Dr. Jaffe often talks about adding years to life and life to years by changing what we eat, drink, think, and do. This advice applies to all, but is especially relevant to seniors and middle-aged adults looking to extend their healthspan (those years lived in good health; free from chronic disease and disability). In the past week, two interesting studies were published that point to lifestyle changes you can make to extend your healthspan by as much as 10 years! The good news is, it’s never too late to start making changes that will help you live long and well.
The first article looked at five places in the world, so-called “blue zones,” where life expectancy is exceptionally long, with many people living to 100 or more while maintaining good health. The zones included Loma Linda, CA Seventh-day Adventist community; Sardinia, IT; Icaria, GR; Okiniawa, JP; and the Nicoyan Peninsula of Costa Rica. Researchers examined the diets of the people in those five locations and found that while the specific diets differed among these groups, there were some similarities across all.
Legumes. People in all of the blue zones consumed at least a cup of lentils or beans or peas each day. Legumes are a predominant source of fiber, which helps decrease blood sugar and cholesterol levels, helps protect against diabetes, and lowers risk of cardiovascular disease. Adding a cup of legumes to your diet will help.
Nuts. Blue zone inhabitants eat nuts as snacks and as a dietary staple in favorite recipes. Nuts are rich in fiber, vitamins and minerals and have been shown to provide a cardioprotective effect against heart disease and stroke. Just a handful of almonds, pistachios, walnuts, pecans, or cashews will do the trick.
For more heart-healthy foods, check out our recent blog post.
When you eat matters. Across the blue zones, people ate most of their calories earlier in the day, with nearly all eating large breakfasts, moderate lunches, and small to no dinners. This aligns with the fact that our bodies metabolize food more efficiently in the morning and early afternoon. Studies have indicated that consuming a majority of calories earlier in the day can lead to weight loss and improvements in blood sugar and LDL-cholesterol levels, while reducing feelings of hunger.
With whom you eat matters. The final similarity across all the blue zones was a tendency for families to enjoy at least one meal a day together. Family meals proved to be more nutritionally sound, and people had a tendency to eat more slowly and thus consume fewer calories.
Dehydration is a concern for all ages, but especially for older adults. We recommend consuming 8 glasses of mineral-rich water each day. Dehydration can lead to confusion, lightheadedness, weakness and headaches. Studies have shown that proper hydration can be linked with healthy aging and development of fewer chronic conditions.
THINK AND DO
The second recent article looked at the movement and exercise types that best benefit older adults. There are four separate components of age-related decline that can negatively impact one’s ability to live independently and perform the activities of daily living such as getting in and out of bed, showering, getting dressed, eating, walking, etc. Each of the four: cardio-respiratory fitness, balance, flexibility, and muscle strength, can be improved by taking proactive steps.
Cardio-respiratory fitness is the area most often discussed and studied when it comes to wellness. It tends to deteriorate over time, even in healthy people, and that decline accelerates as we age. Studies have confirmed that a reduction in aerobic fitness leads to a loss of independence, and that a regular program of aerobic activity can slow or reverse this normal deterioration.
We recommend getting your body moving every day. The CDC’s exercise guidelines for adults 65 and older include 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity such as brisk walking, dancing, running, or biking each week. The benefit of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise seems to increase when continued multiple times a week over time.
Balance and flexibility. While aerobic exercise is discussed a lot, we don’t often hear much about balance and flexibility, and why they are important to preserve as we age. As muscle mass declines by 3-8% per decade after age 30, it becomes more difficult to balance well, lift objects, climb stairs, and avoid falls. Therefore, finding ways to improve and maintain balance and flexibility is essential for aging well and maintaining independence. Fortunately, the exercises that Dr. Jaffe recommends, such as yoga, Pilates, and tai chi chuan, can help strengthen muscles and improve both balance and flexibility. The CDC recommends practicing 3 times a week.
Muscle strength can be improved by both resistance training and weight training. A 1994 study of 100 elderly and frail nursing home patients found that those who completed a high-intensity resistance training three days a week for 10 weeks had significantly improved mobility and muscle strength. The study author noted that, “For older people…strength training, which helps with balance, is the top-priority exercise because it makes all other forms of activity possible.” Another in 57 adults ages 65-94 found that muscle strength increased when they performed resistance exercises three times a week.
Along with eating well, and staying hydrated, it’s important to add a multifaceted exercise regimen as we age. Aerobic activity is important to keep the heart, lungs, and blood vessels functioning well. Balance and flexibility practices such as tai chi chuan, Pilates and yoga, will strengthen the neuromuscular system and help to prevent falls and help you to remain independent as long as possible. Weight training and resistance activities will help build muscle strength which in turn will help your aerobic, balance, and flexibility practices to be more effective.