by Kristen Rezabek, MS, RD, CD; MG Class of 2013
Our average life expectancy has been climbing steadily over the last century. In the 1900’s life expectancy was roughly 47 years. Now, a hundred years later, it has nearly doubled to 77 years. Part of the increase in years is due to infants and children living longer and of course improved healthcare. Most of us can feel reasonably comfortable that we are genetically programmed to reach at least age 85. And if we play our cards right and combine good genes with a healthy lifestyle, we can add at least 10 good years onto that number.
The New England Centenarian Study is an ongoing research project at Boston University, looking at the characteristics of individuals and their children who are living to 100 years and beyond. Probably the most intriguing part of this study is dispelling the myth that “the older you get, the sicker you are”. Most centenarians in this study spent their lives in excellent health and were able to delay or even escape age-associated diseases such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s. Almost 90% of those who participated in the study were independent up until the age of 92 years and 75% remained independent at age 95. Research from this study and others suggest a healthy lifestyle, in addition to good genes, are key to keeping your body and mind in good shape.
So with that in mind here are some lifestyle changes that may not only increase your longevity, but also improve the quality of those golden years.
Maintain or Lose weight
Carrying around extra weight puts an added strain on your heart and increases your risk for heart attack, diabetes, cancer and other diseases that can shorten your life. Currently over two-thirds of our population is losing the battle of the bulge. The simple fact is we eat too much and exercise too little. The gains in life expectancy over the last century may be reversed as obesity related diseases take their toll. Most centenarians are at a healthy body weight.
Eat a Healthy Diet
Alter your eating patterns to include 5 to 9 servings of fruits and vegetables a day (the more colorful, the better). Eat a least 3 servings of whole grain foods. Use lean meats, skinless poultry, fish, beans and legumes, and low fat/non-fat milk and dairy products. [See this month’s recipe, below.]Scale back on portion sizes and limit those high fat, high salt foods such as cakes, cookies, crackers, pies, potato chips, fried and other fast food items. Some research even suggests the possibility that limiting the calories you eat may extend your life. Animal studies have found those who are fed fewer calories live longer, nearly 40% longer, than normal. The results are still out on if this may apply to humans. For now moderation is the key.
Use It or Lose It
We all know the health benefits of getting regular physical activity including preventing or delaying chronic disease, weight control, and preventing falls. We should aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise such as walking, swimming, biking on 5 or more days of the week. It’s never too late to start. Even those who have never been active can benefit from starting a fitness routine. Remember that old saying “use it or lose it,” well most people start to lose muscle mass as they age, a process that leaves them weak and prone to falls. However simple, daily strength exercises such as lifting weights can reverse that trend.
The aging brain responds to mental exercise the same way muscles respond to physical exercise. If you continue to challenge your mind you cause your brain to sprout new branches, or dendrites. This improves brain function and helps compensate for the small loss of brain cells that comes with age. Work on crossword puzzles, play chess, write letters to family and friends, learn a new language, write your autobiography, take up a new hobby such as ballroom dancing, learn new skills with computer classes or photography.
Stop and Smell the Roses
Tobacco is the leading cause of preventable deaths in the U.S. If you smoke or use tobacco products, ask your doctor about a smoking cessation program. It may take numerous attempts before you actually break this harmful addiction, but the health benefits start accruing as soon as you stop. Food tastes better, flowers smell sweeter…
Be a Social Butterfly
Go to a party, have a dinner group, join a book club, volunteer in your community. Building and maintaining friendships and family relationships help ward off depression and boosts your body’s immune system, which helps fight infection.
Centenarians seem to be able to cope with stress better than most. Unhealthy stress lowers your immune system and may increase your risk for chronic disease. Find stress relieving solutions such as listening to music, taking a walk, gardening, praying, meditation or talking with friends.
Get Your Zzzz’s
Aim for at least 8 hours of sleep a night. New research shows that sleep deprivation can lead to memory lapses, depression and problems with your immune system. Scientists say that insomnia may not be a natural part of aging. Talk to your doctor if you are having trouble sleeping.
What’s Up Doc?
Many chronic diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and others may be treated or even prevented, if diagnosed early. Even if you feel fine, make sure you get at least a yearly physical.
There is no magic potion for staying young at heart. Try to follow these lifestyle steps and you too may experience greater independence and enjoyment of your golden years. Perhaps Ponce de Leon wasn’t too far off when he was searching for his Fountain of Youth, after all he did discover Florida, the state with the highest percentage of people over the age of 75.
Get a serving of fruit, whole grain and lean protein all mixed up in one delicious recipe: