January 2021




    Age is more than a number.  It’s about how you feel.  Here’s how to stay active, sharp and connected well past your 80s.

    Imagine that your life at 100 looked like this: waking up in your own home, taking regular brisk walks with friends, popping over-the-counter painkillers only once in a while.  A spate of new research on “super-agers”, people who live into their 80s, 90s and beyond in great mental and physical shape, reveals some surprising lessons that may help the rest of us outsmart aging too.  Of course, living to a very ripe old age involves some luck.   It also runs in families.  You might be in the enviable gene pool if you have close relatives who are spry nonagenarians.  But while you can’t pick your parents, you can do a lot to add years to your life.  People who enjoy healthy longevity share certain habits and lifestyles.  We can modify aging.  We die not from old age per se, but from the common diseases that tend to befall us in later years: diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and dementia. These big four are heavily influenced by life choices.  What you do today matters.  Small things add up to accelerate or slow the aging process. Here’s where to begin. Super agers:

    Keep moving.  Exercise may slow the aging process to a crawl.  Take regular exercisers who started working out during the fitness boom of the 60’s-70’s.  They look like people three decades younger, in measures of cardiovascular fitness.  Muscle samples showed they had capillary networks comparable to 25-year-old exercisers.  Most are on few medications and are inspiringly vigorous.  It makes you question the notion the physical decline is inevitable.  Working out also wards off obesity, revs up the immune system, and helps the brain stay nimble.   And you can start exercising at any age and gain benefits.  Experts recommend 30-60 minutes of a mix of resistance training (weights, bands or your body weight) along with some cardiovascular work like walking.  But as little as 15 minutes of physical activity a day has been shown to increase lifespan.  Build movement naturally into your day.  Take the stairs, use a push mower, act like your life depends on finding the parking spot farthest away from the grocery store.  (It kind of does.)

    Find their purpose.  The long-lived people of Okinawa, Japan call it ikigai, which roughly translates as “a reason to get up in the morning.”  Having this sense of meaning can greatly reduce mortality in both men and women.  People who feel a reason for being also have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and less inflammation. Your purpose doesn’t have to be as lofty as creating world peace (but if it is, you go!).  It could be training for a 5K or volunteering.  It’s what motivates you, the goals around which you organize your life.  Ponder your purpose by reflecting through writing, especially after a big milestone or transition.  Just by asking yourself what gives you purpose may help you realize how many things give your life meaning.  Or you might realize you want your life to go in another direction. 

    Add more vegetables.  Super agers around the world share some striking characteristics when it comes to diet.  They are pescatarians.  They eat a lot of vegetables, legumes, and whole grains.  They get some protein from a couple servings a week of fatty fish like salmon plus good fat from olive oil and tree nuts, like walnuts. The challenge is sticking to a virtuous menu in a world of double cheeseburgers and home-baked comfort foods.  Don’t force yourself into a total diet overhaul; rather, tweak the ratio of high-nutrition to low-nutrition choices.   Simply adding some healthy foods to an existing diet can help lower the risk of premature death.    So, make a pasta dish with olive oil and 2 ounces of pasta and top it off with loads of vegetables and chickpeas.

    Learn something (kind of) hard.   People 65 and over who remember things better than their same-age counterparts challenge themselves with bouts of strenuous mental effort. They get out of their comfort zones and push past momentary discomfort.  Just as exercising at the gym builds muscle, stressing the brain by doing things like playing tournament bridge seems to make it stronger.   Seek out enjoyable but complex challenges, not just sudoku puzzles or random brain apps.  Learn French, take up the oboe, join Toastmasters, or sign up for any class that inspires you to learn something new.  Check out The Osher Institute at the University of Richmond.  Amazing classes and lots of fun.

    Make sleep a priority.  An “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” attitude might just hasten that outcome.  Seven to eight hours seems to be the sweet spot for promoting longevity.   During shot-eye, crucial healing happens.  Cortisol ebbs, rejuvenating growth hormone surges, and the brain flushes out amyloid plaques that can lead to dementia.  For life-extending sleep, quality is key too. One common sleep disruptor: apnea.  If untreated, it may shave years off your life.   Long-term users of CPAP devices for apnea cut the odds of premature death by an impressive two-thirds.   In addition, as many as 40% of us get less than 7 hours of sleep.  Set an alarm to remind yourself to turn off the devices and go to bed.  If you find yourself fitfully tossing, try an insomnia remedy called sleep restriction therapy.  Hit the sack later than usual, restricting the total time you’re in bed.  This can increase your ability to fall and stay asleep.  For example, if you go to be at 11 PM and wake up at 8 AM but only sleep 5-6 hours, limit your time in bed to 6 hours, sleeping from 12 AM to 6 AM.  Then slowly adjust your sleeping time, adding 15 minutes or so each week, until you reach 7-8 hours.  If you snore or regularly feel fatigued despite solid sleep habits, ask your physician about getting tested for sleep apnea.

    Connect with others.  Loneliness puts us at higher risk for premature death than obesity and physical inactivity.  Also, scans of octogenarian super agers showed that the brain region associated with social connections was thicker.  Super agers also report greater social connectedness than their peers.  Being around people we trust tamps down our fight or flight response; we relax when our pack is around.  And engaging in back and forth talk is a vigorous brain workout: conversations involve lots of mental gymnastics.  You are planning what to say and reading body language and other emotional cues. 

    Social distancing may be our modus operandi for the foreseeable future, but if you want to do something to keep your brain healthy, call a friend.  You don’t have to be a social butterfly; a few close bonds will do.  It’s about how connected we feel to others.  When we get older, friendships may be particularly important.  Family relationships can be obligations.  We keep friends around because they make us feel good.  Find pockets of opportunities to keep treasured ties strong.  It’s time that you’ll cherish.

    Jennifer King Lindley