September is Healthy Aging Month. Regardless of your age, implementing the list below can increase longevity and reduce the risk of disability.
Bad News First
Life expectancy dropped in the United States from 78.8 years in 2019 to 77.3 years in 2020. COVID-19 is largely to blame, but if you are living in the U.S. you are not among the top ten healthiest countries in the world. You are not even among the top twenty. Actually, the average person in forty-five other countries has a longer life expectancy than the average American. What can we do to improve these numbers?
The Good News
Epigenetics = our actions speak louder than our genes. We can turn genes on or off through our daily choices and what we do to and with our bodies. We have significant control over our current and future health. What can you do to increase the likelihood of longevity (more years to your life) and to remain healthy and active (more life to your years) as you age?
The tips and tricks below have worked well for my dad. He is not typical and he is not perfect, but we don’t have to be perfect to be healthy. He seemed to stumble into his healthy habits, but they are all supported by research and recommended for overall health. He is eighty-three and recently got carded to get a senior discount; the clerk was not sure he was sixty-five!
- Listen to your body. You know you better than anyone else. If something doesn’t seem right, pay attention and investigate. Seek out a trusted expert when necessary; develop your intuition. Your gut can help you make the right choice. My dad will adjust his daily routine to match his energy or to support healing when required. How many of us just push through even when we are exhausted or overwhelmed? Give yourself permission to rest more and eat particularly nourishing food if your schedule is busy or you are feeling stressed or depleted.
- Eat dinner early & brush your teeth afterward. Allowing three hours after eating for digestion sets us up for restorative sleep. Going to bed with food in our stomach increases heart rate and body temperature, reducing our deep sleep and time for cellular repair. Good oral health also supports good brain and cardiovascular health. Plus, a fresh clean mouth is a deterrent from late-night snacking.
- When the body does not have to spend energy digesting, it can spend energy healing and repairing. My dad regularly fasts twelve hours but has fasted 24-72 hours on many occasions. Refer to number one (listen to your body) when deciding the length of time that is best for you. Starting with twelve hours is a good beginning, as long fasts are not necessarily right for everyone.
- Transcendental meditation has been part of my dad’s life for decades. He does not force himself into an uncomfortable straight-back position. Instead, he purchased the most comfortable recliner he could find and sits cross-legged with his thighs supported by the armrests. If you have not found a meditation style that works well for you, try another. It may be one of the best ways to manage stress and build resilience.
- Social connections. Keeping a calendar of dates to meet people we care about is good for the soul. We are creatures of connection. Who are you connecting with? My dad nourishes familial and long-term friendships and has a “date” with a friend or relative at least once a week.
- Search for meaning. This is certainly different for everyone but being open to new experiences may bring newfound joy. My dad laughs a lot, listens to music daily, is always working on reading or writing a book, and recently began a spiritual and intellectual journey learning to play the hammer dulcimer.
- Be active. If you can tolerate the gym, go. You might even learn to love it. Love to dance? Turn up the music and shake your booty or join a class and dance with others. If you are like my dad, you despise both of the above, but he loves to be productive and get exercise at the same time. He walks to the bank, the library, and the grocery store. He gardens by hand, likes to rake leaves and shovel snow. He did add in the “unproductive” necessity of lifting weights a few times a week to maintain his muscular strength.
- Eat foods close to their natural state. Having a garden helps with this but farmers markets and local grocery stores carry single ingredient foods too (ie. kale, broccoli, walnuts, salmon) – we just have to seek them out. This is probably the one area my dad cheats on most. He loves all vegetables but is also known to pick up a bargain even if it is full of less than healthy ingredients. (The clerk mentioned above was carding him buying potato chips and snacks from the Utz Factory Outlet Store). See, you don’t have to be perfect.
- Go to bed early. We are designed to rise and sleep with the sun, but the invention of electricity has changed that. My dad has never used an alarm clock. He goes to bed when he is tired, typically around 9:00 pm. The sun often wakes him in the morning, but if he rises early he will head to that comfortable recliner to meditate and sometimes fall asleep for a while longer.
- Challenge your brain. Never stop learning and seek a “just-right” challenge. The challenge should not be too easy (ie. watching reality TV) but a task too difficult will likely cause frustration and abandonment. Brain HQ, sudoku, and mental math all challenge the brain and can be adapted to suit various levels. My dad prefers to read, write, investigate new ideas, travel to new places, and learn a new musical instrument.
Can you relate to any of my Dad’s top ten? What are you already doing to support healthy aging and what is on your wish list to try next?
(If you want to see if you can glean any more wisdom, check out the interview with my dad here.)