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Greenville Business Magazine

Exercise, Healthy Eating Are Keys to Living a Long and Active Life, Doctors Say

Dec 05, 2023 03:13PM ● By Liv Osby

Gwen Mimms loved mowing her two-acre lawn so much she did it well into her 90s.

She even drove until she was 100. 

Now at 101, she still enjoys reading science fiction, doing crossword puzzles and spending time with younger people. 

“I think everybody in the world is younger than me,” she says with a chuckle. “But that’s all right. I keep up with them.”

The Fountain Inn woman is admittedly a member of a small club – people who live to 100 and beyond in good health physically and mentally, and with a passion for life. 

But experts say that more people could live long, active and happy lives like her, even though there are some age-related changes along the way.

Some brain changes, for example, are part of natural aging, said Dr. Travis Turner, associate professor and director of the Neuropsychology Division of the Department of Neurology at the Medical University of South Carolina.

“Because you’re going into a room and forgetting why, or are slower at coming up with the answers to Jeopardy! doesn’t mean you’re on dementia’s door,” he said.

Dr. Bala Krishniah, of Palmetto Internal Medicine and Primary Care in Mauldin, says there are three basic things that improve longevity - healthy eating, regular exercise and a happy life. 

“Also, genetics, but you can’t choose your parents,” he adds. “How you live your life … helps with longevity.” 

Studies show that of the things people can do to preserve the highest quality of life as they age, physical activity is top among them for brain function, said Turner. 

“Anything that is good for the heart is good for the brain because the brain needs a lot of oxygen. And when it’s not getting enough, it causes wear and tear,” he said. “Regular physical activity is key, whether cardio or resistance training, it’s important to be moving.”

Regular exercise means 30 to 45 minutes a day, regardless of your age, at least four days a week, Krishniah said.

“It doesn’t have to be going to a gym,” he said. “But even simple walking. Go out and walk and enjoy nature.”

“Stay active,” agrees Dr. Laurie Theriot, chief of geriatric medicine at Prisma Health Upstate.

“It seems counterintuitive that arthritis hurts when you get up and move, but it will get better if you get up and move,” she adds. “You don’t want to spend your day sitting in a chair.”

Staying physically active can also reduce the likelihood of a fall injury, which can dramatically change people’s lives as they age, said Krishniah.

Eating healthy means a more plant-based diet of fruits, vegetables and nuts and fewer processed foods, he said.

Theriot says the classic advice is shopping for foods in the outer aisles of the grocery store, focusing on fresh, whole foods that you make at home.

Turner said that along with a healthy diet, it’s important to limit alcohol, which gets more difficult to process as we age, and which can interfere with some medications.

And being happy means being active socially, spending time with family and friends, and staying mentally stimulated, Krishniah said.

“Isolating yourself is not a good thing,” he said. “Go to church, meet people, have fun, play games, play cards, word games.”

Social isolation can lead to depression, which is an ominous sign as people age, said Theriot. Positive social connections bring people out of the isolation that can sometimes take hold as people age, she said.

“Staying cognitively stimulated, whether with friends, going on outings, hiking … board games, card games, book club,” she said, “that really keeps your brain and your body active.”

An active social life is also important for preserving mental and physical function, Turner said, adding that one study found loneliness is as detrimental as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.

“We are not only social creatures, we need to socialize to be well,” he said. “It’s a whole-brain activity because you need to use memory, planning, language skills.” 


Andrea Smith, executive director of Senior Action in Greenville, says the mission of the center is to help people stay physically, mentally and socially active as they age.

“People come here for exercise class, or quilting class, or book club… and it’s the friendships and relationships they build that are making them healthier,” she said. 

“There’s no substitute for staying in touch with others face-to-face,” she adds. “When you get engaged with people, your brain is being challenged whether you realize it or not by talking, telling stories. That helps keep the brain young.” 

One member’s husband had a stroke, she recalls, so she had to stay home more to care for him, cutting her off from the friends she had at the center.  

“But then all these people started going to her house, playing cards, bringing food,” she said. “The community started coming to her and it really helped.”

The Covid-19 pandemic revealed to the world the negative effects of isolation to people of every age, she said.

“That was a period where we could see people declining rapidly,” she said. “Being isolated and sitting at home, you get frail and more unable to participate.”

Turner said one study of 10,000 Parkinson’s disease patients revealed that limitations on physical and social activity during the Covid pandemic were associated with higher risks of new symptoms. 

“There are many people who have not … re-engaged into the community, family activities, church, other places,” he said. “And (they) are seeming to do worse in terms of cognitive decline.”

Mood and anxiety conditions factor in as well, he said, adding that exercise and socialization also can help with that. 

Finding healthy avenues to reduce stress, such as meditation or yoga, is also important, Theriot says. 

“Stress management is the hardest,” she said. “Find something that brings you back to what’s important in this life. Not drugs. Not alcohol.”

If necessary, she says, reach out to a mental health professional to better help manage stress.

Intellectual activity, the experts agree, also contributes to good brain function. 

“I love hearing about older adults going to college and auditing classes, learning new things, new hobbies, painting, challenging the mind to do something different,” said Turner. “Any kind of intellectual curiosity.”

Engaging with grandchildren also seems to be beneficial, he said, because it challenges someone to think a different way, which keeps the mind young.

Theriot adds that sleep is also important to healthy aging.

“Restorative sleep is a big part of the healing process,” she said. “It helps deal with stress, infection. If you’re not getting good sleep, it’s important to talk to your doctor and possibly have that investigated … and what interventions could help.”

Theriot adds that sleep does change with age and that broken sleep is normal, as are naps during the day, adding, “Take all the naps you need.”

Turner says there’s also an association between hearing loss, especially in men, and increased dementia that can be mitigated by hearing aids.

“People are less likely to engage in conversation, are more likely to be passive, because they can’t hear properly,” he said.

Keeping up with vaccinations, which prevent chronic illnesses that can lead to debility and reduced life span, is also important, Theriot said. 

“Vaccinations by far have saved more lives than almost anything else,” she said. 

Theriot says a non-smoking, healthy 65-year-old male has a 43 percent expectation of living to 90, and for women it’s 54 percent.

Mimms, whose mother lived to 98, obviously beat the odds.

Married twice, she raised four children, all of whom are still living, and has two grandchildren and three great grandchildren.

Over the years, she worked as an interior decorator, an office receptionist and in wallpaper sales, among other jobs, she says. And she was an artist, she says, painting pictures of family and friends.

Mimms confesses that she doesn’t exercise as much as she should, and only cooks “because I get hungry,” 

She no longer has a car – “Boy, does that cramp your style!” – and she misses mowing grass, but had to stop because of some arthritis.

“I’ve just got better sense than to try to get out and do that kind of stuff,” she said. “But I’ve got lots of help.”

Brenda Johnson says she met Mimms in 2009 through Senior Helpers and calls her “an amazing woman.”

“Gwen is like family to me,” she says. “I love her.”

Mimms doesn’t dwell on things that she can’t do anything about. And she always keeps up her appearance.  

“You’ve got to take care of yourself,” she says. “I’ve always got on bright red lipstick and I keep my finger nails painted.”

She watches the 5 p.m. news and that’s about it because “TV isn’t like it used to be.”

But she says she misses the “good adventure movies” of her younger days.

“At 12, I wanted to go live with Tarzan,” she says. 

Krishniah, who is Mimms’ doctor, calls her “very sharp. And witty. And kind-hearted as well.”

“She’s my favorite 101-year-old,” he said.

Along with reading and crosswords, Mimms says she enjoys spending time with younger friends.

“They take me where I want to go - the library, the grocery store, the doctor,” she says. “I’ve known them a long time. And they’re a lot of fun. That’s what keeps me young at 101.”