September 5, 2017

Healthy aging: 7 habits for thriving seniors

While there's no getting around the aging process, there are many things we can do to stay healthy and active as we age.

By Phyllis E. Hayes-Reams, MD, MPH, chief, Department of Geriatrics, Palliative Medicine, Continuing Care, and Social Medicine, Kaiser Permanente South Bay Medical Center

With an average life expectancy of 78.8 years, Americans are living longer than ever before. Many seniors are also living healthier, happier and more active lives. While there's no getting around the aging process, there are many things we can do to stay healthy and active as we age.

So, what do thriving seniors have in common? 

They’re active: Physical activity helps us maintain a healthy weight, prevent or control illness, sleep better, reduce stress, avoid falls, improve our balance, and look and feel our best. Older adults should do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity throughout the week. If you’re not exercising regularly, a good first step is to figure out why, and then develop a strategy to overcome that barrier.

They eat right: Good nutrition is important at any age. But it is especially important for older adults. As we age, our bodies change and so does the amount of food we need, how we metabolize it and how food tastes. Also, our dietary needs will vary depending on health conditions.  For optimal health, follow a well-balanced diet rich in fiber, vitamins and minerals, and try to limit the consumption of processed sugar, saturated and trans fats, and salt.

They have a positive outlook: Having a positive attitude can greatly improve our health. It enables us to cope better with stressful situations, manage illness and it leads to better decision-making. A positive attitude also impacts our relationships and ability to socialize and interact with others.

They maintain social connections: Social connections and supportive relationships are critical to successful aging, as they can help maintain an individual’s personal sense of value and worth. Healthy, ongoing connections with friends and family are important. Volunteering and participating in local senior center activities are examples of ways older adults avoid becoming socially isolated and at risk for depression.

They sleep well: Regardless of our age, sleep is critical for our physical and emotional health. A good night’s sleep can improve memory and concentration, boost our immune systems, improve our mood and enhance alertness. Many older adults struggle in silence with insomnia, so it’s important to talk with your doctor about any sleep issues you may be having.

They’re proactive patients: They go in for regular preventive screenings and are up-to-date on their immunizations for illnesses like, shingles and influenza.  Know that your doctor and nurse are there to diagnose and advise, but also to listen. The more candidly you talk to your medical team, the better they can support you in reaching your goals, and the better your care will be.

They’ve embraced the aging process: While it's never too late to begin taking better care of yourself, the key to healthy aging is to establish healthy habits from a young age. Regardless of our age, the choices we make every day directly impact our health. Good health behaviors last a lifetime, and when we live a healthy life, we’re more likely to age better, prevent or better manage illness and stay independent.