Since time immemorial, people have been looking for ways to extend life. The quest for the proverbial “fountain of youth” runs through history, from the legend of the Holy Grail to middle ages explorers like Ponce de Leon, to modern times where it takes the form of bionics, gene therapy, and advanced medicine. While there’s no doubt that, given a chance, most people would like to live as long as possible, the quantity of life is not the only metric to consider. Quality of life matters as much or more. Part of that means understanding healthy aging and how to age well.
Today, we’re living longer than ever before. Average life expectancy is at historic highs across the world. In the US, the baby boomer generation is retiring, with unprecedented aging of the population. All of these facts together mean it’s more important than ever to have a clear picture of what contributes to the quality of life, and how aging adults can optimize both quantity and quality. Living long and living well are both integral parts of the equation.
That’s where healthy aging comes into the picture. To date, there is no magic formula or panacea for long or high-quality life – no magic pill that you can pop. However, we know more about how the body works, what happens as we age, and how to minimize or offset the negative effects of aging than at any time in our history. Mysteries remain, of course, that science may unlock in the future. But for now, we do have a fairly clear picture of what the “dos” and “don’ts” are if you want to maximize your health, resilience, energy, and capabilities as you age.
The term “healthy aging” can mean different things to different people. For some, the focus is on retaining the appearance of youth, whereas others want the same level of energy as when they were younger. Still, others focus on the health portion of the term, seeking to avoid diseases and conditions that can debilitate and hasten the end of life. So, what exactly does healthy aging mean, then?
For our purposes, healthy aging includes all aspects of aging and self-actualization – all of the functions, disciplines, and aspects of living that define life and quality of life – physical health, mental health, emotional health, relationships, goals, daily activities, skills, interests, motivations, and the ability to be happy and content, while accepting and working to offset or overcome any deficits that can develop due to age. That concept forms the foundation for our list of the top 10 secrets of healthy aging, which we’ll explore in detail below.
The 10 secrets of healthy aging, despite seeming oxymoronic, are not secrets at all. Most are just good sense and have been validated and supported by numerous scientific studies over the years. While there may be some debate over certain aspects of some of these “secrets” in terms of the details (what diet is the best choice for health, for example), we’ve intentionally kept these categories fairly broad. We’ve provided expert and consensus recommendations based on the current research and literature available. However, even if those details change, the overall principles or categories discussed here will still remain, like pillars supporting the temple of healthy aging, longevity, and a life well-lived.
At all ages, getting regular exercise and staying fit is seen as a key to good health. It not only helps ensure you maintain a healthy weight, but helps to train your cardiopulmonary system to be more resilient, provides a boost of energy and feel-good endorphins, helps your immune system, and much more. Even 20 minutes of light exercise a few times a week can provide a meaningful difference in your overall health compared to doing nothing. There is also strong evidence from studies that regular exercise in mid-life helps reduce the risk of developing many health conditions in later life. So, the sooner you start exercising and getting fit, the better – but it’s also never too late to start doing something. Just be sure to check with your doctor before starting an exercise regimen if you have any existing health conditions.
It seems like advice on what constitutes a healthy diet changes all the time. While it is true that fad diets come and go by their nature, overall advice from nutritionists and scientists remains remarkably stable over the years. Most experts today agree that a healthy diet is one that minimizes highly-processed food and is light on carbohydrates, while being rich in fruits and vegetables, along with lean proteins and healthy fats. The Mediterranean diet encompasses all of these traits and is often cited as the ideal diet choice for health and longevity.
Sun exposure causes damage to cellular DNA, due to the destructive power of ultraviolet radiation. Not only can this lead to health problems such as skin cancer, but it also results in prematurely aged skin. Wrinkles, fine lines, discoloration, and more can be caused by or exacerbated by excessive skin exposure. The solution is simple – wear sunscreen when outdoors for more than a few minutes, and re-apply often. Minimize time spent outside during peak sun intensity, usually from late morning through the afternoon.
An occasional alcoholic drink, especially if it is red wine, has been shown to improve overall health. Likewise, a cup or two of coffee a day not only provides a caffeine boost, but studies have indicated health benefits from compounds found in the coffee that can help with heart and immune health, among other functions. Still, excessive alcohol or coffee consumption comes with a host of negative health consequences. Smoking in any quantity is a known trigger for a cascade of health conditions, with cumulative damage as we age. The bottom line here is to cut out unhealthy habits, and ensure that you strike the right balance on things like coffee and alcohol, which can be healthy in moderation but seriously unhealthy in excess.
Anecdotal evidence has long indicated that older adults who have strong and meaningful relationships – be they family, friends, romantic, or simply social – seem to live longer and happier lives than those who remain alone and isolated. Research continues to back up this concept. Relationships of all types are vital to healthy aging, as they draw on a number of different aspects of self-actualization, mental and physical functioning, and socialization. Crucially, they provide connection, meaning, purpose, and companionship, which we as humans, are hard-wired to seek out for our sense of well-being.
Stress can cause or exacerbate a wide range of physical and mental health conditions. Long-term chronic stress causes physical changes in the way the nervous system, brain, chemical signaling pathways, and cardiopulmonary system work. All evidence shows that stress has a negative impact on health, at all ages. Experts are unanimous in suggesting that all reasonable efforts be made to reduce stress levels for healthy aging, and good health in general. Mindfulness, meditation, light exercise, and other wellness practices can help, as can medications and psychotherapy – especially if stress has escalated to the level of an anxiety disorder. Lower stress can mean both a more enjoyable and longer life.
It’s also important to ensure that you don’t neglect your brain when thinking about healthy aging. Keeping your brain challenged, and active, and maximizing its resiliency – known as neuroplasticity – can help reduce your risk of developing dementia and other cognitive disorders, and offset some of the natural declines that many older adults experience with aging. Reading, working, socializing, hobbies, puzzles, board games, brain games, and learning new skills are all excellent ways to keep your brain engaged and challenged. Like any muscle or system in the body, the brain needs training and a good workout from time to time to remain active and healthy.
Drawing on brain health, socialization, relationships, and many other items from this list, getting involved in your community can be a great way to stay healthy with age. Clubs, sports groups, and activities check off a lot of these boxes. Community involvement becomes even more important after retirement since many people see their mental stimulation, socialization, and even their sense of self-worth decline after they are no longer working. Volunteering, going on outings, or becoming part of one or more groups or societies in your local area can really assist with healthy aging.
Sex is an important part of most romantic relationships and should be maintained as couples age. Even those who are single may date or practice safe solo sex. Maintaining an active sex life provides a good workout for the mind and body, and brings a host of physical and emotional benefits, too. Sexual dysfunction and various changes in the body due to aging can sometimes make sex more difficult, but there are solutions to overcome those problems so that you can maintain an active sex life well into old age.
We saved the most basic, but perhaps most important “secret” for last. Drink plenty of fluids and stay hydrated to ensure optimal health. As people age, they are more likely to monitor and reduce their fluid intake, especially in the evening hours. Often, this is due to not wanting to get up as often during the night to use the bathroom. Prostate enlargement in males, and the effects of childbirth in females, combined with general decreased muscle tone due to aging in both sexes, can often be the root cause for these problems. While it’s not unreasonable to limit fluid intake near bedtime, compensation earlier in the day is essential. Adults over 50, like adults of all ages, should get at least 8 glasses of water or other fluids per day to remain healthy.
There are a variety of ways to stay mentally active and sharp as you age. Reading and hobbies are high on the list, as are brainteasers, puzzles, and games. Learning new skills, taking up new interests, and remaining engaged with the world around you are also excellent ways to stay focused and maximize memory, recall, and brain function. Mental health care, including medications and therapy for any conditions that may develop, is also part of the total package of staying mentally healthy with age.
Most experts recommend a range of cardio, stretching/toning, and aerobic exercises as you age. Intensity may need to decrease somewhat (there aren’t a lot of 80-year-olds bench-pressing 300 lbs., for example), barring any medical contraindications, almost all exercises are open to you. Simple, low-impact exercises like walking/jogging, bicycle riding, swimming, yoga, Pilates, and lightweight training are almost universally recommended for adults 50+, along with outdoor sports and aerobics classes.
If you eat a well-balanced diet, you probably get sufficient and varied nutrients that you don’t necessarily need a multi-vitamin supplement. However, deficiencies and issues with the absorption of certain nutrients can affect people differently as they age, and often go undiagnosed or unnoticed. For otherwise healthy individuals, taking a multivitamin supplement once a day is unlikely to do any harm, and can help with overall health, so most doctors endorse their use.
The bad news is that there is, as yet, no fountain of youth or magic pill that can help you remain healthy forever, or even for a few years. It takes a bit of hard work to ensure you enjoy both a long and high-quality life, and that work can become more challenging as we age. Nevertheless, an investment in your own healthy aging is perhaps the best investment you can make. Utilizing the ten secrets of healthy aging that we’ve outlined here is a great way to ensure you remain healthy and active for as long as possible – truly, aging well.
While we strive to always provide accurate, current, and safe advice in all of our articles and guides, it’s important to stress that they are no substitute for medical advice from a doctor or healthcare provider. You should always consult a practicing professional who can diagnose your specific case. The content we’ve included in this guide is merely meant to be informational and does not constitute medical advice.