7 Ways Independent Living Leads to Healthy Aging

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When you weigh the pros and cons of moving into an independent living community, one thing you might not think about is the effect your living situation can have on your health. But there's no question that it's easier to put your good intentions into action when the opportunities are right in front of you. Here are 7 ways that independent living makes healthy aging easier.

1. Health Benefit #1: Nutrition
Let's face it, if you're cooking for yourself every night, there's a good chance you're relying on pizza, canned soup, and other prepared meals at least a few nights a week. And these foods are high in salt, lower in nutrients, and much less veggie-friendly than fresh-cooked meals. When you live in an independent living facility, the kitchen offers you healthy cooked meals, including a wide variety of choices, for every meal of the day. And it's not just any kitchen -- the menus at most independent living communities feature heart-healthy, diabetic, even gluten-free options, making it simple to comply with the doctor's orders.

2. Health Benefit #2: More Social Support
While aging in place sounds appealing, the reality for most older adults is that continuing to live in the family home eventually leads to isolation and loneliness. And it turns out that regular contact with friends and family is one of the primary secrets of healthy aging. One landmark study found that people with few social connections were three times more likely to die over a nine-year period than people who had an active social network. And a more recent study found that people with active social relationships cut their risk of death by 50 percent. In fact, having little social support turned out to be as great a health risk factor as alcoholism, and an even bigger contributor to early death than obesity. As we get older, forming social connections and making new friends isn't as easy as it once was, but independent living allows it to happen naturally through shared meals, group events, and simply seeing people daily in a comfortable setting.

3. Health Benefit #3: Safe Ways to Walk
"Can you walk away from Father Time?" was a question recently posed by the editors of Harvard Health Publications, and the answer was yes. Simply walking for 20 to 30 minutes a day gets your heart rate up and helps prevent the pounds from accumulating around your middle. Studies have linked moderate exercise like walking with better heart health, stronger bones, lower stroke and cancer risk, and a host of other benefits. In fact, one study conducted at McMaster University found that moderate exercise "rolled back" the underlying genetic processes of aging. With safe paths to walk on, friends and organized groups to walk with, and landscaped grounds to walk through, you'll find yourself racking up steps on the pedometer without even thinking about it.

4. Health Benefit #4: Laughter -- the Best Medicine
Ask people what they like about independent living, and one of the things you're most likely to hear is, "We have a good laugh." And it makes sense; a funny movie is certainly funnier with others laughing alongside you, and there's nothing like a good joke or a funny story shared over dinner. But there's more to it than that -- experts now say laughter is directly connected to healthy aging. Studies have found that laughter lowers stress, boosts immune response, increases blood flow, and helps you sleep. One study even found that laughter helps control blood sugar levels in diabetics. So it certainly stands to reason that the more opportunities you have to chuckle, the healthier you'll age.

5. Health Benefit #5: Sports and Fitness Facilities
Would you be more likely to try yoga if there was a class around the corner that all your friends attended? Would you get back into playing tennis if you had access to a court? The answer is probably yes, since for most of us the "hassle factor" is a primary reason we lose the motivation to pursue a favorite sport or fitness activity. And the results can be deadly, since studies show that heart rate-boosting exercise protects against cardiovascular disease and helps prevent practically every serious other illness that can sabotage quality of life in the later years. And it's not just physical health that's improved; studies show the increased flow of blood and oxygen feeds the brain, lowering the risk of Alzheimer's and dementia.

6. Health Benefit #6: Accessible Medical Care
You have a mysterious symptom, you're concerned, but getting to the doctor is difficult or requires asking someone for a ride. Or it's time for that annual screening test but there's no one to remind you to schedule it. What's the upshot? You put it off. But procrastinating over tests and treatments is dangerous, since for heart disease, cancer, and many other serious illnesses, early diagnosis is key to good results. Because independent living communities provide transportation to medical appointments, whether on- or off-site, it becomes much easier -- and less daunting -- to get to the doctor when you need to. Many independent living communities also offer options such as on-site clinics, shuttles to nearby facilities, or concierge help with scheduling appointments, thus simplifying access to the types of preventive care that are key to healthy aging.

7. Health Benefit #7: A Sharper Mind
When it comes to the brain, it's a "use it or lose it" situation. Learning something new, whether it's a craft, an instrument, a language, or a card game, stimulates brain cells and strengthens neural connections, while brain pathways that aren't used wither away. Independent living communities provide just the kinds of activities researchers recommend to keep the brain active. You don't think of it as a "brain exercise" when you're listening to a lecture, practicing a new skill in a workshop, or joining in on game night, but that's exactly what's happening. For example, one study published in 2012 followed a group of healthy adults between the ages of 65 and 75 while they took a cognitive training class that met for two hours a week. After just 12 weeks, those who participated improved their memories, reasoning skills, and even their hand-eye coordination compared with people who didn't take the classes. And according to the Alzheimer's Association, staying socially active and engaged has a strong protective effect against Alzheimer's and dementia.

Melanie Haiken

Melanie Haiken discovered how important it is to provide accurate, targeted, usable health information to people facing difficult decisions when she was health editor of Parenting magazine. See full bio