As the saying goes, age is just a number. What matters is how you feel as you age, inside and out. If you feel pretty good on both counts as the years go by, consider yourself aging well.
It’s possible that people who age well are wired for optimism and blessed with great genes. But there are also secrets to aging well, no matter what your health or life circumstances. You have more control over your physical and emotional destiny than you may think.
Secret #1: Exercise
There’s a reason doctors suggest exercise for just about every health concern. It may well be the only treatment that can reduce your risk of age-related disease, improve quality of life, and increase life span. Among its many benefits, regular exercise can:
- Lower the risk of heart disease
- Lower blood pressure
- Help control blood sugar
- Improve strength and balance
- Fight off depression
- Help your brain stay sharp
- Help you get good sleep
Most people, including older adults, should aim for about 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise on most days (2½ hours per week total). If you aren’t interested in traditional exercise (cycling, swimming, elliptical machines), that’s OK. Take the stairs more often, mow the lawn, walk your dog, or march in place while watching TV.
Secret #2. Stop Yo-Yo Dieting
It’s a common weight loss story: You try a new diet, lose some weight, gain the weight back -- and then repeat the cycle with other diets. Doctors call this “weight cycling,” and it isn’t great for your mind or body. Several studies link weight cycling with depression symptoms. Other research suggests it may boost your risk of diseases in your heart and blood vessels and type 2 diabetes.
Instead of dieting, try mindful eating. Get in the habit of thinking about everything you eat or drink. It can help you make healthy choices that support your overall health. Some loose guidelines:
- Start with your doctor. Everyone’s health is different, so you may need a diet with limited salt, increased fiber, or fewer calories overall.
- Take time to plan meals and snacks. Fill up on healthy foods, like fruit, veggies, proteins, and whole grains.
- Drink water, even if you’re not thirsty. It helps your kidneys flush toxins from your body, among other health benefits.
- Enjoy your favorite foods. Don’t deny yourself chips, chocolate, pizza or other indulgences. Just enjoy them in moderate portions (premeasured if it helps) once in a while.
- Cut back on alcohol. It can dehydrate you, stop your mediations from working the way they should, and raise your odds of health conditions like heart disease, high blood pressure, and even sexually transmitted diseases. It also raises your risk of injury from falling.
Secret #3: Choose Foods From the Mediterranean Diet
Mindful eating won’t help you thrive if you don’t know what foods to choose or avoid. That’s where the Mediterranean diet comes in.
This isn’t actually a diet. It’s a healthy way of eating that limits saturated fat and dairy, and focuses on unprocessed foods, plant-based foods, and healthy sources of fat, such as fatty fish and olive oil.
This approach is linked to better heart health, which is also tied to better brain health. A Mediterranean diet helps reduce inflammation, a factor in these and other age-related conditions.
Secret #4. Stay Sharp
As your brain slows down with age, you might forget things here and there (so-called senior moments). That doesn’t mean you’re destined for bigger problems. Consider these steps to protect your memory:
- Engage your brain. Learn a new skill, pursue a new hobby, or find a job that keeps your mental muscles working.
- Believe you’re in control. If you think you can’t avoid memory loss, you may be less likely to work to keep (or improve) the memory skills you have.
- Stay physically active and socially engaged. Both are helpful for memory.
- Save your mental energy for bigger tasks. Use tools (calendars, notes, apps) for routine matters so you can free up mental space to learn new things or remember important things.
- Kick the habit. Smoking damages your heart and blood vessels, which can actually raise your odds of getting dementia. When you stop, your chances go down to those of a nonsmoker.
Secret #5. Get Some Sun (or Take Vitamin D)
Sunlight boosts your body’s supply of vitamin D. Low levels are linked with major illnesses, like:
- Multiple sclerosis
- Metabolic syndrome (a cluster of conditions that increase your risk for diabetes and diseases in your heart and blood vessels)
At the least, getting enough sun may help you stay physically healthy. It may also brighten your outlook. Sunshine has been shown to increase levels of endorphins (feel-good chemicals) in the body.
If you can’t get some sun every day, for medical or other reasons, talk to your doctor about vitamin D supplements.
Secret #6. Connect With Others
Meaningful social connections are vital to all humans. Research has linked loneliness to a higher risk of poor health -- and even death.
What is loneliness? Experts say it isn’t about being alone, but feeling alone, which can be upsetting. It may lead to mental decline, a higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease, depression, and other troublesome conditions.
Fighting loneliness can take effort, and the way you go about it will be unique to your personality. You may want to take a class, join a book club, rekindle old friendships, or volunteer for organizations where you could make new and meaningful social connections.
Nature: “From discoveries in ageing research to therapeutics for healthy ageing.”
Cleveland Clinic: “Aerobic Exercise.”
American Academy of Family Physicians: “Exercise and Seniors,” “After 50: Nutritional Needs.”
Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Exercising for Better Sleep.”
Preventive Medicine: “Is Weight Cycling Associated With Adverse Health Outcomes? A Cohort Study.”
Canadian Journal of Diabetes: “Weight Cycling and Depressive Symptoms in Diabetes: A Community-Based Study of Adults With Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus in Quebec.”
Preventive Medicine Reports: “Associations of Weight Cycling With Cardiovascular Health Using American Heart Association's Life's Simple 7 in a Diverse Sample of Women.”
Journal of Clinical Medicine: “Body Weight Fluctuation as a Risk Factor for Type 2 Diabetes: Results from a Nationwide Cohort Study.”
American Addiction Centers: “The Invisible Epidemic: Senior Citizens and Alcoholism.”
American Journal of Physiology: “Keynote lecture: strategies for optimal cardiovascular aging.”
Nutrients: “Adherence to a Mediterranean Diet Protects from Cognitive Decline in the Invecchiare in Chianti Study of Aging.”
Harvard Health Publishing: “6 simple steps to keep your mind sharp at any age” and "Exercise can boost your memory and thinking skills."
Alzheimer’s Society: “Smoking and dementia.”
Environmental Health Perspectives: “Benefits of Sunlight: A Bright Spot for Human Health.”
Annals of Behavioral Medicine: “Loneliness Matters: A Theoretical and Empirical Review of Consequences and Mechanisms.”