strong relationships. When people are important to you and you are important to them, you help each other bounce back from setbacks.

Q:  How can someone build their social network?

A:  I believe that volunteer organizations are a great opportunity to build new connections and find common purpose with others doing similar work.

Q:  Do you have any closing observations on wellness as we age?

A:  A recent survey of 65-year old baby boomers revealed that most of them actually only felt 55-years old and a similar survey of 100-year old adults showed that they really only felt about 83-years old. When asked for their reactions to turning 100 many felt blessed and happy. A few were surprised but they did not feel sad. That’s encouraging and a good reason to take care of our health now.