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50+: Live Better, Longer

Healthy Aging: What Can You Control?

Genetics isn't the only factor in aging. Here's how to break the mold.
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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.

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