What is Healthy Aging?
If aging is defined as an age-related deterioration in physiological functioning, what exactly does it mean to age healthily?
In reality, there’s no simple answer, and there are hundreds of ways to define healthy aging. At the most basic level, healthy aging is aging without the presence of disease and disease-related disability.
Yet, many modern definitions also consider the maintenance of cognitive function, as well as psychosocial of an individual’s well-being.
The World Health Organization (WHO) uses this definition:
“The process of developing and maintaining the functional ability that enables well-being in older age”.
Nature vs Nurture
There is no doubt your genetics are responsible to some degree for the way in which you age. But researchers now know that environmental factors also play a pretty important role as well.
Related: 3 Key Genes that Affect How You Age
Though a bit daunting, it’s promising to think that you can promote your own longevity through tweaking certain aspects of your lifestyle.
Certain populations across the globe have a significantly higher life expectancy compared with the world average. As such, they’re a gold mine for scientific researchers, who refer to these areas as the ‘blue zones’.
When thinking about how you can promote your own healthy aging, you can look to the inhabitants of the blue zones for a few tips and tricks to help you on your way!
So, What Should You Be Doing to Promote Healthy Aging?
1. Pay Attention to Your Food Choices — They Really Do Matter!
When looking to nutrition as a preventative medicine, it’s not always useful to focus on single foods or nutrients. Many dietary components work in synergy, so thinking about the quality of your overall diet is definitely the way to go.
So, what can you do to up the quality of your diet?
Increase Fruit & Vegetable Intake
You already know that you need to eat our fruit and veggies — they’re important sources of vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants.
Since the nutrients that they contain are essential for so many biochemical and physiological processes, and their consumption decreases the risk of developing various chronic diseases, it’s no wonder that a diet rich in fruit in vegetables is one of the best ways to promote healthy aging.
The longevity-promoting Mediterranean and Okinawan diets, for example, are predominantly plant-based, and many studies have demonstrated increased life expectancy in those who regularly consume these foods, compared with those who don’t. The results often show a dose-response pattern. This means that researchers found that as the number of portions of fruit and veg increases, so does longevity.
Learn More: Tools for Lifelong Wellness: Understanding Aging
It’s thought that the reduced mortality rates observed in these high-intake groups is largely due to the ability of fruit and vegetable consumption to reduce cardiovascular risk.
Following advice from the WHO, many countries opt for a 5-a-day recommendation for fruit and vegetable intake. But it’s worth remembering that this is the minimum requirement. In reality, you should be aiming much higher!
Increase Fiber Intake
Dietary fiber refers to a type of carbohydrate that cannot be digested in the small intestine.
The health benefits of a fiber-rich diet are now widely recognized, as high intakes are associated with improved digestion and a reduced risk of colorectal cancer, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
High-fiber foods include fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, beans, pulses and whole-grains. Eating these foods regularly will improve the overall quality of your diet and your risk of chronic disease. This means you’ll have a better chance of living healthier and longer.
We’re all aware that water is essential to life. Nevertheless, many of us still fail to meet recommendations for adequate hydration levels.
Hydration status becomes especially important as you age — as older individuals are more susceptible to the effects of dehydration. Unfortunately, it is this age group who most frequently fall short of public health guidelines.
Scientific research indicates that good hydration status may help to prevent disorders of the gastrointestinal (gut), urological (urinary tract), neurological (brain) and circulatory (heart) systems.
By adopting healthy habits now, and being aware of the potential dangers of not maintaining good hydration levels, it’s more likely that you will maintain these healthy practices in later life.
Reduce Red Meat Intake
Both processed and unprocessed red meat consumption has been associated with an increased risk of developing colon cancer, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.
As such, several studies have demonstrated that individuals with high red meat consumption are more likely to die sooner. This suggests a strong association between this type of meat and mortality risk.
Reduce Processed Sugar Intake
The typical Western diet contains processed foods in abundance, many of which are ridiculously high in sugar.
Sipping on soda and snacking on candy has effectively become the norm. In fact, eradicating these from the average diet can be an enormous challenge.
But the health implications can be pretty major. High-sugar diets are associated with significant increases in the risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Cutting out added sugars altogether might not be too appealing. But if you can try to find alternatives to some of your regular sweet treats, your body will thank you in the long-run!
Reduce Sodium Intake
Sugar isn’t the only thing that hides in processed foods; sodium is pretty sneaky too.
It’s thought that a massive 75% of the sodium in our diets is derived from processed food products. And it’s not just the typically salty foods you ought to be wary of either. Confectionary items often contain sodium, too.
Too much of the stuff can cause elevated blood pressure, increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease.
While taking care not to over-season your food is a good habit, it’s unlikely to be enough to significantly reduce your sodium intake. So, it’s worth checking the labels of the pre-prepared foods you buy and opting for lower-sodium versions!
2. If You Smoke, Consider Quitting
Cigarette smoking can cut your number of healthy years drastically.
Those who smoke are at a far higher risk of developing respiratory conditions, heart disease and cancer. As a result, smokers have a significantly decreased quality of life in terms of health. Plus, their risk of mortality from any cause is up to 3 times higher than those who have never smoked.
But it’s never too late to quit! While the sooner the better, quitting smoking at any age has been found to significantly reduce the risk of disease and extend lifespan.
3. Boost Your Activity Level
Physical activity reduces the risk of obesity, and, therefore, obesity-related diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and certain cancers. It promotes the healthy aging of skeletal muscle and also improves balance. This is a huge benefit for older adults at risk of falls.
On the other hand sedentary behaviors, such as long periods of sitting, may reduce lifespan, irrespective of whether you are generally fit and active.
Good news – you don’t necessarily need to sweat it out at the gym to achieve adequate levels of physical activity. Sure, this might be the most convenient way of working fitness into your busy schedule. And if that’s your thing then, great!
But if it’s not, don’t panic. Research into the world’s longest-surviving humans has found that what they have in common is not a love of free weights, squats and spinning classes, but lifestyles that incorporate activity on a daily basis.
High life expectancy groups do not rely on cars to get from A to B. They perform manual tasks rather than using fancy gadgets. And they engage in regular active activities, such as gardening.
Arguably, the most important thing is to choose an activity that you enjoy doing. This makes it far more likely that you’ll keep it up. Whatever you go with, try to make sure that you get a mixture of cardio and resistance exercises. It’s important to get your heart rate going whilst also strengthening your muscles.
4. Reduce Stress
Telomeres are protective caps at the ends of our DNA molecules. With time, telomeres wear down until they are no longer able to assert their protective function. This leaves cells unable to reproduce, eventually leading to tissue degeneration. For this reason, telomere length is a marker of cellular aging.
Learn more: Natural Anti-Aging Secrets: Healthy DNA
Although a natural process, research now suggests that certain lifestyle modifications can slow the rate of telomere shortening.
Stress is one factor that’s associated with accelerated telomere shortening. By removing or reducing stressors — whether work, relationship or finance derived — you may be able to preserve these little protective caps for longer, and reduce your risk of premature death.
Likely because of increased stress, anxiety and depression, activities that promote well-being — such as meditation, yoga and mindfulness techniques — are becoming increasingly popular, particularly amongst millennials.
Many people report that mind and body practices are able to reduce psychological stress and promote positive states of mind.
You already know that reducing stress can have a beneficial effect on telomeres and cellular aging. So, is it plausible that these complementary therapies could also support healthy aging?
Several studies have investigated this topic and, whilst more research is definitely warranted, the current data suggests that engaging in such techniques could have a direct effect on telomere length and regulation, potentially slowing aging.
6. Get a Good Night’s Rest
The term circadian rhythm refers to the 24-hour cycle responsible for coordinating our daily bodily processes and keeping us in sync with the world around us.
While a regular clock that’s off by an hour or two might make you late for important meetings, disruption to your circadian rhythm — or your ‘body clock’ — can wreak havoc on your total body health.
Studies have demonstrated that those with irregular sleep/wake cycles — such as shift workers — are at a greater risk of developing metabolic disorders, such as diabetes. Cardiovascular disease and cancer may also be more prevalent in these individuals, compared with those who have regular sleeping patterns.
Reducing sleep disturbances may, therefore, help decrease your risk of developing chronic diseases.
7. Maintain Strong Social Ties
Social engagement — which includes maintaining meaningful relationships and involvement in group or community activities — can have a considerable effect on an individual’s lifespan.
It makes sense when you think that the ability to form complex social structures was a key feature in the success of homo sapiens as a species.
If we have evolved to prosper through the development of social ties, it’s logical that loneliness and social exclusion could be risk factors for ill health.
Observational studies have demonstrated that the absence of support networks can lead to chronic states of stress, increasing the risk of inflammation, hypertension and cognitive decline. And not only does this apply to older individuals, but social isolation during adolescence or mid-life could also promote the onset of poor health later down the line.
Similarly, having ‘purpose’ and contributing to society through volunteer work, for example, has also been found to have a positive impact on life expectancy.
Take Home Message
In an age of rapid technological advancement, you often hear of utopian-sounding plans to hack the cellular process of human aging.
Whilst you should probably leave the futuristic stuff to the scientists (and accept that you’re not going to live until you’re 500), there are things you can do to increase the likelihood that you will grow into old age with minimal health conditions.
The individuals living in the so-called ‘blue zones’ have the right idea. They lead simple, low-stress lives with healthy diets, regular activity and strong support networks.
Of course, a lot of this may be easier in rural environments and with traditional family set-ups. It may not directly translate to busy, urban settings.
But by making small changes here and there, you could definitely increase your chances of living a happier, healthier life. And that’s worth it, right?!