Jul. 5--Despite its reputation, aging doesn't have to be a miserable process. Though some factors -- our parents and the genes we inherit from them -- may be out of our control, we can greatly influence how we enter the golden years by doing simple things, aging experts say.
As it is, Americans are living longer than ever -- the average man can expect to survive 75.2 years. Women have a life expectancy of 80.4.
But if you want to make it to 100 -- or even 120 -- you have to want to live that long.
"Having a positive attitude toward aging is often overlooked," said Erdman Palmore, 79, a professor emeritus of medical sociology at the Duke University Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development. Because of ageism, Palmore said, "many elders fear aging, deny it, and behave in stereotypical ways by becoming inactive and attributing ailments to 'aging' instead of trying to overcome them."
In addition to the usual anti-aging suggestions -- get more sleep and stop smoking -- the following five strategies can help boost your resilience. We can't guarantee you'll live to 100, but try these to make the journey more enjoyable.
1 Find a purpose. It will naturally bring you in contact with others and decrease isolation, which can cut years off your age. Helene Weinberger, 86, volunteers at the Menorah Park Center for Senior Living in Cleveland, where she inspires residents to write their local politicians. Clarice Morant of Washington, D.C., who died in June at 106, took care of her ailing brother and sister -- both in their 90s -- when she was 100. "Research shows that those who stay more socially active -- getting together with friends and family, joining clubs, volunteering -- live longer and maintain better cognitive and physical functioning," said Teresa Seeman, a geriatrics researcher and professor of medicine and epidemiology in the UCLA Schools of Medicine and Public Health.
2 Make exercise your job. First, redefine "exercise." Any movement is beneficial; you don't have to go to the gym four days a week, said John Rowe, who leads the MacArthur Foundation's Initiative on An Aging Society and co-wrote the book "Successful Aging." Even a fairly moderate 30-minute walk, several times a week yields 70 percent of the benefits of aerobic exercise, Rowe said. Family physician Don Kennedy, who specializes in geriatrics in Florida, tells his patients to head off to exercise in the same way they used to leave for work: same time, every day. "Keep it simple, do it for at least 20 minutes and prepare whatever you need to do the night before," he said. Movement is also critical nutrition for your joints. To sneak it into your day, opt for the less-convenient ways of getting things done -- walk whenever you might drive or take the stairs instead of the elevator.
3 Spread your meals, not your waist. Maoshing Ni, known as "Dr. Wow" on the television show "Sex and the City," tells clients to eat five or six little meals rather than two or three big ones. "It's portion control; that way you never over-eat," he said. "If you eat more frequently, your metabolism will naturally speed up." By the same token, Ni said, skipping meals or eating large ones causes the metabolism to slow. Obesity causes osteoarthritis and is the greatest risk factor of high blood pressure and stroke. "Under-eating promotes longevity and slows down the aging process," said Ni, a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine. You don't have to be a vegetarian, but eating less red or processed meat can also help reduce your risk of death, according to a report in the Archives of Internal Medicine.
4 Embrace your inner otter. Lin Wellford, 58, was kayaking on a Florida river several years ago when she saw a group of otters frolicking. Otters, she realized, know how to have fun and seek out adventure. "I was more like a beaver -- always on task, bustling through my days and guilty if I was not accomplishing enough," she said. Once she made an effort to be more like the fun-loving otter, people began mistaking her grandchildren for her own kids. Grandchildren -- and younger people in general -- can have a significant anti-aging effect, Wellford has discovered. There's no better way to stay young than to nurture friendships with younger people, she said. They can benefit from your wisdom; you'll be invigorated with vitality and enthusiasm.
5 Get balanced. If you're worried about falling, it could be a red flag that you're headed for one. A hip fracture shortens your life expectancy by six years, said Dr. William Meller, an expert in evolutionary medicine. Mind-body exercises such as yoga and tai chi are excellent ways to improve balance to prevent spills, and they increase flexibility and strength. And, according to yoga philosophy, it's the flexibility of the spine -- not your birthday -- that determines your age. Moreover, we lose 1 to 2 percent of our strength each year, which makes us less active. In addition to improving strength, tai chi (or meditation in motion) has been shown to improve immunity, cardiac function, sleep quality and balance, said Yang Yang, director of the Center for Taiji and Qigong Studies in New York. A bonus? "Tai chi practice improves awareness -- of ourselves and of the rest of the world -- which leads to a tranquil and happy life," said Yang. "There is a famous saying: 'Smile one smile and you are 10 years younger, add more worries and you add gray hair.' "
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