Living Better, Not Just Longer
The point of being a Super Ager isn’t just to live a long time — it’s to live a long, healthy life. “We have to age, but we can, to some extent, add years to life, and to a far greater extent, add life to years,” says David Katz, M.D., director of theYale University Prevention Research Center and author of the new book Disease-Proof: The Remarkable Truth About What Makes Us Well, with Stacey Colino. “Living well is being able to keep doing the things you love to do. Aging well is preserving the capacity to live well — right up to the end.”
So how do you get to be a Super Ager?
It’s Not All In Your Genes
If your mom or dad is 95, bravo. You’ve got a leg up in joining the Super Ager club. But genetics is a surprisingly small part of the picture. Research at Boston University School of Public Health has found that genetics only accounts for 20 to 30 percent of the reason people live to be 86 or older. The rest is your lifestyle.
Top 6 Habits
What lifestyle habits have been shown to increase your likelihood of being a Super Ager? “Eating well, being active, not smoking, getting enough sleep, dissipating stress, and sharing love,” says Dr. Katz. “After that, everything else is vanishingly less important. I call these: feet, forks, fingers, sleep, stress, and love.”
One interesting point: Being an “ideal weight” isn’t on Dr. Katz’s list. It’s not that he thinks weight isn’t important, but that it’s primarily a function of exercise and good diet — factors we can control. In his book, he mentions the EPIC study that showed that men and women (35 to 65 years old) who adhere to four lifestyle factors were 80 percent less likely to develop a chronic disease over about the next eight years.
The four factors:
- Not smoking
- A Body Mass Index (BMI) under 30
- Getting at least 3 ½ hours a week of physical activity
- Eating a nutritious diet, with plenty of whole grains, vegetables, and fruit, and little meat
“The top three are clearly not smoking, eating optimally, and being active,” says Dr. Katz. “Weight control tends to result from eating well and being active, so while it’s on the list, it’s an effect as much as a cause of vitality.”
A Younger Brain
At Northwestern University, researchers in the “SuperAging” are studying men and women in their 80s and 90s whose brains have much more mass related to attention and learning than most people their age. In essence, they have younger brains — and bodies.
How to achieve it? “It’s the same list,” says Dr. Katz. “It’s not just the ankle bone that’s connected to the shin bone; it’s the mind connected to the body. We can’t really take care of either without taking care of both. A healthy, vital lifestyle cultivates a healthy, vital mind. Dementia is, for the most part, as preventable as heart disease.”
The beauty of the elements of a healthy lifestyle is that they tend to work together. “Each of these tends to help reinforce the others,” says Dr. Katz. “For example, sleep well, and you have more energy to exercise. Exercise, and you tend to sleep better. Get out there with your vitality, and it’s easier to meet and interact with other people and cultivate those social bonds. And around it goes, in an upward spiral leading up to the best possible life.”
It’s Never Too Late!
If only you had started at age 20, eh? Not at all. There is clear evidence that healthy habits in your 50s and 60s increase your chances of a longer, healthier life— but that’s just the beginning. “It is never too late to derive the benefit of lifestyle as medicine,” says Dr. Katz. “Studies show benefits even in the 9th decade.”
Pay It Forward
Want a little more motivation? “Here’s another important consideration: Don’t be selfish,” says Dr. Katz. “Pay it forward! It’s not just your own health in play here — it’s that of the people you love. If you ‘disease-proof’ yourself at 60, your grandchildren will be looking on. They will learn from your example, and will have a better chance at the long, vital life you wish for them. I have five children, and have seen first hand the impact my own parents’ (in their 70s) very active lifestyle and robust good health has on their worldview. It’s powerful medicine! So you will benefit whenever you start — but you will also be paying it forward.”