Easing into old age starts with making healthy choices right now.

By Abigail Wise
Updated December 17, 2020
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Lifestyle factors like exercise, diet, and even attitude can be as important as genetics when it comes to living long and growing old gracefully. “Old age is no place for sissies,” as Bette Davis once said, but that doesn’t mean you need to panic every year on your birthday. It’s no secret that growing older brings natural change, affecting nearly every part of your body—including your hair, skin, heart, muscles, brain, and more—but giving yourself a fighting chance at aging well may be as simple as adopting these healthy (and mostly easy) everyday habits. Here are the best ways to give your brain and body a leg up as you age.

1
Maintain a positive outlook on aging.

You are what you think you are when it comes to aging. Seniors who think of age as a means to wisdom and overall satisfaction are more than 40 percent more likely to recover from a disability than those who see aging as synonymous with helplessness or uselessness, according to The Journal of the American Medical Association. So perspective and mindset can play a huge role in how physically and emotionally resilient you can continue to be as you age.

RELATED: 5 Ways to Train Your Brain for Lifelong Mental Fitness 

2
Eat nutrient-rich, whole foods.

Nutrition plays a major role in how your body ages. “The latest research shows that a low-glycemic diet high in fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein is healthiest,” says Jeffrey Benabio, MD, physician director of healthcare transformation at Kaiser Permanente Primary Care.

One great example is the Mediterranean diet, which has been named the Best Overall Diet in 2020 by U.S. News & World Report for the third year in a row. It's a holistic, nutrient-rich diet rich in plant-based foods, whole grains, nuts, seafood, and healthy fats—and even lets you enjoy red wine (in moderation). The Mediterranean diet involves eating fish twice each week and cutting back on excess salt. Research shows that this type of diet may help you age better by warding off heart attacks, strokes, and premature death, according to Harvard Medical School. An added bonus: Dr. Benabio says that foods rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, such as walnuts, extra-virgin olive oil, salmon, and flaxseed, help your skin manufacture the essential oils it needs to protect itself and can help skin look younger.

In contrast, sugary, carbohydrate-heavy, and unhealthy fatty foods—think, chips, soda, and white bread—can speed up the aging process, Dr. Benabio warns. “So, when shopping or dining out, opt for whole grains and natural sweeteners,” he says.

RELATED: The 30 Healthiest Foods to Eat Every Day

3
Eat until you're satisfied—not stuffed.

Chronically overeating—eating way past feeling healthily full and satisfied—can lead to health risks, including shorter life span, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes. To age well and live longer, it’s best to stick to a balanced diet and healthy eating patterns. For nutritional recommendations, check out the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 for in-depth info, research, and tips.

4
Exercise regularly.

Staying active is a vital part of aging well. The average woman can lose 23 percent of her muscle mass between ages of 30 and 70, says exercise physiologist Fabio Comana, a faculty instructor at the National Academy of Sports Medicine. You lose muscle more rapidly as you age, but exercise—resistance workouts in particular—can increase mass and strength, even well into your 90s, Comana says.

Staying fit may also reduce age-related memory loss, according to a study published in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience. Plus, Alzheimer’s disease accounts for approximately 60 to 70 percent of all dementia cases, says Comana, adding that increasing physical activity can decrease this statistic by 25 percent. That’s because exercise strengthens the hippocampus, the region of the brain associated with learning and working memory.

RELATED: 5 Ways Being Physically Inactive Affects Our Mind and Mood

5
Socialize and stay connected.

Belonging to a community and staying connected with people you love is a big deal. Spending time with friends and relatives isn't just fun, it can help you live longer. Those of us with strong social ties were shown to have a 50 percent higher chance of living longer than those with poor or insufficient relationships, according to a study published in the journal PLoS Medicine.

6
Prioritize sun protection.

Too much time in the sun can cause wrinkles, not to mention skin cancer. But wearing sunscreen can help prevent your skin’s aging. And while the sun’s UV rays do trigger vitamin D production, which is essential for bone health, that’s hardly a good reason to expose yourself. “Here are the facts,” Dr. Benabio says. “After a few minutes of sun, your skin stops making vitamin D—and starts making skin cancer.” Most people get plenty of Vitamin D, but if you think you’re not, try eating more salmon or even eggs (don’t skip the yolk). Wear sunscreen every day—even on days when you'll be indoors or traveling—making a habit of incorporating an SPF into your regular skincare routine. Buy a sun hat you love and a pair of sunglasses with legit UVA and UVB protection.

7
Get plenty of sleep.

You probably know that you need seven to nine hours of sleep each night (and that a solid power nap can help make up for lost night of Zs). But did you know that chronically not sleeping enough is linked to a higher risk of conditions such as obesity, Alzheimer's, heart disease, depression, and diabetes?

And it turns out that "beauty sleep" isn’t a myth. During sleep, your body releases a growth hormone that helps restore collagen and elastin, the essential building blocks of young, healthy skin, says Dr. Benabio.  

Recent research has also shown a connection between insomnia and accelerated aging of the brain, Dr. Benabio points out. In other words, chronic lack of sleep adversely affects your brain structure and function and can speed up the aging process. “Too many of us treat sleep as a luxury instead of a need,” says Benabio. “If I could encourage people do make one healthy change, it would be to sleep more.”