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Healthy Aging & Lifestyle

5 Healthy Habits to Slow Aging

By Dr. Martica Heaner, PhD
Healthy habits mean healthy aging. And that means you can enjoy life till the end. Here are the lifestyle behaviors that are proven to keep you vibrant and active.

On most days of the week, Bunny Bambace tries to make it to the health club in Houston, TX that she’s been a member of for 40 years. She takes weights classes and, depending on the exercise, lifts 10- to 15-pound dumbbells. Bunny is five feet tall and 90 years old. Some younger women in their 30s and 40s working out next to her, only use 5- to 8-pound weights. She is two to three times their age — and lifting two to three times as much. Despite her petite stature, this nonagenarian is a powerhouse and the embodiment of healthy aging.

“Age is only a chronological number; it doesn’t really reveal how ‘old’ or ‘young’ you actually are,” explains Los Angeles-based Malin Svensson, personal trainer to 80-something Jane Fonda and author of Wake Up Your Body + Mind After 50!  “I’ve worked out with people in their 20s who are in terrible shape and people in their 70s who are in great shape.” Experts agree, healthy habits like eating a nutritious diet, regular exercise, adhering to healthy sleep habits, and a focus on enhancing mental health can optimize your later years. Healthy aging means having a low incidence of disease and disability, maintaining high physical functioning, and preserving sharp cognitive abilities, all while being actively engaged with life till the end.1 Healthy aging is possible, and growing older doesn’t have to mean going downhill. Here are five lifestyle behaviors to kick-start you on the path to healthy aging.

  1. HEALTHY HABITS THAT OLDER ADULTS CREDIT MOST FOR THEIR LONGEVITY

“I admit that some mornings I do feel old, but it disappears as I go about my day,” says Bob Selya, JD, an 84-year-old attorney in New York City and lifelong runner who progressed to becoming a gym rat, taking two classes a day (spin and weights) on four days per week. “I don’t like to appear old,” he says. “I’m always standing up straight and squaring my shoulders.”

While he always exercised, after having a heart bypass two years ago, other healthy habits that Bob added include eating a heart-healthy diet with lots of greens, legumes, beans, and vegetables. “I try to walk to most of my destinations, rather than take the subway or bus, and I’ve recently started to go on hikes,” he says. “I also do the New York Times’ Saturday news quiz and play word games with my son.”

Bunny’s other long-term healthy habits include not slowing down. Not only does she walk three to four miles (or more) every day, she enters the local 5K Turkey Trot every year. In her late 80s, she won first place in her age group three years in a row — until last year where she was bumped to fourth place. “A few really fit men in their 70s bested me,” she laments.

Bob and Bunny’s daily habits are prime examples of what researchers have found leads to longevity and good health into old age: regular physical activity, healthy eating, and staying engaged with life.2

  1. HEALTHY EATING LEADS TO HEALTHY AGING

Nutrition affects all aspects of health, for better or for worse. So, depending upon your food choices, you can help heal — or you can exacerbate — the health conditions associated with aging such as type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure. “Our body is a machine. Some parts you can replace, but you’ve got to take care of it,” says Svensson. “I like to remind my clients to treat their machine like a high-performance car. Give it high premium gas and view a healthy diet as fuel for your body and your brain.” If you invest in the self-care of your most valuable asset — you — your efforts will be rewarded.3

Healthy eating helps prevent or manage chronic diseases of the body. But one of the biggest fears about aging is whether cognitive decline will kick in. “While there is still a lot we don’t fully understand about how exactly nutrition affects dementia, there is sufficient evidence to say with confidence that a proper, brain-healthy diet most certainly can reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and/or slow the progression in individuals already suffering from AD,” says Dr. Christopher Ochner, PhD, author of The Alzheimer’s Prevention & Treatment Diet. What type of diet is best? “Generally the same diet that you eat to be heart healthy is also going to keep your brain healthy,” says Dr. Ochner. “When you are shopping, try to stick to the outer aisles in a supermarket where the fresh foods and produce are; focus on fresh fruits and vegetables, for example. Stay away from the center aisles where the processed foods are stored.”

Preventing under-nutrition of the essential nutrients that every cell needs to thrive and help your machine function at optimal levels is crucial. But over-nutrition in terms of eating excess junk can take its toll, as extra calories get stored in fat cells all over your body, especially in the metabolically risky belly area. Obesity can increase health risks for anyone at any age. So, manage your body weight to prevent the weight gain that can creep on over time.4,5,6,7

One observational study followed over 118,000 young adults for around 30 years through their mid 50s. Even moderate weight gain (~6 to 20 pounds) over time was associated with a significantly increased risk of chronic health conditions like high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity-related cancer compared to those who remained weight stable or gained five pounds or less. If you have experienced gradual weight gain, adopting healthy eating habits that lead to weight loss can reduce the risk of health conditions and impaired quality of life associated with aging.8

Although gluten in wheat products has gotten a bad rap from some in the media, research shows that whole grains are a powerful weapon against the chronic diseases associated with aging. A meta-analysis in the British Medical Journal assessed 45 studies on whole grain intake. People who ate around three servings of whole grains per day had a 19 percent reduced risk of coronary heart disease, a 12 percent reduced risk of stroke, and 22 percent reduced risk of cardiovascular disease compared to those who ate more refined grains. Reductions in health risks were seen with intakes of up to around seven servings (up to 225 grams) of whole grains per day. Think: brown rice, barley, whole grain bread, whole grain breakfast cereals, etc. There was little evidence of protection from processed versions such as white rice or white breads. The 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that at least 50 percent of grain intake be from whole grain. Better, optimize your healthy-aging potential: Skip refined, processed grains and aim for 100 percent whole.9,10

Processed foods of all types can wreak havoc on health. But added sugars in the form of refined sweeteners like sucrose and high fructose corn syrup may hurt health when consumed in excess. One study at the Boston University School of Medicine compared the MRI brain scans of over 4,000 older adults with their self-reported sweet beverage intake. People who drank more than two sweetened soft drinks or juices a day tended to have lower total brain volume and performed more poorly in memory tests than those who drank less than one sweetened drink per day. Although the study was only a snapshot in time that cannot prove that drinking sweet beverages causes brain changes, dietitians typically recommend avoiding sugar-sweetened beverages and eating fruit like apples and oranges whole, rather than in juiced form.11

While drinking less sweet stuff is a good idea, drinking adequate amounts of water is crucial. Older adults may have problems with hydration. Thirst drive can diminish, as can adequate sweat responses. Dehydration in older adults is a major predictor of disease and early death. So, how much should you drink? Generally eight 8-ounce glasses per day are recommended. But since overhydration can also be a problem for older adults, especially if heart failure or kidney problems are present, quantities may need to be adjusted for individual needs.12,13

  1. HEALTHY SLEEP HABITS KEEP YOU ENERGIZED

What is known as your “sleep architecture” changes throughout your lifespan. How many hours you sleep and how long you spend in the various stages of sleep while you snooze evolve. Sleep problems are common after the age of 65. Aging is associated with a decrease in total sleep time, as well as reductions in sleep efficiency and time spent in the deepest slow-wave and REM cycles 14, 15. Older adults tend to go to bed sooner and wake up earlier than compared to younger years. Shorter and poorer quality sleep doesn’t just make you feel fatigued. Poor sleep can affect your memory, contribute to feelings of depression, and can increase fall risk. Plus, sleep deprivation can weaken the immune system and contribute to inflammation, especially in older adults. Rather than cripple your health with the potential long-lasting effects of inadequate sleep, address sleep issues: indulge in self-care and practice good sleep hygiene so you can consistently get your recommended seven to nine hours of sleep per night.16, 17

  1. HEALTHY PHYSICAL FITNESS HABITS TRANSFORM OLD TO YOUNG

There’s a reason that pharmaceutical companies have spent big bucks and many years trying to develop an “exercise pill” that could generate all the beneficial physiological effects of physical activity. It seems odd that something as simple as a walk around the block can so powerfully impact health, but studies show that regular exercise, even at low intensities, can lower risk of heart diseases and other chronic conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, and cancer. It’s a proven therapy for depression. And developing physical fitness keeps bones strong, muscles intact, and reduces the risks of falls and fracture.18, 19

And try not to think of exercise as a ‘should’ or a ‘must,’ view it as a privilege and be grateful that you are able to move,”

Malin Svensson

“You might have aches and pains, but you can’t use that as an excuse not to move, '' says Svensson. “Take action and seek treatment, if needed, and work on the basics: strengthen your core, improve your alignment, and maintain good posture. Remember, no matter what your age, you can always strengthen your muscles and bones.”

Also, different weak spots mean different limitations — but that still leaves you with a world of options. Arthritic knee? So, you might not be able to do Zumba, but pool exercises or cycling may help strengthen it. Bad lower back? Some yoga poses may be out of the question, but careful strength training may improve it. Bum shoulder? Raising weights overhead and playing racquet sports may need to be put on hold, but cardio machines like the elliptical trainer or treadmill, or simply walking, hiking, or jogging outside, may not aggravate tender areas at all. “And try not to think of exercise as a ‘should’ or a ‘must,’ view it as a privilege and be grateful that you are able to move,” says Svensson.

So, what kind and how much exercise do you need to do? The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that older adults include cardio exercise (like walking, swimming, dancing, and/or running), strength training (like lifting weights), and flexibility exercises (like stretches.) In addition, avoiding long periods of inactivity (like sitting for hours) can contribute to overall activity levels.20

  1. HEALTHY MENTAL HEALTH HABITS KEEP COGNITION SHARP

“While technically, your brain isn’t a muscle, it does need exercise to maintain peak performance,” says Dr. Ochner, a psychologist and Division Director of Research at HCA Healthcare in Miami, FL. “This doesn’t mean playing sudoku nonstop, but it does mean embracing lifestyle habits that keep you challenged mentally and also that keep you engaged socially. Socializing over social media may be as good for your brain as math puzzles.”

Handling the long-term daily and weekly stresses that life gives is also a key to healthy aging. “Having an optimistic outlook is likely the largest non-genetic predictor of how well individuals handle stress,” says Dr. Ochner. Positive attitudes and the power of prayer can help buffer during difficult times. “I try to be as positive as I can, and my faith has helped me tremendously. If you have difficulties in life, I believe in the power of God. It doesn’t take the pain away, but it helps,” says Bunny.

And don’t be too quick to give up your day job. Or if you do, discover new activities that give you purpose and meaning. “I have noticed that women tend to be more involved with daily living, but men are often so tied to their jobs and define themselves by them. I have seen a lot of widower friends who, once they get out of their profession, no longer feel useful and feel like it’s all over.” So practice self-care and find a new hobby or passion to feel good about so you can stay engaged with the world.

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