Keep Your Mind and Body in Top Condition
Taking Care of Your Brain
What aging can bring: Forgetfulness, decline in mental agility, risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
What the research shows: “Doing things that hit both the left and right sides of the brain, like word puzzles plus mazes and visuals, has been proven to build brainpower,” says Gary Small, M.D., director of the University of California at Los Angeles Center on Aging. Swedish researchers believe there’s also a connection between physical activity and cognitive decline. Their study found that subjects who exercised at least 20 minutes two or more times a week at midlife reduced their risk of developing Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia later by 60 percent. On the nutrition front, a study at the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center showed that an essential omega-3 fatty acid counteracts the brain’s production of neuron-damaging amyloid proteins.
What you can do: "Challenge yourself mentally and physically; as little as 10 minutes of exercise a day may lower your risk of Alzheimer’s," says Small. Eat antioxidant-loaded foods, such as almonds, leafy greens, and blueberries; and if you don’t eat enough fatty fish rich in omega-3 acids, like salmon (at least two servings a week), ask your doctor about taking a daily 1,000-milligram fish-oil supplement.
Taking Care of Your Skin
What aging can bring: Wrinkles, brown spots, skin cancer.
What the research shows: Sun exposure and smoking can cause the loss of collagen and elastin and changes in DNA that can lead to skin cancer. Avoiding these stressors is “the most important thing to for skin,” says Kenneth Beer, a dermatologic surgeon in West Palm Beach, Florida. Antioxidants will help keep damage at bay by “allowing the skin to repair itself,” says Beer.
What you can do: Drink at least one cup of green tea (a powerful antioxidant) daily, and be sure to get enough vitamins C and E. Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen (one that protects against both UVA and UVB rays) of at least SPF 30 every day; check the label for one or more of these ingredients: titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, and Mexoryl. Topical application of green tea and vitamins C and E, which are found in many anti-aging products, helps boost the skin’s ability to fend off free-radical damage. And cover up outside whenever possible: Sun exposure can also lead to brown patches.
Taking Care of Your Teeth
What aging can bring: Yellowing, gum disease, tooth loss, oral cancer.
What the research shows: “Teeth can last a lifetime,” says Edmond Hewlett, associate professor of restorative dentistry at the UCLA School of Dentistry. A healthy mouth has a good supply of saliva, which contains minerals that can halt and even reverse early stages of tooth decay. If you have a drier mouth (a common side effect of antihistamines, antidepressants, and medications for high blood pressure), decay can spread faster, and you’ll need to be even more vigilant with your care.
What you can do: “Anytime we eat, bacteria are left sitting on the teeth, so brush your teeth as soon as possible,” says Hewlett. This will also help remove stains from foods and beverages such as blueberries, coffee, tea, and red wine. Brush for two minutes to cover all your teeth and gums, floss, and consider rinsing once a day with a mouthwash that contains fluoride. See your dentist for a cleaning twice a year (or more often if needed), and have a thorough checkup once a year for gum disease, cavities, and signs of oral cancer.
Taking Care of Your Lungs
What aging can bring: Loss of aerobic capacity.
What the research shows: "At any age, you can maximize your aerobic capacity with regular exercise," says Jerome L. Fleg, M.D., a medical officer at the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. And the fitter you are, the easier it is to perform daily tasks. If you are in good shape, you may need only 50 percent of your aerobic capacity to do something like push a vacuum, depending on your age and sex.
What you can do: Intense activities aren’t necessary; even “walking at a brisk pace on a regular basis can help maintain aerobic capacity in older adults,” says Fleg. (Always consult your physician before starting an exercise program.)
Taking Care of Your Muscles
What aging can bring: Decreases in strength and muscle mass, loss of flexibility, loss of balance.
What the research shows: “Maximal muscle strength is achieved in the 20s and 30s,” says Roseann M. Lyle, Ph.D., professor of public health at Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Indiana. “If you’re sedentary, you will start losing strength after age 50 at a rate of 2 to 5 percent per decade.” But if you keep using your muscles, through activities like weight training, you can maintain strength and flexibility even into your 90s. It’s also important to work on balance, which falters with age, and to keep muscles agile so you can react quickly.
What you can do: Add resistance moves to your workout, and mix in some fast, dynamic exercise as well―dance classes, tennis, volleyball, anything that gets you “moving fast in different directions,” says Lyle. Good balance builders are one-legged squats, yoga poses such as “tree,” and even something as simple as standing on one foot and then the other while you brush your teeth or do the dishes.
Taking Care of Your Feet
What aging can bring: Dry skin, swelling, stiffness, bunions, hammertoes.
What the research shows: “Your feet may change size as you get older due to water retention or ligaments that relax,” says Jane Andersen, a podiatrist and a spokesperson for the American Podiatric Medical Association. In extreme cases, badly fitting shoes can lead to problems like bunions and hammertoes.
What you can do: Have your feet measured yearly (ideally at the end of the day), and vary your shoe types and heel heights. Bunions and hammertoes “come from repetitive motions,” says Andersen, “and can often be prevented with supportive shoes that fit well, plus orthotics to neutralize foot position.” Weight-bearing exercises will beef up bone density (the feet are a common site of osteoporosis). Andersen recommends moisturizing the feet nightly with a gentle exfoliator or an intense moisturizing lotion to keep them soft and supple.
Taking Care of Your Heart
What aging can bring: Cardiac disease, heart attack, stroke.
What the research shows: "High blood pressure is the number one culprit when it comes to heart trouble," says Michael F. Roizen, M.D., coauthor of You: On a Diet. "If you know only one number, it should be your blood pressure." (The ideal is 115/76.) A diet high in sodium is linked to high blood pressure. As for cholesterol, the numbers to shoot for are a total count of less than 200, with an HDL greater than 60 and an LDL around 70. The two risk factors are linked: High blood pressure causes little nicks to form in arteries, which the body then plasters over with cholesterol. That attracts inflammatory cells, creating arterial plaque that can lead to clots, heart attacks, and strokes.
What you can do: Keep your diet low in salt and saturated fat and high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Aim for 30 minutes of aerobic activity four or five days a week.
Taking Care of Your Eyes
What aging can bring: Dryness, presbyopia, cataracts, macular degeneration, glaucoma.
What the research shows: Although presbyopia (trouble reading things up close) almost inevitably sets in around age 40, good nutrition may help with other age-related eye issues. “People who consume high levels of antioxidants have a reduced risk of macular degeneration [a disorder that leads to gradual vision loss],” says Emily Chew, deputy director of epidemiology and clinical research at the National Eye Institute, in Bethesda, Maryland. (Smoking, however, increases your risk.) And omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids help “open up the glands around the eyes, so patients with dry eyes make more, better-quality tears,” says Michael Goldstein, an ophthalmologist in Boston.
What you can do: See an eye doctor regularly to catch early signs of trouble. Eat plenty of leafy greens and consider taking a fish-oil supplement. Protecting your eyes from sun exposure can help reduce your risk of cataracts.
Taking Care of Your Bones
What aging can bring: Osteoporosis, fractures.
What the research shows: In your 30s, your body stops storing calcium, so if you don’t get enough in your diet, your body will start depleting its stores. Another cause of brittle bones is lack of exercise. “Bone is live tissue, like muscle, and it needs to be stressed to grow,” says Carla Sottovia, Ph.D., assistant fitness director of the Cooper Aerobic Center, in Dallas. Anything that puts weight―stress―on the bones will help build bone mass, but “you want to stress them in as many different ways and directions as possible,” says Lyle.
What you can do: Lyle recommends activities that include a variety of movements, like racquetball and dancing. Women need between 1,000 and 1,200 milligrams of calcium in their daily diet or as a supplement, along with 400 international units (IU) of vitamin D and 350 to 400 milligrams of magnesium.