What does the word aging bring to mind? Images of gray hair and wrinkles? Or impressions of knowledge and experience? Your answer may matter more than you think.
“Having a positive attitude toward aging, even when you’re young, can actually affect how healthy you remain as you get older—and might even influence how long you live,” says researcher Becca Levy, Ph.D., professor of epidemiology and psychology at the Yale School of Public Health.
Finding the good things about growing older isn’t hard. Research shows, for instance, that most of us get happier as we age—and we tend to care more about the things that really matter and less about the things that don’t.
“We gain wisdom,” says Dena Dubal, M.D., Ph.D., an assistant professor of neurology at the University of California, San Francisco. “That’s not a trait you can measure with brain scans, but it’s incredibly important for our overall quality of life.”
Here, to help you glide through the next few decades, are some health and wellness goals that can help you take care of yourself.
Certain health guidelines are so important, you should start following them now—and not stop until, well, you absolutely have to. Here are the top three.
Move more, sit less.
Researchers summed it up in an extensive review of the medical literature not long ago: “Numerous studies have shown that maintaining a minimum quantity and quality of exercise decreases the risk of death, prevents the development of certain cancers, lowers the risk of osteoporosis and increases longevity.”
And that doesn’t even mention what regular sweaty sessions do for your mood and your mind.
Every week, get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity and two or more days of strength training that hits each muscle group. And keep this in mind: Adults who sit for more than 11 hours a day have a 12 percent increased risk of dying prematurely.
“Standing or, better yet, moving should be your default mode whenever possible,” says James Levine, M.D., Ph.D., professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Eat real food.
Be sure to include at least five servings a day of produce. A diet high in fruits and vegetables, along with other whole, unprocessed foods, has been shown to help manage cholesterol, reduce blood pressure, help with weight control, protect against some types of cancer and lower the risk of heart attack, stroke and diabetes.
Rather than count servings, strive to fill half or more of every plate with veggies and the other half with low-fat protein and whole grains.
Practice stress management every day.
Chronic stress makes your immune system sluggish and can play a role in a range of health conditions, including headaches, depression, heart problems and diabetes.
So find time every day to manage stress: meditate, chat with a friend, snuggle with a loved one, enjoy nature, listen to music or laugh. These activities have all been shown to lower cortisol, the hormone responsible for the ill effects of stress.
To: Protect your heart
Snack on almonds and avocados
The American Heart Association recommends swapping out saturated fat for monounsaturated fat to help lower cholesterol and heart disease risk.
The best sources of this type of unsaturated fat include nuts, nut butters, avocados and olive oil. So instead of reaching for your go-to chips or crackers for a midafternoon snack, reach for a handful of nuts instead.
A potential bonus? Some research has shown that eating foods that contain monounsaturated fat, like olive oil and avocados, may help reduce belly fat.
Abdominal fat is more dangerous than the kind you get on your thighs and has been linked to increased risk of heart disease and diabetes.
To: Maintain a strong immune system
Do yoga or tai chi once or twice a week
Research suggests that regularly practicing mind-body exercises such as tai chi, qigong and yoga may lower inflammatory markers such as interleukin-6 and C-reactive protein. This lower level of these inflammatory cells suggests that a regular mind-body practice may lead to less of the ongoing inflammation that can reduce the effectiveness of your immune system.
Do yoga or tai chi once or twice a week to maintain a strong immune system.
And your immune system, which starts to decline in your 40s, needs all the boosts you can give it.
“During your 40s, there’s a tenfold drop in the number of T lymphocytes, the white blood cells that fight unfamiliar bacteria and viruses,” says Janko Nikolich-Zugich, M.D., Ph.D., chair of the department of immunobiology at the University of Arizona College of Medicine.
“By the time you’re 50, new production of T lymphocytes is negligible, which makes you more prone to bugs your body hasn’t encountered before.”
Downward dog, everyone!
To: Keep your mouth healthy
Use a therapeutic rinse twice a day
Add a mouthwash that contains an antibacterial agent to your usual brush-and-floss regimen, advises Denis Kinane, Ph.D., dean and professor of pathology and periodontics at Penn Dental Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.
“The rinse can kill bacteria that your toothbrush and floss can’t reach,” he says.
An OTC formula is fine, but if your dentist recommends it, a stronger one, containing chlorhexidine, is available by prescription.
Rinsing is increasingly important now because the risk of periodontal disease increases in your 40s, says Kinane. The condition begins with mild inflammation as plaque and tartar, caused by bacteria, build up on the teeth.
Without attention, the condition can progress to severe inflammation that causes the gums to pull away from the teeth. Those pockets can become infected, which may lead to tooth and bone loss. About a third of people are genetically prone to chronic gum inflammation and might still have problems despite their best efforts.
If you’re one of them, get your teeth professionally cleaned every three to six months, says Kinane.
To: Fend off dry eyes
Blink, blink, blink!
“Blinking refreshes the tears and could well be the most important and effective treatment for dry eye, a condition that often starts around this age as levels of androgen—what most people think of as a male hormone—begin to decline,” says David Sullivan, Ph.D., associate professor of ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School.
Ideally, you should blink every two to four seconds. Every 20 minutes, add a power blink: Close your eyes and squeeze the lids tightly shut for a count of two.
“Squeezing induces the glands in your lids to release oil, and this oil helps reduce fluid evaporation from the surface of your eyes,” Sullivan explains.
Rule you can ignore in your 40s:
Eat breakfast to prevent overeating
While research has looked at how eating or skipping breakfast affects weight loss or maintenance, there are too many variables to draw a definitive conclusion.
The bottom line: aim for an appropriate number of calories over the course of a day, and focus on nutritious foods high in lean protein and fiber, which can help you feel full for longer.
“You might be hungrier at lunch if you skip breakfast, but even so, you’ll probably eat the same or fewer calories over the course of the day,” says Andrew Brown, Ph.D., a scientist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Office of Energetics.
To: Keep your bones strong
Go easy on the salt
“Sodium prompts your body to excrete calcium,” warns Bess Dawson-Hughes, M.D., director of the Bone Metabolism Laboratory at Tufts University. “Our kidneys are unable to excrete one without excreting the other. It’s the way we’re made.”
And losing calcium from your bones is the last thing you need at this age, especially if you are a woman.
“In the first five years after menopause, there’s a period of rapid bone loss,” explains Ethel Siris, M.D., director of the Toni Stabile Osteoporosis Center at the Columbia University Medical Center. “The quantity and the quality of your bones diminish. Some components of bone start to develop micro-cracks, putting you at increased risk of fractures, especially as you get into your 60s and 70s.”
Aim for no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium a day, which is doable if you avoid processed and canned foods.
To: Lower your risk of high blood pressure
Limit added sugars to 100 calories a day (about 6 teaspoons) for women and 150 calories a day (about 9 teaspoons) for men
While a common culprit for high blood pressure is sodium, a growing body of research links high amounts of added sugars to an increased risk of high blood pressure and heart disease.
Sugar is a problem because it increases insulin, which lowers nitric oxide, one of the most powerful factors for dilating blood vessels. The American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugars to no more than 100 calories a day for women and 150 for men.
“Sugars with the highest concentrations of fructose are likely to be the most harmful,” says James DiNicolantonio, Pharm.D., cardiovascular research scientist at St. Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City, Missouri.
To: Help maintain your hearing
Eat two or more servings of fish per week (one serving is 3 ounces, or about the size of your palm)
Recent research suggests that a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids, found in some fish, may help delay or prevent age-related hearing loss.
One large study done at Brigham and Women’s Hospital found that eating two servings of fish per week was associated with a 20 percent lower risk of hearing loss.
“All types of fish were associated with reduced risk—tuna, dark fish, light fish and shellfish,” says lead study author Sharon Curhan, M.D. “We also found a protective role for long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, which fish have in abundance.”
Higher intake of omega-3s may protect the inner ear by helping to maintain healthy blood flow to the area.
To: Protect your knees
Do eight squats three days a week (as your strength builds, you can increase the number)
“For most people, squats are one of the best exercises for quadriceps. Quad weakness is a risk factor for developing knee arthritis; those big muscles brace and protect the knee joint,” says Neil Segal, M.D., director of clinical research at the University of Kansas Medical Center’s department of physical medicine and rehabilitation.
The risk of knee osteoarthritis rises in your 50s and continues to go up as you age, so prevention is key.
Rule you can ignore in your 50s:
Take supplemental iron
Most people in their 50s likely get the requisite 8 milligrams a day from their diets—especially since one serving of iron-fortified breakfast cereal (which means most cereal) contains 18 milligrams per serving.
To: Reduce your stress levels
Seek out positive, awe-inducing experiences
A growing body of research is looking at how experiences that promote a feeling of wonder or amazement—think getting out in nature or reading a thought-provoking work of literature—may be associated with less inflammation in the body.
“We found that awe is associated with lower levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines,” says Jennifer Stellar, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, who led a UC Berkeley study on the link between positive experiences and inflammation.
Scientists have yet to identify a mechanism linking awe and reduced inflammation, but they know that awe is associated with feeling more socially connected, and social connection has also been tied to a reduction in pro-inflammatory cytokines, says Stellar.
Reducing inflammation may help prevent chronic illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and possibly depression.
To: Cut back on trips to the bathroom
Don’t drink more than eight ounces of fluid in one sitting
This tip is more for women than men: Many women over 60 start having “urge incontinence,” when bladder muscles contract before you want them to, says May Wakamatsu, M.D., director of female pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital.
In other words, when you gotta go, you gotta go.
Drinking too much liquid can contribute to the problem, because your body can’t use more than a few ounces of fluid at one time and your kidneys will quickly turn the extra into urine.
“That means your bladder walls will stretch rapidly, and that can exacerbate urge incontinence,” says Wakamatsu. (Caffeine also causes your kidneys to produce urine more quickly, so cutting back on coffee and tea may help, too.)
You should urinate only four to six times a day, she adds. If you’re going more often and your urine is lighter than the yellow of a Post-it note, you’re drinking too much fluid in general.
To: Promote calcium absorption and bone health
Make sure you are getting sufficient vitamin D
Vitamin D is synthesized by the skin during exposure to sunlight, but it can be increasingly difficult to get sufficient vitamin D from the sun as you age.
“By age 70, your skin makes only 25 percent of the amount of vitamin D it made when you were 20 in response to being in the sun,” says Michael Holick, Ph.D., M.D., professor of medicine, physiology and biophysics at Boston University School of Medicine.
Seek out food sources of vitamin D including fatty fish, egg yolks and vitamin-D-fortified milk, and if you don’t regularly include these foods in your diet, talk with your doctor about whether a supplement is right for you.
From More, © Meredith Corporation. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Always consult your health care provider before starting or stopping an exercise program.