Age is just a number. While one 93-year-old may cook, visit friends, and take her dog for long hikes, her 83-year-old neighbor might require 24/7 care. As we age, it’s important not to focus on a number, but on maintaining quality of life, no matter how many candles are on our cakes.
Some people are blessed with good genes. They can defy all conventional wisdom around “healthy behavior” and still live well into their 90s and beyond. But others aren’t so lucky. While your parents’ longevity can be an indicator of your potential lifespan, your way of life is just as critical. It’s also the only aspect of aging you can control.
We’re inundated daily with dos and don’ts for growing old gracefully. Don’t smoke or use tobacco. Don’t drink too much. Watch your weight. Wear sunscreen. Get plenty of sleep. Hydrate. Stretch. Floss. There’s so much written about how to stay healthy in your later years that it can be overwhelming, and sometimes people just give up. But it doesn’t have to be so hard. Small changes in just a few areas can make a big difference for your physical and cognitive health and help you get the most out of your golden years.
We know we’re supposed to “eat right,” but what does that really mean? Sue Levy, founder of Savory Living, says that “how we eat impacts inflammation which is connected to belly fat, joint pain, digestive issues, headaches, depression, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, cancer and COVID-19.”
The evidence backs up her claim. There’s even a term for it: “inflammaging.” In a recent report, researchers Roma Pahwa of the National Cancer Institute and Dr. Ishwarlal Jialal of California Northstate University said that “although chronic inflammation progresses silently, it is the cause of most chronic diseases and presents a major threat to the health and longevity of individuals.”
It can be hard to know what a healthy meal looks like, but a study in the BMJ journal Gut may help lead you in the right direction. According to the study, eating a Mediterranean diet for just one year can change the microbiome and inhibit the production of inflammatory chemicals responsible for increased frailty as you age. The results were impressive, with reduced mortality, less inflammation, lower incidence of multiple diseases, and better cognitive function.
Reducing your intake of inflammatories like wheat, sugar, red meat, dairy, and processed food is the first step, but adding in nutritious foods is a more powerful way to support your health. Dark berries, leafy greens, legumes, lean meats, fish, and healthy sources of fat like olive oil will fuel your body and reduce cravings for “junk food.” Shopping the outer aisles of the grocery store – where items tend to be straight from the earth – can also be a good strategy.
Sarcopenia, a condition marked by progressive loss of skeletal muscle strength is another concern for older adults. “As we age, we naturally lose muscle mass which can be compounded by a decreased interest in or the ability to consume sources of protein,” says nutrition consultant Ashley Ranaldi. “Olfactory senses and poor oral health can play into the lack of protein as well. Older adults should incorporate protein-rich foods in every meal to meet their recommended daily allowances – one gram per kilogram of bodyweight every day.”
Lean meats, poultry, fish, low-fat dairy, nuts (in moderation), seeds, and legumes are all rich sources of protein which can help strengthen bones and muscles to combat injury from falls. And Vitamin D, calcium, and magnesium help keep bones healthy while fish oil minimizes joint inflammation.
According to a study by Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the National Cancer Institute – exercise will increase life expectancy by up to three or more years by lowering your risk of Heart Disease and Cancer. But exercise also lowers stress and improves sleep, skin and bone health, and mood. Swimming and walking are great options that are easier on the joints. But strength training is important later in life to help stimulate muscle development for balance. That doesn’t mean you have to hit the gym. The idea is to add resistance to your workout, like small weights or exercise bands, or even body weight exercises like squats and planks.
Osteopath Dr. Judy Brasier adds that post-menopausal women, in particular, should do weight-bearing exercises regularly. “It helps improve bone density which deteriorates with age,” she says. She also suggests incorporating stability exercises into your routine. “Yoga is great for promoting longevity because it strengthens the body, but it also improves flexibility and mobility.” But physical health is only one aspect of aging gracefully.
Maintaining your mental health
Staying mentally active can dramatically improve the quality of your later life the way exercise and diet can. When we learn something new, we form new cells in our hippocampus, the part of our brain tied to memory, learning, and emotion, no matter how old we get. Learning also creates a sense of accomplishment and purpose. So, read and stay informed. Take an art class. Join a book group. Take up knitting or woodworking. Listen to a podcast. Attend a lecture. Do puzzles. Play games. Even though our brains aren’t muscles, they still need to be exercised the same way our hearts do.
Technology has become a lifeline for many of us. It’s how we communicate with others (especially since COVID-19), get our daily dose of news, and even play games. But unplugging regularly can result in lower levels of stress hormones, which is good for longevity. Even better, become part of a community to regularly connect with others and form new bonds. Join a garden club. Or a choir. Volunteer at an organization you’re passionate about. Find others with similar interests and build meaningful relationships. Even spending time with pets can help lower your blood pressure and lift your spirits.
Aging without getting old
In so many ways age is a mindset. When you commit to taking care of yourself through good nutrition, regular exercise, intellectual stimulation, and connecting with others, you slow the aging process both physically and mentally. Everything in moderation is a good motto to live by, but so is living life to the fullest. Because those are the lives most worth living.