On one hand, the fact that Americans are living longer—according to the National Center for Health Statistics, life expectancy recently surpassed seventy-eight years of age—is good news. People aren’t dying untimely deaths, some folks actually get to become grandparents, and we don’t think it’s crazy that a presidential candidate, at age seventy-two, isn’t dead yet. On the other hand, this statistic tells us nothing about the years before those late ones. Yes, we’re living longer, but are we living better? Are those last decades riddled with chronic disease and bags of pharmaceuticals, with lack of autonomy and spoon feedings? Or are we healthy and spry, playing Scrabble and dancing the jig with other octogenarians and centenarians?
Most of us probably hope to be boogying and luckily, there are things we can do to try to prevent disease and have a disability-free life expectancy. These five tips are relevant at any age—and it’s never too late to start.
Move It or Lose It
If there is a fountain of youth, exercise might be it. Physical activity does everything from warding off age-related frailty and loss of physical functioning, to preventing diseases such as osteoporosis, obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. By boosting the immune system and reducing oxidative stress and inflammation, exercise can also slow the aging process at the cellular level. A 2008 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that compared with sedentary adults, physically active adults had telomeres (chromosomal structures that shorten with age) comparable to people ten years their junior. Perhaps most importantly, by keeping active throughout our lives, we ensure we will be independent and mobile—and thus happier, seeing as how we won’t have to rely on hired help or a begrudged relative to wipe our bums—during our golden years. So for those looking to be able to samba on their ninetieth birthday, it might mean practicing it diligently until then.
Eat Plants, Not Milkshakes
In addition to smoking and physical inactivity, the CDC estimates that poor diet is a main contributor to our nation’s leading chronic diseases. But what does “poor diet” constitute? While numerous studies try to pinpoint exactly what it is we should be eating and what we shouldn’t, the bulk of the research indicates that we are best off avoiding highly processed and fast foods whose large portion sizes, sugar, salt, and trans fat content directly contribute to our nation’s heart disease, obesity, and diabetes. And you can’t go wrong eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables, as well as things like legumes, nuts, and whole grains—essentially, plant matter. Colorful fruits and vegetables are loaded with age-busting antioxidants, necessary minerals and vitamins, and are usually low in calories and high in fiber. Unfortunately, the pickles and iceberg lettuce on cheeseburgers don’t count.
Make Positive Connections
Facebook may not seem like a health aide, but the importance of having a close social network, especially as we age, is becoming increasingly evident. A 2004 study done at Harvard Medical School found that two strong predictors of high functioning among older women were having close friends and relatives and the presence of a confidante. The key is to avoid adverse relationships—the ones that stress us out or cause negative emotions—and foster the good ones, which can improve mental health and result in feelings of greater personal control. In addition, research has found that having friends that embrace healthful behaviors, like quitting smoking or exercising, can positively influence our own behaviors.
Bag the Smokes
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tobacco use is the number one preventable cause of death in the United States, resulting in one out of every five deaths each year. In addition to taking years off our lives, smoking ensures our last ones won’t be fun—chances are we’ll spend the last years (or decades) crippled with a smoking-related condition like cancer, heart disease, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. It’s a devil to quit, but putting down the cigarettes for good—or never picking them up in the first place—is perhaps the single most important thing we can do to prolong health and prevent future disease.
Cultivate a Sense of Purpose
In his book, The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, author Dan Buettner teamed up with the National Institute of Aging to explore the places where people lived the longest and healthiest, places he calls “Blue Zones.” From islands in Japan to Seventh Day Adventist communities in California, he found common traits among the old and disability-free. In addition to physical activity, a healthy diet, and positive social connections, he also notes that the happier older people had a sense of purpose in life. A study published in the 2007 American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry echoes this finding; according to the elders surveyed, a key component of successful aging was keeping engaged in life by seeking out stimulation, learning, feeling like they had a sense of purpose, and feeling useful to others and society.
Though many of these age-defying steps are things we’ve heard before, it’s worth knowing that not only do they help us feel better in the present, they’ll also help us to live happier and healthier lives in the future.