Institute Scholar Emerita Ellen Hughes, MD, PhD, sought to understand how each of us can attain our highest level of well-being at every stage of life. Her Institute supported-work involved studying the many ways people age—on molecular, genetic, epigenetic, and cellular levels; as a whole organism; and as a member of a community.
Based on her investigation, here are Dr. Hughes’ top tips for healthy living and active aging:
Maintain a healthy weight. We need fewer calories as we age, so watching portion size is key. Strategies to try: Since we tend to “eat with our eyes” serve meals on smaller dishes. Eat with the opposite hand to slow yourself down. Use smart phone apps, such as MyFitnessPal, to track your calories and exercise.
Exercise. Significant health benefits are associated with being active, but exercise doesn’t need to be intense or prolonged to be beneficial. In fact, just getting up off the couch helps your muscles metabolize fat and sugar more effectively. Work activity into your daily schedule: Park farther away, take the stairs, walk during breaks.
Stay mentally active. Whatever is good for your heart is good for your brain. Clinical trials show that brain fitness programs work. Our brains grow new neurons, and neurons make new connections. Learning new things will keep you mentally strong.
Reduce inflammation. Chronic inflammation is believed to play a role in diseases such as heart disease and Alzheimer’s. Exercise, daily flossing, stress management, and eating an “anti-inflammatory” diet (high in healthy fats and low in simple carbohydrates, saturated and trans fats, and additives) helps reduce inflammation.
Cultivate positive emotions. How we view the world affects our health. Happiness is 50 percent genetics, 10 percent environment, and 40 percent voluntary activity. Gratitude and forgiveness are associated with increased happiness, health, and optimism. Laughter reduces cardiovascular stress, enhances immune function, increases pain tolerance, and lowers blood sugar in diabetics.
Manage stress. We can’t eliminate all the stress in life but we can control our response by learning how to relax, which lowers respiration, heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar, cortisol and adrenaline. There are numerous pathways to relaxation: diaphragmatic breathing, meditation, biofeedback, imagery, hypnosis, progressive muscle relaxation, yoga, tai chi, qi gong, prayer, exercise, and music.
Get adequate sleep. Sleep deprivation contributes to obesity, accidents, physical pain, and poorer health. For better sleep, wake up at the same time each morning. Go to bed only when tired. If unable to fall asleep, get out of bed until you’re sleepy. Slow down before bedtime: no TV, surfing the net, or checking email. Avoid alcohol, stimulants, and heavy meals close to bedtime. Create a cool, dark, quiet place to sleep.
Stay connected. Meaningful relationships are the most consistent predictor of quality of life. Loneliness, depression and isolation increase mortality by three to seven times.
Engage in activities that are meaningful. People are happier when they give. Volunteering, for example, has been found to extend the life of elderly veterans.
Connect with something beyond you. Transcendent purpose and spirituality are associated with better health and greater happiness. Something larger could be a higher power, nature, or something else. More than 50 studies have shown positive health benefits of regular religious attendance.