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."