A long, healthy life is the goal for many Americans, but according to a study released in September 2022 BMJ, average life expectancy in the United States fell from 78.8 years in 2019 to 76.1 in 2021, marking the steepest two-year decline in a century. Research shows that the risk of many chronic diseases — including heart disease, diabetes, dementia and osteoporosis — also increases with age.
However, the news is not gloomy. There are things everyone can do to reduce their risk of many age-related diseases, add years to their life expectancy, and make the dream of a long and healthy life a reality. The key is to start building these healthy habits now. Longevity experts share eight things you can do every day to make your golden years really shine.
1. Make sure you get some physical activity
Why is it important? Regular physical activity has been shown to counteract normal muscle aging and help preserve lean muscle mass, research shows.
How to do it To get the most health benefits from physical activity, adults need at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (such as brisk walking or brisk dancing) each week, as well as muscle-strengthening activity such as weight lifting or push-ups, at least two days each week, in accordance with guidelines issued by the President’s Council on Physical Fitness. That’s roughly half an hour a day during the work week, and the activity doesn’t have to come from just one gym session. Even short bursts of activity add up, and many experts (as well as guidelines) say it’s better to space them out, says Dr. Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Longevity Center in California.
“Find something you love to do that is sustainable over time,” she advises. “When it’s something you can do relatively easily, it becomes a habit.” You might enjoy swimming or going to spin classes, but if going to the pool or the gym takes too much effort, you’re likely to skip your workouts. It may be better to keep exercise equipment at home, where the barrier to use is lower.
2. Keep up with health checkups
Why is it important? According to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, routine checkups can reduce the risk of early death because they help prevent diseases or detect them earlier when they are more treatable.
How to do it Rachel Marquez, MD, a board-certified family physician at Kaiser Permanente in Virginia, recommends talking to your doctor to make sure you’re keeping up with your checkups. She says that depending on your age, gender and other risk factors, you may need to be screened for colorectal cancer, lung cancer, breast cancer, cervical cancer, high blood pressure, abnormal cholesterol levels, high glucose levels, osteoporosis or mental health conditions. It’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the screenings recommended by the US Preventive Services Task Force.
3. Cut back on red meat and processed meat
Why is it important? Many studies have linked plant-based diets to longer lives. However, this does not mean that you should completely give up meat. “The evidence for meat is mixed,” says Dr Carstensen. “Diets high in red meat are not recommended, but chicken and other meats are often recommended as good sources of protein.”
Eating plans like the Mediterranean diet and the Blue Zone diet, which emphasize seafood and poultry and minimize red and processed meats, have been shown to reduce the risk of many conditions that can shorten your life, such as heart disease, metabolic disorders, and certain types of cancer, according to research published in nutrients in 2021
How to do it If it’s more sustainable for you to switch to mostly poultry and fish instead of going full vegetarian, that’s a step in a potentially healthier direction. Start by cutting back on beef and processed meats like bacon, lunch meats and sausages. Replace them with lean protein sources such as fish, chicken and turkey, as well as vegetarian sources such as legumes and quinoa. It can help to experiment with healthy foods to find ones you like, Carstensen says. If you need more help or if you have some emotional challenges with eating, finding a nutritionist can be helpful.
4. Build and maintain balance and core strength
Why is it important? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), falls are the leading cause of injury-related death in people age 65 and older, and fall mortality is worsening, especially in people age 85 and older.
“Core strength is central to balance,” Carstensen says. “Slight off balance is very common, but most of the time people don’t even notice it because we automatically correct by using our core muscles. If your core is weak, you can’t self-correct this way and you’re more likely to fall.
How to do it Exercise to strengthen your core. For an easy habit that can help when getting up from a chair, use only the strength in your core and legs, not your arms. “Using your arms reduces the stress on your core muscles,” Carstensen says. To strengthen your balance, try standing on one leg each time you brush your teeth. And talk to your doctor if you need more help: Working with a physical therapist can be helpful, as most are trained to help develop a fall prevention routine.
5. Stand Up!
Why is it important? Spending a lot of time sitting increases your risk of heart disease and diabetes, even if you exercise, according to research published in American Journal of Preventive Medicine in 2019
How to do it If you work from home, you may need to make an extra effort to add some movement to your day. You may not have these natural breaks when you enter and exit the building, speak face-to-face with colleagues, or move to a meeting room. So you might want to take a walk around the neighborhood, take breaks to do chores like making your bed, or spend a few minutes in yoga poses. A meta-analysis published in March 2022 in The Lancet Public Health found that, in terms of reducing mortality risk, the ideal number of steps per day was between 6,000 and 8,000 for older adults and between 8,000 and 10,000 for younger adults. Even if you’re not one to wear fitness trackers, it’s important to just make it a habit to walk more throughout the day, Carstensen says, even if it’s just for a minute every hour.
6. Practice good sleep hygiene
Why is it important? “Good sleep predicts longevity,” Carstensen says. And that doesn’t just mean sleeping longer; it means getting the right amount of restful quality sleep for your needs. One study found that less than seven hours or more than eight hours of sleep per night increased the risk of death by 24% and 17%, respectively. Official recommendations vary, and it’s not just the quantity, but also the quality of sleep that’s important. The CDC recommends that adults ages 18 to 60 aim for seven or more hours a night, those ages 61 to 64 get between seven and nine hours a night, and anyone age 65 or older get seven to eight hours.
How to do it Some components of good sleep hygiene include a consistent sleep schedule, limiting caffeine and alcohol, especially before bed, and avoiding the use of electronic devices before bed, according to the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School and the WGBH Educational Foundation. If you’re practicing good sleep hygiene but still have daytime sleepiness, it’s a good idea to see your doctor to rule out things like sleep apnea.
7. Take time to be grateful
Why is it important? Although evidence examining the effects of gratitude practices on health is limited, gratitude can help you be more likely to engage in healthy activities like exercise and also make you more likely to seek help when you have health problems, according to Wiley Encyclopedia of Health Psychology.
How to do it Carstensen practices gratitude by taking time to “sit and reflect and be grateful,” she says. “Breathe and think about what is good in the world and what you value. It calms you down. There is a kind of reset that is very beneficial for mental health. It really changes your perspective.
8. Make time for friends
Why is it important? Fewer friends is linked to negative health effects, as well as loneliness, depression, stress and anxiety. Having just two to four close friends can lower your risk, according to a study published online in Aging and society in July 2022
How to do it Connect with your friends, whether by text message or phone call, and make plans to spend time together. “Make sure they know you care. If you let them know you care, they’re much more likely to let you know they care too, so making time for these exchanges is really important,” Carstensen says.