What are the key strategies for healthy aging?

By Miles J. Varn, M.D., Chief Executive Officer at PinnacleCare

There’s no magic elixir that will prevent you from getting older, but by making appropriate lifestyle choices and being proactive about finding new ways to optimize your health, you can be healthier as you grow older.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s most recent update of the report, “The State of Aging and Health in America,” the number of Americans aged 65 and older will double in the next 25 years to 72 million and older Americans will make up approximately 20% of the country’s population by 2030. If Americans eat a less than healthy diet, continue to smoke, and fail to get enough exercise, that population could face a wide range of serious chronic health problems including heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, lung disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer.

But by making a few proactive lifestyle choices and ensuring you work with your physician to get all appropriate preventive screenings and care, you can lower your risk of health problems and look forward to a more positive aging experience.

The foundations of healthy aging

While researchers who focus on aging have learned that there is a genetic component to longevity, they have also discovered that what you eat, whether you smoke or drink alcohol, and how much you exercise affect your health as you age and your expected lifespan. Some of the key behaviors that are associated with healthier aging include not smoking, choosing a healthy diet that includes more plant proteins, remaining physically active, maintaining a healthy weight, and drinking less alcohol between the ages of 45 and 60.

Not just a long life but a good life

But it’s not just the number of years you live that matters, it’s the quality of life you enjoy during those years. Two common health concerns that can arise as you age include cognitive decline and a decline in strength linked to loss of muscle mass, known as sarcopenia, which can have a significant impact on your independence and physical and mental wellbeing.

Diet is one important factor in maintaining your cognitive health as you get older. Some studies have found that people who eat a typical Mediterranean diet rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and monounsaturated fat, especially olive oil, are at decreased risk for developing dementia.

Lifestyle choices can also play a role in protecting your cognitive health. Preliminary research discovered that taking part in group exercise had a positive effect on cognitive function including reaction time and memory span in older people. Taking part in a variety of challenging activities, like learning a new language or how to play an instrument and remaining socially connected through activities like book clubs, may also help protect the health of your brain as you age.

The science behind these suggestions is that neurogenesis or the creation of new neurons continues throughout our lives. By continually taking part in mentally challenging activities, more neurons are produced and form the connections needed for brain activity. In addition, these activities also promote the creation of nerve growth factor, which keeps neurons healthy.Keeping muscles stronger

When you don’t exercise your muscles regularly, over time muscle mass declines. Some researchers estimate that without proper, regular strength training, people can lose up to seven pounds of muscle tissue every ten years once they reach adulthood. Not only does that loss diminish your strength, it can also have a negative effect on balance–making falls more likely–slow down your metabolism, raise your risk of insulin resistance, and increase the likelihood of weight gain.

Lifting weights or taking part in resistance training that targets all muscle groups two to three times a week can help you build and maintain muscle health, even if you’re older and you’ve already lost muscle mass. Before starting a weight training regimen, talk with your doctor, and to prevent injury and ensure that your training is appropriate for your level of fitness, consider consulting with an experienced trainer or physical therapist.

When you take proactive steps to improve your wellbeing and lower your risk factors, you’re on the path to a more vital and vibrant life no matter which birthday you’ve just celebrated.

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