A Definitive Guide to Healthy Aging (For Older Adults)



There’s living longer, and there’s living better. Healthy aging is about living better for longer.

The biggest challenge we face is not adding years to our life, it’s making those years count by being able to be fully active, independent and happy. We want to travel, dance, date, learn, laugh and have fun as we age. We want to be energetic and vibrant.

By reading this guide, you’ll learn the latest habits for healthy aging and well-being. Research has shown that there are specific strategies for your diet, sleep, exercise, relationships and preventative care that can dramatically improve your quality of life well into your Golden years – helping you avoid chronic disease, while living longer and healthier.

  • Why healthy aging matters

    Old age can be fraught with challenges to your health. According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, more than 1 in 4 Americans live with multiple chronic health conditions like arthritis, asthma, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and chronic respiratory conditions.[1]

    Each of these chronic conditions can interfere with your ability to remain independent and perform activities of daily living on your own. Not only that, chronic health conditions can cause significant financial strain as you might face additional out of pocket expenses for medical treatments, caregiving and higher prescription drug costs.

    The good news is, there are positive steps you can take to reduce the likelihood of injury and disease. These steps will make your body stronger, your mind sharper and your immune system a protective fortress.

    Healthy aging basics

    Nutrition and diet

    Choosing healthy foods is critical to your health and well-being, especially as you age! Your body goes through significant changes in your 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. Your diet arms your body with the energy and nutrients it needs as you age. These tips are scientifically proven to help you choose the right foods to improve your health at each stage of life.

    Drink lots of liquids

    As we age, we tend to drink less than we need to because we lose our sense of thirst,[2] get urinary tract infections and tend to be a little more incontinent. However, medications can make it more important than ever to stay well hydrated.

    To help yourself get in the habit of drinking more throughout the day, take a sip of your drink between bites during mealtime, drink a glass of water when you take your pills and have a glass of water before and after you exercise, especially on hot days.

    Choose liquids low in sugar, sodium and fat. Good choices include water, skim milk, 100% juices (apple, cranberry, orange) and low-fat soups.

    Know what to eat

    Eat a variety of foods every day to get the nutrients you need. Eat a rainbow of bright colored foods[3] to get anti-inflamatory, cancer-fighting, immune-boosting nutrients into your system. Here’s what the nutrition rainbow of foods look like:

    Healthy meals include:

    • Lean protein (chicken, pork, lean meat, seafood, eggs, legumes)
    • Fruits and vegetables (think red, green, orange, blue, purple)
    • Whole grains (oatmeal, wild rice, whole heat toast)
    • Low-fat dairy (skim milks, low-fat cheese)

    Also try eating foods that are high in Vitamin D (essential as we age) and fiber and low in fat and sodium.

    Know how much to eat

    The Dietary Guidelines suggest people aged 50 and older choose from the following foods each day. This is a great starting point to help you get a sense for what and how much you ought to eat each day:[4]

    • Fruits—1½ to 2½ cups
    • Vegetables—2 to 3½ cups
    • Grains—5 to 10 ounces
    • Protein foods—5 to 7 ounces
    • Dairy foods—3 cups of fat-free or low-fat milk
    • Oils—5 to 8 teaspoons
    • Solid fats and added sugars (SoFAS) and sodium (salt)—keep the amount of SoFAS and sodium small.

    Here are some very useful visual aids from the National Institute of Health to help you get a sense of how big a portion is:

    Read labels

    Eating fresh is best, but if you do buy packaged, canned or bottled foods, read the labels. Avoid foods with high sugar, sodium or saturated fat levels:

    • For sugar, try not to have more than 6-9 teaspoons of added sugar a day (25-36 grams).
    • For sodium, people over 50 should limit themselves to no more than 1,500 mg per day.
    • For fat, target somewhere between 18 and 25 grams of saturated fats per day – no more than 10% of your daily calories should come from saturated fats.

    Sleep and age

    According to the National Sleep Foundation, older adults, aged 50-65 need between 7-9 hours of sleep per night and those aged over 65 need between 7-8 hours of sleep per night.[5]

    However, a full night’s sleep becomes increasingly challenging for many older adults. We tend to fall asleep less deeply and wake up more throughout the night resulting in chronic sleep deprivation.

    Often times, medical conditions such as sleep apnea, arthirtis, acid reflux, congestive heart failure and depression are the cause. Other times, conditions like restless leg syndrome or periodic leg movements make staying asleep difficult. The good news is, treating the underlying medical condition often leads to significantly improved sleep.

    Poor sleep can have profound negative effects on your physical and mental well-being. There is a significant amount of research that has conclusively linked lack of sleep to poorer memory, disease and shortened life spans.[6] Here’s a list of just a few of the consequences:

    • Obesity
    • Diabetes
    • Heart Disease & Hypertension
    • Mood Disorders
    • Immune Disfunction
    • Shortened Life Expectancy

    Although a good sleep may seem difficult, if not impossible to find, there are actually many things we can do to drastically increase the odds of a good night’s sleep:

    1. Avoid caffeine, nicotine, alcohol and other stimulants that get in the way of sleep.
    2. Have a light supper or snack before bedtime – avoid heavy meals late in the day.
    3. Don’t drink too much before bed. Drink just enough to avoid waking up to go pee in the middle of the night.
    4. Don’t nap too late in the day. If you miss your day time nap, don’t nap at all. Take your naps earlier in the day, maybe before 3PM. Napping too late will keep you up later, causing a vicious cycle of a poor nights sleep, resulting in a need for a nap.
    5. Exercise early in the day as opposed to after dinner. Exercising early will actually help you sleep. However, doing so late will stimulate your body and keep you up.
    6. Keep a consistent sleep schedule. Going to bed and waking up at the same time each day will make it easier for your body to establish a sleep rythm. It’s even more important that you wake up at the same time each morning – it will force your body to sleep at night.
    7. Don’t check your watch, clock or phone if you wake-up at night. If you can’t resist, remove them from your night table.
    8. Create a sleep friendly environment in your bedroom. Keep it dark, quiet and cool. Get a comfortable mattress, pillow, sheets, blanket, black out blinds, eye mask, ear plugs or white noise if necessary.
    9. Create a consistent and conducive pre-sleep routine: Take a bath, have an herbal tea and consider getting into bed with a book 30-60 minutes before you want to fall asleep; avoid screens, especially phones and iPads 30 minutes before bed.

    Exercise

    It’s no secret that daily exercise, combined with a healthy diet, is like a tonic for the body. It is the Holy Grail.

    Exercise helps seniors stay active, independent and mobile longer, while helping stave off disease. But even more importantly, seniors with good fitness levels show better decision making, critical thinking and planning skills than their peers, while keeping cognitive decline, memory loss and dementia at bay.[7]

    You don’t have to turn yourself into an Olympian to get the benefits of exercise either. As we covered in our previous article on exercise for seniors, a recent study from Harvard University suggested seniors get the following amount of exercise:

    • At least 150 minutes of walking or other aerobic exercise per week
    • Strength training 2-3 times per week, but never 2 days in a row
    • Stretch and balance exercises every day

    Check out what exercises are best for seniors here: Exercise for Seniors: How to Improve Strength and Balance (And Stay Fit)

    Daily habits

    There’s a lot of advice out there regarding what’s good and bad for you, and it changes every year. One day wine is good for you, the next it’s bad. One day eggs are bad for you, the next day they’re a superfood.

    So I’ve put together a list of 5 habits that have a wide consensus when it comes to their benefit for you. These habits will make a big difference in your life. Here you go:

    • Move daily: The more you move the better. Walk, swim, play tennis, it doesn’t matter as long as you get moving and do it daily. Research shows that sustained physical activity improves your odds of healthy aging by seven times![8]
    • Do something to make yourself smile – a lot: People who smile live longer and are typically happier and healthier than those who smile less.[9] Forcing a smile won’t magically add years to your life, but doing things that make you smile will.
    • Turn off the TV: Every hour of TV watching reduces life expectancy by 22 minutes! So if you sit in front of the TV for six hours a day, you’ll live 5 years less according to a study by the University of Queensland.[10] Fill your time getting together with friends, cooking, gardening, walking, painting, writing and reading etc.
    • Spend time with friends and family: Having a strong social network with family, friends and colleagues makes you healthier and extends your life according to studies from Brigham Young University.[11] In fact, according to a study from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, a wide social network is as important as exercise and diet in maintaining our health.
    • Be mindful and meditate: It may sound like hocus pocus to you, but mindfulness and meditation are going mainstream. Even researchers at Harvard are touting the benefits of meditation for seniors.[12] Only 15 minutes a day can improve your mind, health and mood while reducing stress, pain and depression.

    Preventive care

    It’s always better to stay one step ahead, especially when it comes to your health. If you’re willing to take your car into the shop for a tune up every year, there’s no excuse not to do the same for yourself.

    As a senior, the frequency with which you should visit your doctors, get vaccinations and screen for any issues to ensure you prevent and nip any problems in the bud can make a significant difference to your health.

    Here’s a list of preventive care measures recommended by the U.S. Health Department (please discuss with your doctor):[13]

    • Abdominal aortic aneurysm one-time screening for men of specified ages who have ever smoked
    • Aspirin use to prevent cardiovascular disease for men and women of certain ages (Talk with your doctor about taking aspirin every day)
    • Blood pressure screening for all adults
    • Breast cancer screening every 2 years between ages 55-74
    • Cholesterol screening for adults of certain ages or at higher risk
    • Colorectal cancer screening annually to at least age 65
    • Diabetes (type 2) screening for adults with high blood pressure
    • Diet counseling for adults at higher risk for chronic disease
    • Hepatitis C screening for adults at increased risk and one-time screening for everyone born between 1945 and 1965
    • HIV screening for everyone ages 15 to 65, and other ages at increased risk
    • Immunization vaccines for adults (doses, recommended ages, and recommended populations vary):
      – Hepatitis A
      – Hepatitis B
      – Herpes Zoster (Shingles)
      – Human Papillomavirus (HPV)
      – Influenza (Flu)
      – Measles, Mumps, Rubella (MMR)
      – Meningococcal
      – Pneumococcal
      – Tetanus, Diphtheria, Pertussis
      – Varicella (Chickenpox)
    • Lung cancer screening for adults ages 55 to 80 who are at high risk because they are heavy smokers or have quit in the past 15 years
    • Obesity screening and counseling for all adults
    • Get tested for Chlamydia and Gonorrhea
    • Syphilis screening for all adults at higher risk
    • Tobacco use screening for all adults and cessation interventions for tobacco users

    I also recommend you get an annual wellness check-up, an eye exam every year for adults over 60 years of age and a teeth cleaning once a year if your teeth are in good condition.

    Visiting your doctor once a year is not only essential to spot check your health and take the appropriate tests, it’s also a good opportunity to discuss and review medications with your doctor – a key determinant of your health.

    Social relationships (And sex)

    Staying socially engaged helps seniors in everything from staying in shape to staying mentally fit and extending your lifespan.

    According to the National Institute on Aging, research indicates that:[14]

    • Deep social relationships are associated with positive health bio-markers;
    • Social well-being is associated with lower inflammation that causes Alzheimers, osteoporosis, arthritis and cardiovadcular disease;
    • Social isolation is a strong risk factor for morbidity and mortality, especially among older adults;
    • Loneliness is correlated to high blood pressure;
    • Loneliness is a risk factor for depression.

    So create and maintain positive relationships with family, friends and colleagues. If you feel isolated, try volunteering, joining a gym with fitness classes, playing cards, going for coffees with friends and doing dinners with family.

    But if you really want to add some spice to your life and improve your health, you should have more sex! Yes, it’s doctors’ orders and here’s why:

    • Sex improves your sleep. Orgasms increase the hormone oxytocin and decrease cortisol, reducing stress and anxiety.[15]
    • Sex keeps you looking younger. According to a study by Scotland’s Royal Edinburgh Hospital, older couples who have sex at least 3 times a week look up to 7 years younger than their peers.[16]
    • Sex makes you happy. We know happy is important to our overall health. According to one study , couples having sex once a week were 44 percent happier than those who had no sex in the past year.[17]

    Long-term care

    As seniors lose the ability to perform activities of daily living on their own (bathing, cooking, dressing, toileting, cleaning, driving, etc.), it becomes essential to find long-term care solutions while helping them live as independently and safely as possible.

    It’s important you start planning, saving and sharing your preferences with your family members before you need the care. These decisions are often expensive, complex and will have a significant impact on you and your loved ones as you age.

    Long-term care comes in many forms. The National Institute of Aging describes them as follows:[18]

    • Home health careHome health care is usually related to medical services provided in a home setting. These services might include physical, occupational or speech therapy.
    • Homemaker servicesHomemaker services usually describe care involving assistance with activities of daily living like bathing, toileting and food preparation.
    • Friendly visitor / Companion services: Companion services are offered by private agencies or volunteers who pay visits to seniors who are frail or living alone.
    • Transportation services: Transportation services help seniors get to and from medical appointments, senior centers, the shopping mall and more. With reduced mobility, transportation is essential to help seniors manage their lives and stay involved and connected within their communities.
    • Emergency response systems: This is especially useful for seniors living alone or at risk of falling, medical alert systems allow users to press a help button on their wrist or around their neck in the event of an emergency.
    • Adult day care: Adult day care is a daytime center that offers activities for seniors throughout the day, offering a social environment, meals and activities without the expense of boarding.
    • Residential facilities: Residential care facilities or boarding homes offer residents private or shared rooms, personal care, medication dispensing and meals. Staff are available at all times. However, there is limited help with activities of daily living and no medical care provided.
    • Assisted living communities: Assisted living communities are for seniors who also need assistance with activities of daily living like bathing, dressing, toileting and cooking. There are typically organized activities and common areas to encourage sociability as well.
    • Nursing homes: Nursing homes offer patients skilled nursing assistance, medical treatment, 24 hour care and physical therapy in addition to meals and assistance with activities of daily living.

    Healthy aging begins with you

    Aging healthily doesn’t happen by chance. Sure there’s the luck of the genetic draw but barring luck, there’s a lot we can do to improve our chances of living well into our golden years with health, happiness, vigor and purpose.

    Following the approach set out in this guide will help you establish the diet, sleep, exercise, social and preventative care habits that will not only help you live longer, but better!

    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

    Reference

    [1] United States Department of Health and Human Services: Multiple Chronic Conditions: A Strategic Framework
    [2] National Institute on Aging: Getting Enough Fluids
    [3] The Cancer Project.org: The Nutrition Rainbow
    [4] USDA: Dietary Guidelines
    [5] National sleep foundation: Recommended new sleep times
    [6] Healthy Sleep: Sleep and Disease Risk
    [7] TIME: How Exercise May Help Protect Your Brain From Cognitive Decline and Dementia
    [8] Psychology Today: What Daily Habit Can Boost “Healthy Aging” Odds Sevenfold?
    [9] Ron Gutman: The hidden power of smiling
    [10] The Telegraph: Every hour of TV watching shortens life by 22 minutes
    [11] BYU News: Stayin’ alive: That’s what friends are for
    [12] Harvard Medical School: Now and Zen: How mindfulness can change your brain and improve your health
    [13] USA Health Care Department: Preventive care benefits for adults
    [14] National Institute on Aging: Research Suggests a Positive Correlation between Social Interaction and Health
    [15] NCBI: Influence of sex on sleep regulatory mechanisms.
    [16] Scotland’s Royal Edinburgh Hospital: Sex is the secret to looking younger, claims researcher
    [17] University of Colorado Boulder: In sex, happiness hinges on keeping up with the Joneses
    [18] National Institute of Aging: What Is Long-Term Care?

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