Inheriting good genes is a pretty good start for living a longer, healthier life. But the truth is that genetics will only get you part of the way there. Lifestyle and environment have just as much to do with how well we age – maybe even more. And because you can’t control your genes, but you can take control of the way you live, the keys to longevity are in your hands.
We know so much more than we used to about aging and staying healthy in later life. Good genetics are only part of the equation. Consider that 70 percent of the physical differences and 50 percent of the intellectual differences between older adults who are healthier in later years and those who aren’t comes down to lifestyle choices.
Environmental Factors That Determine How Well You Live
What else influences how successfully we age? There are a host of other factors, ranging from how socially connected we are to where we live:
Live with Purpose: Older adults who are engaged in meaningful activity have lower rates of mortality and better health. For example, seniors who volunteer at least 100 hours of their time each year enjoy improved mental and physical health. Purpose promotes positive living.
Social Connections: Isolation is a serious health risk for older adults. It contributes to everything from depression to higher rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Staying connected to family and friends, even through social media and online chat services such as Skype, yields positive health benefits. Relationships keep you going.
Stay Active: A sedentary lifestyle puts you and your aging family member at risk for chronic diseases. Engaging in physical activity for 30 to 45 minutes each day will cut your risks for health conditions such as cardiovascular disease and cancer. People in the Blue Zones, those areas of the world where people live the longest, have active daily lifestyles built around natural movement such as gardening, walking, swimming, hiking and biking. Active living is thriving living.
Feed the Spirit: Spirituality influences healthy aging. Nourishing the spirit cuts risks from chronic illnesses, including heart diseases, diabetes and depression, and people who routinely feed their spirit also have lower rates of suicide. But spirit-feeding doesn’t necessarily mean organized religion. Engaging in activities such as meditation, watercolor painting, and gardening can all nourish the spirit. Spirit-centric soulful living is rich and full.
Physical Environment: Where you live matters greatly in setting the course for how well you age. A home that offers good lighting, an easy-to-navigate floor plan, a senior-friendly bathroom, and fewer, safer stairs can prevent older adults from falls. And falls are the leading cause of fatal and non-fatal injuries for people over the age of 65. Home should also be a place where you can relax and enjoy life, not be bogged down with worry and stress about how you’ll manage the details of daily living. Buying groceries. Shoveling snow or shooing the ‘gators. Repairing the kitchen sink. Those tasks become more challenging with age. When simplicity appeals more than challenge, where you live matters.
Good Nutrition: Seniors are more likely to have poor nutrition than younger adults, especially those seniors who live alone. Problems arranging transportation, difficulty preparing meals and a tighter budget are just a few of the reasons why. But a poor diet can lead to higher incidences of falls, problems with wounds healing, and a weakened immune system that increases the risk for illness and infection. Eating well increases the appetite for living well.
Family Matters: Having happy, healthy relationships with friends and family is yet another lesson we’ve learned from the Blue Zones. When you surround yourself with upbeat people, you’re more likely to think positively and engage in healthier activities. Plus, families keep us connected with past and future, with heritage and hope – and that deepens and enriches daily life. Still true: No one is an island.
Child’s Play: One of the Ten Principles of a Life Worth Living developed by the Eden Alternative highlights the pivotal role children play in a senior’s quality of life. In short, intergenerational relationships help seniors feel life is worth living. Children are meant to be seen, heard and involved.
Laugh It Off: Laughter is still the best medicine. A good laugh can lower blood pressure, boost the immune system, and reduce pain. Laughter can also help you shake off stress, which has long been linked to illnesses such as heart disease and cancer. Rx: Laugh!
Brain Health: Growing evidence shows the key to overall good health lies in maintaining a healthy brain. Over the last decade, research has proven there’s much more to it than working the daily crossword, and that good nutrition, stress management, and regular exercise all play key roles in keeping brains healthy. And by the way, all that multitasking so many of us are proud of? It can actually have a negative impact on brain health, because the brain isn’t designed to handle more than one task at a time. And one more thing: We saved brain health for last on the list, since it’s the most important one to remember.
The good news? Seniors in their 70s and 80s who modify their behavior today still reap the rewards. It’s never too late to make changes, and adopting a healthier lifestyle and choosing the right type of living environment can impact how well you live … for as long as you live.
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