Aging is a given, if we’re fortunate, but healthy aging isn’t a guarantee.
Americans are living longer than in previous generations, yet today more than 6 in 10 adults have at least one chronic condition that can affect not only length of life but quality of life.
And a short list of risk behaviors cause many of those chronic conditions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): Tobacco use, poor nutrition, a lack of physical activity, and excessive alcohol use.
Healthy aging requires intentional focus and effort.
With conscious action, we can work toward lengthening both our life span and our health span. We can boost the odds that we’ll age well.
What Defines Healthy Aging?
The World Health Organization (WHO) says every person, in every country of the world, should have the opportunity for a long and healthy life.
“Healthy Ageing is about creating the environments and opportunities that enable people to be and do what they value throughout their lives, ” says WHO. “Everybody can experience Healthy Ageing.
“Being free of disease or infirmity is not a requirement for Healthy Ageing, as many older adults have one or more health conditions that, when well controlled, have little influence on their well-being.”
So how can we develop and maintain that well-being from youth through middle age, and into our older years?
Here are some areas to focus on that can help you boost both your life span and your health span.
7 Habits for Healthy Aging
1. Maintain a healthy diet
Smart food choices and other healthy habits help reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes, osteoporosis, and heart disease.
All food and beverage choices matter, according to the National Institute on Aging’s guide, “What’s On Your Plate? Smart Food Choices for Healthy Aging.”
Focus on variety, nutrient density, and amount, and limit calories from added sugars and saturated fats.
Is there a best diet for healthy aging? The short answer is “no,” though this article offers some basic principles, and you can read more recommendations here from the National Institute on Aging.
2. Stay active socially
Health and social capital – the ties that build trust, connection, and participation – tend to decline as we age. So it’s important to stay active socially and participate in activities that bring you joy.
Written before the pandemic hit, this tip sheet about participating in activities you enjoy still can be a useful prompt. And while it might be more difficult now to meet friends for a movie or at a restaurant, a little creativity can go a long way. How might you adapt the activities you once enjoyed pre-pandemic safely into your life as it is right now?
Can you connect by telephone? Visit a friend for a porch conversation? Or schedule a physically distant lunch or picnic outside?
3. Stay active physically
Physical activity and exercise both are important.
“Physical activity” includes daily activities of living such as gardening, walking the dog, or cleaning the house. “Exercise” is physical activity that is planned, structured, and repetitive.
Both types of movement help improve your ability to do other everyday activities you enjoy. They help maintain and improve physical strength and balance, and both can help manage and prevent diseases like diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis, and certain cancers.
The National Institute on Aging publishes a detailed guide to Exercise & Physical Activity that includes information on the why, what, and how of starting and maintaining habits of regular exercise and physical activity. Available as a free pdf, the guide also includes sample exercises.
Talk with your doctor first if you’re not accustomed to energetic activity or have concerns or new symptoms you’ve not yet discussed.
Even simple movement like dancing in your kitchen, standing up and sitting down repetitively in a sturdy chair, and walking around your neighborhood can be beneficial movement.
4. For healthy aging, get enough sleep
Adults of all ages need about the same amount of sleep, 7 to 9 hours per night. But older adults tend to miss out on that sleep for a variety of reasons.
Insomnia affects older adults more than younger ones, and when its effects are prolonged and unaddressed, the lack of sleep can create other health problems.
Snoring and sleep apnea also can be culprits for less-than-ideal sleep. Good sleep hygiene can help you create a better routine and environment for sleep, which can boost immune and mental health.
5. Avoid tobacco and limit alcohol
At any time in life, quitting smoking can improve your health. Quitting can significantly lower your risk of heart disease, stroke, and cancer. And though it takes most smokers a few tries to stop for good, every attempt to quit is a learning opportunity. If you smoke and have tried to stop before, here are some tips for when you slip.
Avoiding second-hand smoke also is important for healthy aging.
As for alcohol, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans advises that adults who choose to drink should do so in moderation. That’s defined as up to 1 drink per day for women and up to 2 drinks per day for men. And the guidelines do not recommend that people start drinking for any reason (such as hearing that red wine is “heart healthy”) if they aren’t already a consumer.
Adults can become more sensitive to alcohol’s effects as they age, with older women being more sensitive to alcohol than men. Also, some health problems – stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, ulcers, memory loss, osteoporosis, and mood disorders – can be made worse by alcohol.
If you take prescriptions, including over the counter medications and herbal remedies, check with your doctor and read your labels before consuming alcohol. Some combinations can be dangerous or deadly.
Click here to download the National Institute on Aging’s free brochure, “Older Adults and Alcohol.”
6. Find ways to relax
Aging adults are vulnerable to harmful effects of stress, as are younger adults. But older adults cope differently with stress than they did when younger. And a new study indicates that people at mid-life report more stressors now than those in mid-life in the 1990s.
Exercising, getting adequate sleep, spending time in nature, trying mind-body practices such as tai chi, and keeping connected with loved ones can trigger a relaxation response and lower stress – at any age.
7. Track health conditions and keep medical appointments
How can you continue to monitor and track your health conditions if you’re reluctant to visit the doctor in person? The pandemic has affected how often You may need to keep tabs on your blood pressure, weight, or blood sugar and schedule a phone or video appointment with your doctor.
Follow guidelines for preventive or diagnostic tests, such as mammograms or cancer screenings. And, it is possible to safely go to the doctor during the pandemic. The Mayo Clinic offers some steps to take, including doing your homework before your visit and don’t neglect emergency care.
It’s difficult to focus on all 7 Habits of Healthy Aging at once. So let’s break it down and start to create lifestyle habits that stick. Pick one area that resonates most with you. What’s a micro-step you can take today to boost not only your life span but your health span? What do you need to get started?
Amy Hoogervorst is a national board-certified health and wellness coach. She helps people create and sustain new habits in pursuit of improved health and well-being. You can schedule a free discovery call with Amy here and subscribe here for her free e-newsletter, the Well Check.