Whether you want to live longer, or simply better for longer — in other words, to age healthfully — if I told you that eating nutritious food, being physically active most days of the week, getting enough sleep, not smoking and keeping alcohol use at or below moderate intake levels would help you do that, you might say, “Yes … and what else can I do?”
Before I get into that “what else,” let’s consider what “healthy aging” even means. A systemic research review identified 10 determinants of healthy aging: physical activity, diet, self-awareness, outlook/attitude, lifelong learning, faith, social support, financial security, community engagement and independence. So it’s fair to say that healthy aging has many facets. Here are a few tangible tips for living better, and maybe longer.
View aging through a positive lens
Research from Yale University found that how we view aging can affect both longevity and healthy aging. One study found that people in middle age who hold negative stereotypes about aging are more likely to have a heart attack or stroke than people who think more positively about aging. Another study found that older adults with one of the strongest genetic risk factors for dementia were almost half as likely to develop dementia if they had positive beliefs about aging.
Maintaining a physical activity habit can be challenging under the best of circumstances, but if you get injured, that can derail you and make it hard to get started again. If you have a job that involves sitting at a computer for most of the day, this can create muscle imbalances — including weak core muscles — that may make exercise painful and increase your risk of injury. If you’re an “older adult,” preventing falls may become more of a priority, so incorporating balance-building exercises and protecting your muscle mass with strength- or resistance-training exercises and adequate protein are important for staying physically independent as you age.
Find your purpose
In his book “The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest,” author Dan Buettner writes about the Japanese term “ikigai,” which roughly translates into “reason for being.” People who have purpose are more likely to eat healthfully, stay active, get preventive health care and be engaged in life. Your purpose doesn’t have to come from your job — it can also come from your life. If you need help identifying your purpose, make a list of things that are important to you (your values), things that you really enjoy doing, and things that you are good at. What commonalities can you find among the three lists? That will help guide you to how to spend your time so that you’re fulfilled and have an answer to the question, “Why do you get up in the morning?”
Evidence is increasing that mindfulness-based training, including mindfulness meditation, supports healthy aging. One form of mindfulness meditation, loving-kindness or metta meditation, may have particular benefits. Results of a randomized controlled trial published in 2019 found that telomeres (the protective “caps” of our chromosomes) decreased the least in midlife adult participants who learned loving-kindness meditation, compared with participants who learned mindfulness meditation or were in a “wait-listed” control group. In loving-kindness meditation, you wish yourself peace, ease, happiness and freedom from pain, then direct those wishes to a benefactor, then a friend, a stranger, someone you find difficult, then all people everywhere. As a side note, this practice can be very helpful when you are feeling stressed or anxious about the state of the world.