How do I stay healthy as I age?

DEAR DOCTOR K:

Can you boil down all of the health advice out there? What do I need to do to age successfully?

DEAR READER:

Wow, that’s a tall order. Thirty years ago, when I heard people talk about “successful aging,” they were talking about avoiding disease and living longer.

These days, we want more. Of course we want to live long, disease-free lives. But we also want to be physically fit and functional. We want to stay emotionally healthy. And we want our minds and memories to remain sharp.

In fact, a growing number of my patients, and my friends, tell me they want to have a long life only if the extra years fit this description. As one patient said to me, “I want to prolong my life, so long as I don’t also prolong my decrepitude.”

Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health set out to determine the impact a healthy lifestyle could have on aging. They analyzed data collected from the Nurses’ Health Study of more than 100,000 women to estimate how a healthy lifestyle at midlife influenced aging decades later. They defined successful aging as reaching age 70 while meeting these four criteria:

  • no major chronic diseases, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes or cancer;
  • no cognitive impairment, meaning memory loss or worsening of basic thinking skills;
  • no major disabilities that limit the ability to walk around freely and conduct normal daily activities;
  • no major problems with mental health, such as anxiety or depression.

Here’s what they found:

HIGH-QUALITY DIET. Women who stuck closest to a healthy diet boosted their odds of successful aging by 34 percent. A healthy diet emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fish. It minimizes processed and red meat, sugar-sweetened drinks, trans fats and sodium.

REGULAR EXERCISE. This includes all forms of daily physical activity, including walking. Women who were the most active nearly doubled their odds of successful aging, compared with the most sedentary nurses.

HEALTHY BODY WEIGHT. Having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or above (a level defined as obesity) lowered the odds of successful aging by about 80 percent.

MODERATE ALCOHOL CONSUMPTION. In the Nurses’ Health Study, light to moderate alcohol use (one or two drinks a day, on three to four days of the week) increased the odds of good long-term health by about 20 to 30 percent.

Since many of you ask questions about healthy lifestyle, we discuss it frequently in this column. Therefore, I doubt it will surprise anyone that the factors I’ve listed above are good for your health.

But the point made by the Harvard School of Public Health study is just how good for you these lifestyle practices are. For example, there are no medicines yet invented that can double your chance of successful aging, as we’ve defined it. Yet regular exercise can do that. Studies of hundreds of thousands of people over their adult lifetimes prove that a healthy lifestyle can do more for successful aging than any medical technology. And even though this study involved women, other studies find that healthy lifestyle is just as beneficial for men.