Today's American expects to live a long life. Those who make it to age 65 are likely to survive another 17 or more years. But will they be good years? To a great extent, that's up to the individual.
It's easy to say that a genetic roll of the dice determines how rapidly and gracefully we age, but studies have shown that only one-third of the factors that predict how well we age are controlled by genetics.
I've spent more than 20 years researching the lifestyle practices that lead to quality longevity. We all know that a healthful diet is the first step, followed by regular exercise. But there are other commonly overlooked, yet simple, steps that also can make a real difference in the way you age.
A Healthy Brain
Your brain is the operating system of your body. When you protect it, a ripple effect is created. With a sharp memory and positive outlook, you're more likely to take the actions that contribute to overall health and longer life, such as watching what you eat...exercising... and staying attentive to other people, which strengthens your relationships.
How to keep your brain healthy…
- Brighten your outlook. Optimists live longer. A Mayo Clinic study found that people who scored high on optimism in a personality test had fewer physical and emotional problems and were 50% more likely to survive another 30 years.
What to do: Practice mental habits that promote positive thinking-focus on your strengths and achievable goals, rather than what's wrong or missing in your life.
- Do more than crossword puzzles. Although research is not conclusive, mental workouts, such as those provided by crossword puzzles, have been touted as a key to maintaining brain health. However, crossword puzzles and other brain teasers, such as the number-logic game Sudoku, are of little value unless you really challenge yourself with difficult versions of these and other brain exercises.
What to do: Spend at least 10 minutes each day performing some form of challenging "brain activity." If you like crossword puzzles or Sudoku, choose ones that give your brain a rigorous workout, gradually progressing to even more difficult puzzles. They should be challenging but possible to complete. If you enroll in a class to learn a foreign language, put in the study hours it demands. If you join a book club, make sure you go beyond the best-seller list.
- Be mindful. Staying in the moment—aware of your thoughts and bodily sensations, and what's going on around you—promotes the health of both your brain and your body. If you stay in the moment, you're less likely to do things like overeating, tripping and hurting yourself or multitasking, which studies show can be stressful.
What to do: Keep your mind in the present to avoid worrying about the future and/or dwelling on past mistakes—it's a proven stress and anxiety reducer. To achieve mindfulness, sit down and meditate for five to 10 minutes, or simply take a few slow, deep breaths and tell yourself to focus on the present.
Also helpful: If you practice mindful awareness at mealtime, portion control the key to weight control-will come naturally to you. Notice how your body feels before, during and after each meal. Eat when you're hungry, and stop just before you feel full.
Spending pleasant time with other people can add years of good health. A Harvard study of about 3,000 men and women found that people who socialized most (attended sports events, played games, went to restaurants, etc.) had a 20% better chance of living long lives than loners. In addition, they had fewer disabilities and less cognitive decline.
Close, satisfying friendships and family connections are particularly helpful. The MacArthur Study of Successful Aging, conducted by researchers throughout the US, linked emotionally supportive relationships to lower levels of stress hormones. People with close relationships recover faster from surgery and need less pain medication.
Staying in the moment when talking with others—and being aware when your mind wanders—is the heart of true communication. The more attentive you are to another person's words, expressions and body language, the better you can feel what he/she is feeling. The capacity for empathy builds strong relationships.
What to do: Try this 15-minute exercise with a spouse, family member or friend: For three to five minutes, one partner talks about something that is going on in his/her life, such as a crisis, chronic issue or upcoming event. The listener should maintain eye contact and stay focused on what the other person is saying and should not interrupt. Switch roles for another three to five minutes, then discuss the experience.
A confusing, disorganized environment causes constant stress. When you can't find what you need, you face a constant reminder that you're not in control of your life.
What to do: Schedule 15 minutes a day to put things where they belong. Declutter one room—or one corner of the room—at a time. Put away rarely used items, such as clothes or sports equipment not needed until the next season. Consider donating or throwing away anything you haven't used in the last 12 months. Sort mail, groceries—anything—as soon as it comes into the house. Organize and store similar items together so they will be easy to find later.
Apply the same principle to your personal life. We often maintain friendships even when they become unfulfilling. "Declutter your social world by staying away from people who make you feel unappreciated, guilty or who simply irritate you. Or at least see them less often. This will create time for healthy relationships.