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The Secret to Healthy Aging

Want to stay young in mind and body? Develop these lifelong habits.
WebMD Magazine - Feature

Who doesn't wish for a fountain of youth? Magical youth-restoring springs exist only in legend, but science does point to a few simple, healthy habits that can help extend your life.

Heather Whitson, MD, MHS, assistant professor of medicine (geriatrics) and ophthalmology at Duke University School of Medicine, shares the most effective tips.

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Don't slow down. "Exercise and physical activity is where the strongest evidence lies, not just for reducing mortality, but also for across-the-board health benefits," Whitson says. She ticks off exercise's advantages: fewer heart risks, improved sleep and memory, less depression and pain, better bone strength, and fewer falls.

What kind of fitness is best? "If you're only able to do one kind of exercise, aerobic exercise is what you want to do," she says. In other words, walk briskly, ride a stationary bike, or take a dance class. Even better, alternate aerobics with strength and flexibility training for a well-rounded program.

Go Mediterranean. With its emphasis on fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats, the Mediterranean diet has some solid evidence to show it can help you live longer. One study found that, compared with a low-fat diet, the Mediterranean way of eating can cut the risk of life-threatening heart attacks and strokes by 30%.

Stay connected. As family moves away and friends move on, you can lose touch and get isolated. Loneliness isn't just a state of mind. It takes a toll on the body, too. One study linked loneliness with a 45% increased risk of death. "The more connectedness people have, the better outcomes they have," Whitson says. Build a support network through your doctor, community center, or religious organization. Learn to use social networking web sites like Facebook and voice/imaging technologies such as Skype.

No butts. Whether heart disease, lung disease, or cancer eventually develops, a smoker's life will be cut short by roughly 13 to 14 years. It takes an average of seven attempts to ditch the habit for good. "Just because you've tried in the past doesn't mean you're incapable of quitting. It just means you're closer to the time when you succeed," Whitson says.

The Mediterranean Meal Plan

The Mediterranean diet has been linked to better heart health and greater longevity. Whitson recommends it to her patients.

Ban butter. Switch to unsaturated olive oil for cooking, and use olive oil for salad dressings. Vegetable oils such as canola and grape seed are also healthy.

Switch to fish. Twice a week, substitute a serving of salmon, herring, or albacore tuna for red meat.

Load up on veggies. Leave more room on your plate for vegetables like broccoli, kale, carrots, and tomatoes. Grill or steam them, or serve them raw, instead of frying.

Reviewed on March 14, 2013

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