As a baby boomer couple, Brenda and Gordon are yin and yang. At 49, Brenda runs marathons and loves her job as a publicist. The only medication she takes is for a hereditary thyroid condition. By contrast, her 53-year-old husband, Gordon, is overweight, has gout, high-blood pressure, and is possibly a diabetic. I worry constantly that hell die, says Brenda. In fact, if Gordon doesnt change his ways soon, doctors say he is increasing the likelihood that he will reduce his life span by as much as a couple of decades.
There is considerable talk today about living to be 100 and beyond. While that may sound like a nice number and something to aspire to, research has found that most of those surveyed didnt want to live that long. A Pew Research Group study, cited by Walter Bortz II, M.D. in his new book, The Roadmap to 100 (Palgrave Macmillan, April 2010, Randall Stickrod, co-author), discovered that only 8 percent of survey respondents wanted to live to be 100. Why? The reason is that most of us still associate that age with infirmity and a very low quality of life, Dr. Bortz suggests.
Aging is inevitable and something we all start doing from the moment we are born. The good news, according to Dr. Bortz, is that only 20 to 25 percent of how we age is genetic. But the other 75 precent? Thats up to each and every one of us and depends on behaviors that we can modify, change, or control.
Here is a summary of what experts say are the top 15 ways we can increase both the quality and the length of our lives.
1. Be active.
The number one way to extend the quality and length of life, according to Cheryl Phillips, M.D., president of the American Geriatrics Society, is physical activity. It is the most powerful thing you can do to prevent muscle loss, which happens in the advanced years and leads to falls, says Dr. Phillips. Physical activity also helps to prevent dementia and cognitive impairment, and it offsets many of the causes of depression.
Dr. Bortz agrees. Exercise is the key factor, he says. Aging is not a disease. You cant cure it but you can offset it by 30 years by being fit.
Exercise does not have to involve a gym, although that is certainly one proven way to get more activity into your day. You could walk, take the stairs instead of the elevator at work, do housework, or dance. To these Dr. Phillips adds gardening, swimming, bowling, even bird-watching. At 51, Dr. Phillips runs marathons.
2. Stay connected to family and friends, with at least one confidant.
The research into longevity and friendship has discovered that having even one close friend (or relative) to confide in could extend your life by as much as ten years. Other studies have found that being connected to friends or family helps increase survival rates following breast cancer or heart attacks. The key is to avoid isolation from social connections since that leads to depression which may be linked to dementia and is associated with a diminished quality of life. This is especially important for those who retire and lose the social ties that had come with work. Even unpaid volunteer work is better than isolation. I know a retired 86-year-old educator who has been working as a tutor one day a week for more than 25 years. It helps him to stay connected.
3. Take care of your teeth.
Floss your teeth, brush them twice a day, and get regular dental checkups. Those simple actions can actually extend your life. Periodontist Dr. Sally Cram explains that untreated gum disease can cause inflammation and infection which puts you at greater risk for a heart attack or a stroke. Thats because the bacteria from your mouth causes an inflammation or thickening of the blood vessels. Signs that you have gum problems include bleeding gums, red gums, gums that are sore, loose teeth, or receding gums.
4. Get enough sleep.
Whether you need eight hours of sleep, or six, getting enough rest for your body and mind could save your life. Falling asleep at the wheel while driving or at work could lead to accidents or fatalities. Lack of sleep has also been linked to obesity, a key factor in shortening your life. Sleep is fundamental to restoring our minds and bodies. How much sleep you need varies from person to person. To determine how much sleep you need, pick a time when you do not need to wake up such as on the weekend. Do not set the alarm clock. Note how many hours you sleep when you wake up naturally. That will tell you how many hours of sleep your body needs. Then adjust your evening behavior during the week to match the number of hours you really need.
5. Keep your weight within the normal range, and eat fruits and vegetables.
Research posted on The Obesity Society website shows that being overweight is one of the major risk factors in shortening life, as well as being linked to diabetes, heart attack, cancer, osteo-arthritis, sleep apnea, hypertension and mobility issues. Losing weight, and keeping it off, will also have a positive impact on the quality of your life. For help in your weight challenge, work with your doctor or find a nutritionist to help you develop a food plan that you can follow. You could also join one of the many weight loss and maintenance programs that include regular weigh-ins and monitoring of your progress.
Your parents told you to eat your fruits and vegetables when you were growing up. Turns out, they were right (at least about that!). Living longer is more likely if you eat more fresh fruit and greens. The Okinawa study of 900 octogenarians in Japan found they ate seven daily servings of fruits and vegetables. That same study also found that they practiced a way of eating known as hara hachi bu, which means eating only until you are 80% full.
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About Jan Yager