(This article appeared previously on ActTwoMagazine.com)
People don’t grow old … when they stop growing they become old. (Anonymous)
Something remarkable is happening. We are living longer lives than at any time in history — and not just a little longer — a lot longer. In 1900, the average life expectancy for an American was about 46 years; it is now approaching 80. That’s average life expectancy. Many of us are living well beyond 80 to even 100 years old and more!
The fact that so many of us are living longer is wonderful. Yet, with advancing age comes a greater potential for conditions associated with aging — arthritis, hip fractures, memory loss, etc. It is important to understand that these conditions are not a normal part of aging. They are more likely to develop as we age, but they should not be seen as an inevitable part of aging.
(MORE: 10 Myths About Aging, Debunked)
The good news is that we have a good deal of control over how quickly and, maybe more importantly, how well we age. Not everyone looks their age. Some 60-year-olds look 40 and some 40-year-olds look 60. Why is that?
There are three things that determine how we age: genetics, environment and our lifestyle. While we can’t choose our parents who give us our genes, we can control our environment and lifestyle. It’s the last two factors that play a huge role in how well we age.
With that in mind, here are 10 tips to help maximize your longevity and quality of life:
1. Control stress. Very few things age us faster than stress, especially chronic stress. Have you ever noticed how quickly presidents age while in office? We all have stress in our lives, and in small doses it can even be beneficial. But when stress is part of our everyday comings and goings, it begins to take its toll. While we will never eliminate stress, there are things we can do to reduce it — some included below.
2. Manage your blood pressure. Hypertension is a very common problem in our society. High blood pressure can do real damage to your body and place you at increased risk for stroke and vascular disease. Think of your blood and its circulation through your body as plumbing in your house. If the water pressure gets too high it can burst a pipe — the equivalent of a stroke in your body. If it remains high all the time, it will place undue wear and tear on the pipes shortening their life — the equivalent of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) in your body.
The good news is that high blood pressure is controllable if recognized and managed properly. It is important to check your blood pressure regularly and keep it under good control. Diet, exercise and a healthy, low-salt diet can all help.
3. Don't smoke. This is pretty much a no-brainer. Almost all of us understand that smoking causes significant heart and lung disease. But did you know that it also accelerates aging, especially of the skin?
There is absolutely no doubt it will shorten your life and probably the lives of those around you who breathe in the second-hand smoke. If you do smoke and have been unsuccessful in quitting, don’t beat yourself up. Quitting smoking is one of the hardest things to do. So don’t give up. Most people who have been successful have required several attempts. Mark Twain once said, “Quitting smoking is one of the easiest things to do….and I should know, I’ve done it a thousand times.”
4. Get your sleep. OK, wake up. This is really important. Sleep may be one of the most underappreciated aspects of good health. Why do we need sleep? Sleep in many ways has remained a scientific mystery. What has been discovered recently is its profound effect on overall health. Even more fascinating is its importance for maintaining a healthy memory — something many of us worry about as we get older. It is now known that sleeps helps embed in our brain the things we learn during the day.
So how much sleep do we need? At least seven to eight hours each night. That’s a challenge for many of us, but it should always be our goal. Sleep is not just important for memory. Having a lifestyle that lacks adequate sleep can increase blood pressure, cause depression and ultimately shorten life.
A good tip for getting better sleep is to cut out the caffeine in the late afternoon and at night. Caffeine stays in our body for many hours after ingestion. So eliminate that last cup of coffee after dinner or switch to decaf.
5. Maintain good nutrition. Most of us know which foods are good and bad for us. The best advice about nutrition is not to make your self miserable eating foods you don’t like just to lose weight or stay healthy. Food is one of the basics joys of life. So eat the foods you love but be smart about portions. Most importantly, eat a varied diet that includes lots of vegetables and fruits. Most of us eat the same food over and over again. Be honest, when you go grocery shopping, aren’t you putting the same things in you cart each visit? Be adventurous. Try something new now and then. A varied diet is a healthy diet.
6. Exercise your body. Move. Just move. If you want to keep your muscles and bones young, it means using them. Find an activity you enjoy. If you don’t enjoy the activity, you will not stay with it. If you hate running on a treadmill, don’t do it. If you love tennis, play tennis. It can even be just walking, but commit to doing it regularly. Move.
7. Exercise your brain. Your brain is amazing; your brain is you. It defines who you are. Your brain holds every memory and emotion of your life; it gives you the ability to laugh, cry, create, to appreciate art/music and even the capacity to love. Every effort should be made to keep your brain young and healthy. Aside from the other recommendations listed here, the best way to keep you brain healthy is to use it. Keep your brain challenged, especially with new things. Replace routine with new learning. Seek out new experiences. Your brain thrives on challenges and learning. So be a student for life.
8. Stay positive. There is a saying: “The me I see, is the me I’ll be.” If you choose to see yourself as old and failing, you’ll likely carry yourself that way. The key word is “choose.” You have a choice with how you see everything in life, including yourself. Even circumstances outside of your control can be managed positively with proper attitude. If you are stuck in traffic, getting upset or angry will not help to get the traffic moving. You can choose instead to accept the moment and perhaps think, pray or listen to some music. Allowing yourself to get stressed and increasing your blood pressure will not help to keep you young and healthy. See tips one and two.
9. Maintain close relationships. The hurt of loneliness and isolation goes beyond emotional pain — it is terrible for our health. It is so important to have others around us. Things, of course, change as we age — children move away, we sometimes lose friends. But we can go out and meet new people. Stay involved with others. Take classes. Volunteer. Take someone out to dinner at a new restaurant. Even get a pet. Studies have shown that people live longer and healthier with companionship. Many years ago I shared with my dad the fact that married people generally live longer than single people. He suggested humorously to me that when you’re married you don’t live longer — it just seems longer.
10. Be spiritual. The 17th century philosopher, Pascal, once said, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Our body, mind and spirit need moments of quiet reflective peace — probably more so today than at any time. It can be prayer, meditation or just peaceful silence. The power of such moments should not be underestimated. They help to calm and comfort and clarify our busy lives.
“It is the silence between the notes that makes the music.” (Zen prophet)
So it looks like we can all expect to live a lot longer. Why not make that time count with the goal of quality and good health. Living long and living well is a choice — and it’s yours.
Dr. Stephen G. Jones is the Director of Outpatient Medicine and Center for Healthy Aging at Greenwich Hospital. He has been featured as a medical commentator on CNN, PBS, Fox News and Cablevision, among others.