Tips for healthy aging

What does healthy aging look like to you? For most people, it includes independent living, mental health and physical activity. BeWell spoke with Marcia Stefanick, PhD, about the changes we can expect (and plan for) as we age.

What does healthy aging mean?

This term is subjective. We start by looking at physical function: walking, moving, driving cars, and doing activities independently. Being able to do all the activities of daily living and independent living is important. 

Mental health is also a big part of healthy aging. Cognitive function and memories are important to mental health, and there is quite a bit of evidence indicating that by staying physically active we can increase cognitive function.

What are some of the most common risk factors that preclude healthy aging? 

All the risk factors for heart disease set you up for unhealthy aging: obesity, excess body weight, sedentary behavior, hypertension, too much salt, too much alcohol. 

Excess body weight and lack of physical activity, in particular, can increase the risk of hypertension. Managing weight, increasing physical activity, cutting back on salt, and reducing alcohol can all help lower heart disease risk. I recommend the DASH diet for those trying to reduce the risk of hypertension and for healthy aging in general.

Do exercise needs change with age?

Physical activity is very important for healthy aging. The physical activity recommendations for adults (of any age) are for 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity activity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous activity. What changes as we age is the relative intensity. A 3 mph walk might feel like vigorous activity for an older person who is unfit.

The recommendations can be overwhelming, so plan what is realistic for you. Know your limits and boundaries and push yourself a little bit past that measurement. Make sure it is gradual! Slowly work your way up — and if you feel better, you will want to do more.

Resistance exercise and balance exercise help to retain health with age and to avoid injury. Use stretch bands, light weights, walk up hills and push your thighs against the resistance. Running and walking are not enough to retain muscle mass and balance.

Do our sleep needs change with age?

We still recommend 7-8 hours, and all the principles of sleep hygiene still apply. Some people have trouble sleeping because age brings more physiological and psychological barriers to sleep: things hurt more, lying down is harder and there are more distractions. Stress reduction helps with sleep. Let your mind empty out, try meditation or exercising earlier in the day. Data shows that 7-8 hours of sleep is associated with better health.

What differences are there in gender that may affect healthy aging?

Initially, men have a greater risk of heart disease at earlier ages; but over time, heart disease also becomes the leading cause of mortality for women. Both genders need to pay attention to blood pressure and heart disease risk factors. 

Women’s biggest problem with age is osteoporosis, partly due to hormones and partly because they just don’t use their bodies as much. Men are more likely to stay physically fit with age; they tend to do more of the lifting exercises. 

How can we best encourage a loved one to stay healthy as they age?

Be sure he or she is ready to make a healthy change; start with a discussion about healthy aging and what matters to him or her. Practice reflective listening instead of giving ideas or pushing. Work together to figure out what he/she would like to do to improve health.

What does the person like to do and how can it be built into a routine? Stealth interventions work well. Your goal might be to get a person more physically active; so if the individual likes dancing, talk about going dancing. If the person likes flowers, encourage him/her to go gather flowers or garden. If it is an activity he/she enjoys, ask what how you can help to get it started. 

Any tips you recommend for healthy aging?

There are many new studies about how to get more joy and laughter in life. There seems to be more evidence that laughter helps with health as time goes on. Soon it will be a joke a day instead of an apple a day!

Recommended resource: National Institutes of Aging at NIH: Go 4 LIFE  

Related articles:
Aging well with Sandra Day O'Connor

Influence how you age

Upside of aging


Interview conducted by Amanda Perez

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