Numbers are important to Jan Sirota, a retired investment banker who lives in Sarasota, Florida. Sirota just celebrated 11 years of marriage, he cycles 40 miles per day, mentors four high school students and races cars 150 miles per hour in High Performance Driver Education events. The number that doesn’t seem to matter? His age.
“I’m 75, and it’s irrelevant to me,” Sirota says. “There’s no reason to say that I’ll slow down because I’m getting older.”
Many older adults do slow down, however, when faced with chronic disease, disability or isolation. So why is it that some people, like Sirota, can escape that fate and live vibrantly later in life? “Certainly genetics play a big part in this, and then of course luck. However, I don’t want anyone to think we can’t fight destiny a little bit,” says Dr. Patricia Harris, a geriatrician and professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.
Some change is inevitable. We lose muscle and bone mass as we get older, and we experience a decline in sex hormones, kidney function, mental sharpness and reaction time. Cartilage in the joints often wears away and causes pain, digestion slows, balance becomes impaired and vision and hearing may decline. Chronic disease may also develop, such as cardiovascular disease or Type 2 diabetes.
A shift in social connections can also affect us in older age. Our children grow up and move away. We no longer see co-workers when we retire. People close to us – friends, siblings, a spouse – succumb to illness or dementia. This can lead to loneliness, isolation or depression, and a downward spiral.
“Loneliness is one of the biggest problems I see,” Harris says. “It leads to depression and a loss of motivation to manage health. People become sicker and frailer, which keeps them from getting out and socializing. It increases the risk for an early death.”
Early Action Steps to Age Well
Research is increasingly demonstrating that the way you take care of yourself today may have a big effect on your health later in life. For example:
- Studies have linked midlife fitness with reduced odds for developing chronic disease (such as Alzheimer’s disease, stroke and diabetes) later in life. “Exercise has been shown to reduce the risk for cardiovascular disease, muscle loss, obesity, depression, cancer and many other chronic diseases. It has a direct effect at the cellular level. It decreases systemic inflammation, fat in the body and LDL ‘bad’ cholesterol, and it increases HDL ‘good’ cholesterol, bone density and muscle mass,” says Dr. Saket Saxena, a geriatrician at Cleveland Clinic and clinical assistant professor of medicine at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine.
- Studies have shown that eating a healthy diet in midlife is associated with better health in our older years. “A Mediterranean-style diet is associated with longevity around the globe,” Saxena says. The diet includes a fair amount of fruits, vegetables, legumes, seeds, nuts, olive oil and whole grains, plus moderate amounts of fish, poultry and wine and low amounts of red meat and meat products.
Something else you can do now that may help later is avoid sunlight, according to Dr. Manjula Jegasothy, an aesthetic dermatologist and clinical associate professor of dermatology at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine. “Extended UV radiation exposure over a lifetime can cause so much DNA damage that it hastens cell aging throughout the body,” Jegasothy says. “UV exposure also increases the risk of skin cancer. And from an appearance standpoint, UV exposure ages the skin.”
What if You’re Already Older?
If you haven’t taken great care of yourself over the decades, there are still lots of things you can do to make the most of the years ahead.
- Follow the basics. “Time and again studies show true benefits of not smoking, keeping weight down and keeping major health conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease or diabetes well controlled,” Harris says. Aim for seven to eight hours of sleepeach night to avoid fuzzy thinking and reduce the risk of falls.
- Start exercising. “Exercise reduces stress levels in our bodies. It circulates oxygen to all tissues, which is good for the brain. It builds up strength, so you’re at less risk for falling and frailty. And strong muscles make our bones hurt less,” Harris says. How much exercise do you need? The standard recommendation is 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity exercise, such as a game of tennis or brisk walking. “That’s daunting,” Harris says. “Consider that a goal, not an absolute. If you get out and walk regularly for three minutes when you hadn’t been walking at all, that’s a real accomplishment.”
- Learn to be resilient. Being able to bounce back from adversity, such as the loss of a loved one or a job, can help you cope with life’s ups and downs, stay active and avoid depression.
- Socialize more. It helps fight loneliness, depression and isolation. If you’re far from loved ones, make new friends. Join a club, volunteer or meet your neighbors. “The number of social interactions in a day or week improves life expectancy, even in people with heart disease and colon cancer,” Harris says. “It doesn’t have to be a best friend. It can be someone in a coffee shop or the person at the cash register in the grocery store.”
- Challenge your brain. We all can’t race cars like Sirota, but we can try a new a hobby, learn another language or take a class at a local college (many universities, including Harvard and Yale, allow you to take free classes online, although you won’t receive credit. “Staying mentally active in some way staves off dementia,” Harris says. “It has to be something that continues to engage your brain as you get older.”
- Get hearing loss checked. “Hearing impairment can lead to a decline in socialization and mental stimulation, which can have an impact on activity, which can lead to depression and isolation, which can lead to functional decline and can reduce longevity,” Saxena says.
- Reduce stress. Chronic stress raises inflammation in the body. “People with higher levels of inflammation in the body, like C-reactive protein, have a more limited life expectancy,” Harris says. Try meditating, yoga or tai chi.
- Live with purpose. It’s associated with a reduced risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. Sirota says it just makes him feel good. He’s passing on his business experience to enterprising high schoolers. “It gives me incredible joy to help kids,” he says. You can live with purpose by volunteering, helping a family member or doing anything that gives you meaning.
- Stay out of the sun. “Even constant topical sunscreen application is imperfect when you’re encountering more than 15 minutes of direct sun exposure,” Jegasothy says. “Application error and sweating dilute the sunscreen.”
The Bottom Line
Many aspects of health are related, such as isolation, depression and functional decline. It makes sense, then, that we need a combination of strategies to stay vibrant. “It really takes a lot of things to live longer and healthier,” Harris says.
For Sirota, that means doing as many activities as possible to enrich life. “Never step down your game,” he says. “There’s no reason to not keep doing something until something stops you.”
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