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Healthy Aging: What Can You Control?

Genetics isn't the only factor in aging. Here's how to break the mold.
By
WebMD Magazine - Feature

When it comes to aging, Bebe Shaw didn't hit the genetic lottery. Her mother died from congestive heart failure, her father of a heart condition. The younger of her two brothers had a heart attack at age 52, and her younger sister is on the verge of congestive heart failure. Shaw, 69, has high cholesterol -- a serious risk factor for heart disease.

With such a checkered health history, she's not taking any chances. "I am an advocate of exercise and diet," says Shaw, who works as a paralegal in Ocala, Fla. "I play tennis 3 days a week, go to [indoor cycling] and Zumba classes at the Y twice a week, and try to ride my bike on a nearby trail every day." She also eats well, takes a statin drug to control her cholesterol, and visits her doctor regularly for checkups and screenings.

Aging: Nature or Nurture?

Looking at your relatives' medical histories is like peering into a crystal ball. You get a glimpse at your future but not the whole picture. You can't change the genes you inherited, but you can avoid habits that contributed to your family's health problems.

"Some people can have a family history of heart disease, but it's actually a history of smoking, overeating, and [an inactive] lifestyle. And if you adopt that lifestyle, you're going to run into the same problems your parents did," says James Pacala, MD. He is the associate head of the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at the University of Minnesota.

Lifestyle was a big factor in Shaw's family: Her father was overweight, and her younger brother, a smoker.

Take preventive action now to help make sure you're healthy into your 60s, 70s, 80s, and beyond. "You must remain active and engaged. By that, I mean physically and mentally active and socially engaged," says Pacala, who is also president of the American Geriatrics Society. He ticks off the necessities: aerobic and resistance exercises, a balanced diet that's low in saturated fat and high in fruits and vegetables, and brain games and social outings to keep you sharp.

You also want to try to avoid diseases. "Get your immunizations, your cancer screening tests, your cardiac and osteoporosis risk factors assessed before you have those problems," Pacala says.

Staying Forever Young

We've all seen 70- and 80-year-olds who look and act decades younger. How do they do it? Pacala shares a few secrets.

Refuse to take it slow. "There's a sort of societal expectation that you're supposed to slow down as you get old, and I think you should fight against that," Pacala says. "Don't let your grandkids get up and mow the lawn for you and get you a glass of water. Get up and do it yourself."

Take a daily walk. Even if your pace is gentle and the distance is short, the time spent on your feet will help keep your bones strong.

Read the newspaper with your morning bowl of oatmeal. Keeping your mind engaged could ward off the brain changes that lead to Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia, while the whole grains in your bowl help prevent heart disease.

Downsize your portions. Overeating leads to obesity and diabetes, which can shorten your lifespan. An overstuffed plate has also been linked to memory loss in people 70 and older.

Reviewed on July 12, 2013

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