Aging Well

5 Secrets to Aging Well
Portrait Of Senior Couple In Park

We'd all like to make it to 100 -- but let's face it, some people age a lot more gracefully than others. What's the difference between someone who looks and feels vibrant in midlife and beyond -- and someone who's sick, sad, and already old?

Scientists are turning up some surprising key factors: approaches to attitude and lifestyle that not only add years to your life but add a better quality of life to your years.

"Studies on successful aging have shown that only one third of what predicts how well we age is controlled by genetics. About two thirds is based on our personal lifestyle choices -- and is therefore under our control," says psychiatrist Gary Small, director of the UCLA Center on Aging and author of The Longevity Bible (Hyperion).

Here are five longevity factors you can do something about.

1. Know what makes you truly happy.

Why it matters: The Founding Fathers were right about the pursuit of happiness being as critical as life and liberty. Happiness boosts the immune system and helps tamp down stress. Involvement with activities, people, and experiences that bring joy and contentment also boost optimism and positive attitude, both of which are linked to longevity. And pursuing reasonable pleasures helps one live more fully in the moment, rather than dwelling on the past or suffering until some future happiness comes along (as in slogging through a job you hate in order to enjoy an annual two-week vacation).

The catch: Most people aren't good at knowing what makes them happy, says University of Wisconsin geriatric psychiatrist Ken Robbins, a Caring.com senior medical editor who's also board-certified in internal medicine.

What to try: Cultivate what psychologists call an "observing ego," Robbins says. Pay extra-close attention to your mood for a few days. Jot down what's happening during times when you feel particularly happy, as well as what circumstances drain you or trigger anxiety. Who are you with? What are you doing? What are you thinking about? How do you feel physically and why? How can you get more of those good feelings and minimize the less-good ones?

Don't assume you know already; you risk falling back on clichés. Learn your personal triggers. "People often think that retiring and playing golf all day would make them happy, but when they do it, it's not as great as they thought," Robbins says.

Common happiness triggers: Laughter, music, touch, spirituality, exercise, good conversation.

2. Approach the "new" often.

Why it matters: The brain loves novelty. Although different types of mental skills change with age -- for example, mental computations slow -- the brain never loses the ability to grow. And trying or learning new things builds new neural connections all through life.

Maximize brain fitness and the body will follow in kind, says UCLA's Small. Staying receptive to new ideas also fuels curiosity, open-mindedness, and creativity -- traits linked to healthier aging.

Unfortunately, habits also ossify with age, which can make us prone to dismiss new things or feel intimidated by them.

What to try: Work "mental aerobics" brain workouts into your day. You can buy software with puzzles to flex your brain or play games like Scrabble or Trivial Pursuit. Be sure to keep challenging yourself; move up to working harder Sunday crosswords or mastering an instrument with more complicated music.

Consciously pull out of familiar ruts: Listen to some music that became popular after your 20s and 30s, even if you don't think you'll enjoy it. Keep looking (and more important, feeling) contemporary by visiting a cosmetics counter for advice on fresher makeup, or try shopping with someone in their 20s or 30s to experiment with new looks in clothing or glasses. Travel to a new locale or to try a new experience (such as a dude ranch, eco-tour, or Elderhostel).

Explore adult-education classes at a community college or through your local parks and recreation department. Those over 65 can also find inexpensive, and often high-caliber, lifelong learning programs at local senior centers.

3. Be your own best friend.

Why it matters: People often fall into the trap of being kinder, more loving, and more forgiving to those around them than to themselves. We beat ourselves up about an imperfect diet or a missed opportunity. We hate our looks (waist, hair, nose -- there's always something). We neglect self-care. In general, we fail to be our own number-one cheerleader. Lacking compassion and a sense of worth about yourself leads to making unfortunate choices that can damage health and well-being.

"Stress occurs when the mind perceives you're not enough or don't have enough," says Eva Selhub, the senior staff physician at the Benson/Henry Institute for Mind/Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and author of The Love Response (Ballantine).

Liking one's self, on the other hand, infuses everything you do with a more positive outlook. You make better choices -- about what to eat, whether to smoke or drink, what you deserve in relationships. And you build greater stores of resiliency that can help you bounce back from outside stressors.

What to try: Work on celebrating what's likeable, worthy, and good about you. To reprogram negative thoughts about yourself, Selhub recommends an "appreciation journal": For 28 days, write four things about yourself and four things about your life that you appreciate; try to come up with new things every day. Say the list aloud to yourself in the morning. Before you decide what to eat, do, or say, practice using the mental phrases, "I deserve to . . . " and "I'm worthy of . . . "

Pinpoint cravings or addictions you might be using to fill yourself up in the absence of self-love: food, drugs, excessive Internet use, unsafe sex, cigarettes. They all activate the brain's reward centers, which cause us to turn to them when we lack the self-approval that can calm us and help us accomplish the same thing more healthfully.

4. Be both a giver and a taker.

Why it matters: According to a growing body of research, people who are socially connected live longer, maintain better cognitive health, and have overall better mental and physical well-being. Humans are meant to be social animals. "The 'American disease' is isolation," Selhub says. "We live longer and better when we feel important, valid, and valued, and when we feel that we'll be remembered. Living within a community helps us feel that we exist and that we did exist for a reason."

Quality counts as much as quantity in relationships, though. Healthy social connections require intimacy, that true give-and-take in which you can offer some of yourself to others but also receive a sense of love and connectivity from others. "You want interactions that go beyond just playing cards with someone; you want to be able to talk about things in your heart," Robbins says.

What to try: Run through your closest relationships in your mind: Are they strong, nurturing, and in balance -- or do you feel like you're giving too much or receiving too little? Work toward shedding the relationships that clutter your life without giving you much back, or look for ways to reenergize them. Consider all the different types of relationships in your life: friends, parents, siblings, spouse, children, colleagues, sexual partners, even pets.

If you're married, give that connection extra attention. Married people tend to live longer than singletons, happily married couples live longest, and married couples who remain sexually active are most satisfied with their lives overall, according to Small.

5. Sweat at the Fountain of Youth.

Why it matters: Increasing snowdrifts of studies point to the same conclusion: Among all other lifestyle factors, movement is the linchpin to good health. People who exercise regularly have a lower risk of developing cardiovascular diseases, dementia, diabetes, depression, and osteoarthritis. They're also more likely to maintain a stable, healthy weight and less likely to be obese, which is itself a risk factor for those diseases.

Now a series of compelling independent studies published in an early 2010 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine underscores the message that exercise can stave off many diseases. An analysis from the large Nurses Health Study, for example, found that women who jogged three hours a week or walked briskly for five hours a week were 76 percent more likely to age successfully, with less chronic disease or mental impairment, an effect that held among all ages and weights.

What to try: Rethink your idea of "exercise" as "movement" of all kinds. Aim for a three-way mix of aerobic exercise (such as walking and running) for the heart, lungs, and circulatory system; resistance training (with free weights, weight machines, or exercises such as squats and lunges) for muscular and bone strength; and balance work (such as tai chi or yoga) for bone density and overall strength.

If you're currently an exercise abstainer, start small. Research shows you can add exercise at any age, even your 60s, 70s, and 80s, to reap benefits. Take the stairs instead of the escalator or elevator. Park at the far end of a parking lot instead of cruising until a spot near the entrance opens up. Build up gradually.

Karin Richards, director of the exercise science and wellness management program at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, suggests a "sing/talk test" as a way to gauge your intensity. "If your pace is meeting your target heart rate, you should be able to talk without being breathless," she says. "If you can't catch your breath to talk, your exercise intensity is too great. If you can sing while you exercise, it's not vigorous enough."


almost 2 years ago, said...

giving ME SOME DERECTION IN THE WAY I LIVE.


over 3 years ago, said...

Very helpful information As the saying goes "knowledge is power". It helps you to make wise decisions.


over 3 years ago, said...

this was some great stuff , i a appreciate the knowledge.


over 3 years ago, said...

VERY, VERY HELPFUL. THANK YOU.


over 3 years ago, said...

I am positively convinced exercise is the main factor in enjoying longevity and good health in our daily lives.I am now 79 years old and have virtually nothing wrong with me.If you would care to see proof of this...go to youtube and click on"Al wheeler workout"Thank you..A.W.


over 3 years ago, said...

more like it


almost 4 years ago, said...

Loved the specifics in this article. Thank you!


almost 4 years ago, said...

Every aspect had something to reflect upon and it is certainly reinforcement and useful to be engaged in articles and information that keeps us on track. I have found that starting your day with putting "God first and His righteousness and all these things will be added unto you" makes such a huge difference especially for someone who has cravings and is having difficulty to lose weight etc.


over 4 years ago, said...

Becoming more in tune with myself and shedding those relationships that are out of balance.


over 4 years ago, said...

affirms that i am doing the right thing about my golden years and beyond, exercise, laugh, love and be with people who enhance ourselves, and most of all i indulge myself with attention and plenty of rest, plus being comfy with my God


over 4 years ago, said...

This is a very good and useful information for all!! The suggestions boost the immune system for healthier physical as well as emotonal state.


over 4 years ago, said...

its really good information for evryone...


over 4 years ago, said...

it affirms that my present attitude towards life, aging, death and loving is proper. i will just have to sustain my positive views while i am going to that stage in life, i want to grow old gracefully


over 4 years ago, said...

For me, it's red wine. BetterAfter50.com


about 5 years ago, said...

This is great and empowering information. We at the Alzheimer's Research and Prevention Foundation are delighted to see that this advice is in line with our 4 Pillars of Prevention. Not only will you live long and well by following this prescription, you will also do everything possible to stay away from Alzheimer's!


about 5 years ago, said...

It encourages me to try new things. I am not apt to do that on my own.


over 5 years ago, said...

friendships are also very important as we age...being I stopped working and am home with my 92 year old mom I dont get a of time to enjoy friendships as I once did....I did a blogtalk radio show...(my therapy and hobby) on friendships and how I try to deal. I hope you can listen and find it helpful..http://tobtr.com/s/1615661


over 5 years ago, said...

This has been very helpful, for a while I fell off track. Just this week I have started writing to friends, rather then emails, and starting to exercise. I bought a math book, to work on my math skills. I also bought an American Sign Language book. I am moving in a couple of months and hope to find a class to practice ASL. Thanks for this timely article. sSign book o


over 5 years ago, said...

As we age we know, see and feel the changes that occur. More then anything is your attitude that will allow you to deal with now and face the inevitable. Also, a sense of humor is of enormous assistance to your own self esteem and a huge help if you are a caregiver to be able to laugh together over some of the rough spots.


over 5 years ago, said...

great article!! I absolutely loved it....I am 51..Im married almost 31 years and we have a 23 year old son. It should have been him and me alone once again but we now are once again three as my 92 year old mom lives here with us since 2007 after having a heart attack. It gets challenging at times however Im still very enthusiastic and try my best to make my dreams come true despite my circumstance. My husband encouraged me to start a blog and I did about a month ago...Im an amateur...it truly is my therapy however it is a lot of fun. I also have done two blogradio shows...its almost like a verbal journal....Im planning on doing my third one this week one day.....my blog is www.50plusstickingtogether.blogspot.com sites like this and meeting new people inspire me...keeping in touch with people and being interested in all sorts of things despite circumstances is what makes dreams come true.... www.50plusstickingtogether.blogspot.com


over 5 years ago, said...

All that I have read in this article are quite informative and useful as we go on with our daily lives. Thanks a lot for all the informations.


over 5 years ago, said...

Thanks for the informations.


over 5 years ago, said...

the positive feedback played a great impact for me.it gave me a more boost up of a attitude.i feel and look forward to my 3/days a week exercise every week,i feel good about myself.listening to your feedback really help me,and i thank you.


over 5 years ago, said...

Love the article. To be honest, some of the suggestions I am already doing and thinking. I am more busier than I ever been in my life. School, work, dating...having a ball and I over 60. My spiritual life is on point. I love the Lord and through Jesus I can do just about anything. Money is tight, but where there is a will there is a way. Thanks for this wonderful articule and clarification.


over 5 years ago, said...

I like the mental aerobics tip....keeps the mind going.


over 5 years ago, said...

I've been in the caring proffession for over 12 years, empowering adults with (dis)abilities. I have now changed direction and am going into long term and palliative care. I'm sure I will get all sorts of awesome info, already have! Bless you and thank you!!


almost 6 years ago, said...

I just agree of whar you said because it's true. That's what am doing and people say I don't look like my real number! Eagle'swing320


almost 6 years ago, said...

I thought that the article vas very helpful because it brought up different points that made me think about different situations that I am dealing with and it made them more clear to me. Keep going the same way and if I think of anything when I read your articles, I will definitely give an input.


almost 6 years ago, said...

i like this very much i am a 68 i still feel like i am about thirthy i still work i injoy my job sometime i get a little worry that i am trying to be young. is it all right for me to have fun with my childred and my codeworker it keep me going all the time