7 secrets to healthy aging

More than three-quarters of Americans ages 50 and older rated their health as good to excellent, even if they have chronic conditions, according to a recent survey done by AARP and National Geographic. And more than 60% are taking steps to stay healthy, such as getting good sleep and maintaining a healthy weight.1

So it’s safe to say that many Americans are on board with the concept of healthy aging. But what does this mean exactly? “It’s not just about preventing disease, but also about fostering resilience, maintaining independence and ensuring a high quality of life,” says Kien Vuu, M.D., a former professor of health sciences at UCLA in Los Angeles and founder of VuuMD Performance and Longevity.

Having the energy and physical ability to go about your day-to-day activities well is one aspect of healthy aging, explains Gabrielle Lyon, M.D., a functional medicine physician in private practice and the author of Forever Strong.

Once you hit middle-age, the sooner you start thinking about healthy aging, the better, notes Dr. Lyon. “Despite what most individuals believe, aging begins in our 30s and 40s,” she says.

The good news is that whatever age you are now, it’s never too late to improve the aging process. To live your best life as you grow older, here are 7 steps you can start taking today.

1. Eat more heart-healthy foods

High cholesterol can cause a buildup of plaque in your arteries. That raises your risk of heart disease, heart attacks and strokes, explains Tariq Hafiz, M.D., a cardiologist and the medical director at the Pritikin Longevity Center in Miami.

To help lower cholesterol, aim for a diet that includes plenty of vegetables, fruits and fiber, he advises. You also want to load up on healthy sources of protein, such as poultry, seafood, beans and other legumes.2

At the same time, “try to limit your intake of sodium, refined carbohydrates, processed foods and red meats,” says Dr. Hafiz. It’s also good to cut back on saturated fats — from butter and fatty meat, for example — and swap in mono- and polyunsaturated fats found in fish, olive oil, nuts and seeds, he explains.

Eating well and being active may help maintain a healthy weight, which is another habit Dr. Hafiz recommends.

2. Strengthen your muscles

Staying active is key to staying healthy as people get older. That includes at least 150 minutes per week of activities that get your heart pumping, such as brisk walking, dancing or swimming laps.3

But try to work a few muscle-building sessions into your week too, suggests Dr. Lyon. That can be anything from push-ups and squats (even using a chair as a prop) to lifting weights or digging in the garden.

Strong muscles can boost metabolism and raise energy levels, explains Dr. Lyon. Even better? “Strength training makes us stronger, enables mobility and improves range of motion, which helps us move well and avoid injuries or falls,” she says.

3. Cut back on sugar

Some foods help the body; others, not so much. “Older adults are especially vulnerable to the effects of a high-sugar diet,” says Ali Bandier, R.D., a registered dietitian and founder of Senta Health, a nutritional counseling service. “Processed sugars can increase joint inflammation, cause metabolic issues, and raise the risk of diabetes and heart disease.”4

Americans typically consume 17 teaspoons of added sugar a day. The American Heart Association recommends a much lower amount: for men, 9 teaspoons, and for women, 6 teaspoons.5 One approach is to limit sugar by tracking your intake of sugary foods and beverages, as well as how much sugar you use when baking or sweetening beverages.

4. Incorporate mindfulness

Chronic stress may harm your health. According to the American Institute of Stress, it also speeds up the effects of aging by increasing inflammation in the body. In their report, they also noted it may even make vaccines less effective.6

Of course, it’s not always possible to change a stressful situation, such as your job or caregiving responsibilities. So, the goal is to find a way to handle the stress.

Eating a healthy diet and being active help. But having a mindfulness practice — where you focus on your breath or sounds to train your brain to stay in the present moment  — may reduce stress too, notes Dr. Vuu.

Another way mindfulness can counteract stress? By helping you recognize thought patterns, especially negative or unproductive ones, he explains. Thinking you’re a failure because something didn’t go right during the day is one example of a negative, unproductive thought.7

“By being aware and challenging these thoughts, we can foster improved mental resilience and cultivate a more positive outlook,” says Dr. Vuu. Ask your primary care provider to suggest strategies for mindfulness. Or reach out to a therapist who can guide you on overcoming negative thought patterns.

5. Stay hydrated

As people get older, staying hydrated may be one key to staying healthy, according to a study by the National Institutes of Health. The researchers found that not drinking enough fluids speeds up the effects of the aging process. It also raises the risk of chronic diseases such as heart failure, stroke and dementia, along with consuming too much salt.8 "The good news is that water isn’t the only source of hydration,” says Bandier. “There are plenty of foods that have a high water content, including avocados, bananas, eggs and cucumbers.”

6. Reach out to others

Being socially isolated and lonely is another risk factor for heart disease and other chronic diseases.9

“Humans are inherently social beings. Building and nurturing robust social connections profoundly benefits our mental and emotional well-being,” says Dr. Vuu. Having regular social interactions — talking with neighbors, getting together with family and friends, joining organizations — can ward off feelings of loneliness and even boost immunity, he explains.

Volunteering or joining others in a cause you find meaningful can accomplish two things at once. It will provide a source of regular social interaction and create a sense of purpose — another habit that’s helpful to aging well, notes Dr. Vuu.

7. Prioritize sleep

Getting at least 7 hours of high-quality sleep lets your body repair itself. “Sleep has a powerful impact on our metabolism, such as sugar and insulin control and the immune system,” says Florence Comite, M.D., founder of the Comite Center for Precision Medicine & Health. It’s essential for regulating mood, weight, stress and emotions.10

There are many ways to get more restful sleep. Try going outdoors for a little while every day, especially early in the day, to set your sleep-wake cycle.10 At night, block any street light you can see from the bedroom, and keep electronic devices in another room so they don’t distract you.

Looking for more tips for healthy aging?

It’s always helpful to talk with your provider about other lifestyle tweaks that may contribute to healthier aging (such as quitting smoking and other harmful habits such as drinking too much alcohol). But starting with these 7 good habits can help make the years ahead truly golden, no matter how old you are now.

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