We would all love to think that we’ll grow old gracefully like Sarah Jessica Parker. Perhaps you want to be one who sees the world with her circle of friends well into their 90s. Or maybe you aspire to be like the 92-year-old father of aerobics who still works out five days a week. While aging may not be optional, research shows that how we age depends on diet, exercise, a positive outlook on life, and, in some cases, dumb luck. Fortunately, there are several lessons in aging well that can skew the odds of succeeding in our favor.
1. You can improve your cardiovascular health at any age.
Two of the biggest indicators of cardiovascular health are your maximum heart rate, and something called your VO2 max, or the amount of oxygen your body uses when you exercise. The lower your maximum heart rate during exercise and the higher your VO2 max, the healthier your heart is believed to be. Until recently, it was thought that at a certain point in your life (around middle age), you could no longer raise your VO2 max.
Instead, exercise programs focused on maintaining whatever heart health you had built up to that point. Research suggests that isn’t the case. Exercise programs that combine high-intensity exercises with low-intensity workouts have been shown to dramatically improve a person’s heart health well into their 80s and beyond. That’s good news for those of us who have spent our lives in an office instead of a gym. It’s never too late to help that heart work more efficiently. Just be sure to consult with your doctor before beginning an exercise program of any kind.
2. Hold your friends close.
Researchers in Australia concluded a 10-year study in 2008 that revealed what many of us already know. Those who have strong social networks live longer. While connections to children or other family members were not statistically significant in their effects, having a circle of friends we see and hear from often can safeguard us from several physical and mental ailments as we age.
One longitudinal study found that when our friends become obese, we tend to follow suit. But on the flip side, if they live healthy lifestyles and maintain optimal weights, so do we. Quality friendships have also been linked to better overall brain health as we age. As tempting as it is to skip brunch with your friends in favor of a few extra hours of work or sleep, consider this type of activity a way of caring for your overall health.
3. Eat whole foods.
If you haven’t jumped on the whole food bandwagon yet, now is the time. No, we’re not talking about the supermarket chain that bears a similar name. We’re talking about a way of eating that embraces fruit, veggies, nuts, whole grains, and lean proteins and steers clear of sugar, saturated fat, and pre-packaged foods. This eating philosophy (because let’s face it – diets don’t work) has not only been linked to longer life but has also been shown to protect you from Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Best of all, unlike the grapefruit diet your mother tried in her 20s, it is a sustainable way of eating. Aim for the 90/10 rule. Ninety percent of what you eat should be fresh, organic (if possible), and as close to the way nature produced it as possible. The other 10 percent? Enjoy the brownie, eat the pizza, or indulge in the comfort food you are craving.
4. Get the check-up.
On a national level, Americans access preventative medicine at about half the rate we should. Yet chronic diseases like cancer, heart disease, and Type II diabetes can be detected early and, in some cases, prevented with regular medical care and close monitoring by your health care team. We know – it seems unfair that all of our preventative screenings are rather… unpleasant.
Fortunately, new recommendations for cervical cancer screenings mean if you are under 65 and have never had an abnormal Pap smear, you only need to repeat the exam every 3 years. You can stretch it to every 5 years if you have a combined Pap smear and HPV test with normal results. Mammograms are not the most fun you can have at a doctor’s office, but they remain the most effective way to detect breast cancer in its earliest stages. If you haven’t had a check-up with your doctor in a while, make the appointment, then set a reminder on your phone to do the same thing the next year and the next.
5. A positive mind is a healthy mind (and body).
Life throws us all curve balls. It is how we handle these unexpected events that determine our overall mental (and even physical) health as we age. But choosing optimism is more than plastering a smile on your face and pretending that everything is okay. It is a way of reframing the negative things that happen to us in a positive light. So, how exactly do you do that?
Studies have shown that meditation combined with physical activity like yoga or running can dramatically improve a person’s mood. This combination also lowers the risk of depression, improves memory, enhances language skills, and improves communication between the parts of the brain that control attention and focus. If you are new to meditation, there are several guided meditation apps that can help you refocus your mind in as little as five minutes before hitting the gym or going for a walk.
6. Try new things.
Neuroscientists have discovered a concept called neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to form new synapses. As you learn new skills, facts, jobs, tasks, names, or faces, you form new connections in your brain. Not only do these connections guard against the effects of dementia, but they also improve your working memory – the part of your short-term memory that is most involved with recalling details like names and facts. The key to maintaining neuroplasticity is challenging your brain. If you have always wanted to learn how to play the guitar, sign up for lessons. If you want to explore a new city, book your ticket, and if you want to learn a new language, go for it. The challenge you give your brain will pay dividends for years to come.
As much as we would love to stop the hands of time, we cannot control whether we age. We can, however, control how that process affects our bodies and minds. Stop putting off the trip, the doctor’s visit, the change in eating habits, the lunch with friends, or the gym, and start living the life you were always meant to live. Your future self will thank you.