5 essential tips to help you stay healthy, happy and aging successfully


Dear readers, 

This week’s column is in response to B.R’s question from last week about the essentials for successful or optimal aging. The following five essentials are supported by research studies.

Be physically active: Physical activity is important in multiple ways besides making you feel good. It reduces the risk of several diseases associated with aging including cardiovascular disease, diabetes and osteoarthritis. It also slows the normal aging process. For example, with age we lose muscle mass. Strength training can prevent and counter that loss. And with increased strength, we can improve balance, posture and can get up from the floor when playing with grandchildren. Furthermore, there is a relationship between physical activity and cognitive functioning. Studies show that when there is more physical activity, there is less cognitive decline and better cognitive functioning in areas such as remembering words, paying attention and something called executive functioning which is important in daily living. Executive functioning means the ability to organize tasks, remember details, solve problems, manage time and having the ability to perform complex tasks that require planning or decision making. 

Engage in mental activities: We have heard the saying “using it or lose it.” Well, that’s the case. Studies find that such activities may delay future cognitive decline. Similar to physical activity, engaging in mental activities can improve memory, attention and what is called fluid intelligence that is independent of learning, experience and education. It’s the ability to think abstractly, see relationships, connect the dots and develop problem-solving strategies. One might relate this to wisdom in later life. 

Be socially engaged: Social activities require creating and maintaining relationships that can occur with friends, family, co-workers and the community. Those community connections can occur by joining clubs, religious organizations or doing volunteer work. According to Blue Angels Hearing, older adults with untreated hearing loss are less likely to participate in social activities (those who do not wear hearing aids). And again, there is a relationship to cognition. In a sample of almost 3,000 Dutch participants aged 54 to 85, older adults with more social relationships showed higher cognitive functioning than those with fewer such relationships. We know that the lack of social engagement can translate to social isolation which according to a review of many studies is associated with a 50 percent increased risk of developing dementia, a 30 percent increased risk of coronary artery disease or stroke and a 26 percent increased risk of all-cause mortality. We also know that the health risk of social isolation in later life is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being obese. Being socially connected is a prevention and an intervention – and makes life a lot more fun. 

Have a positive attitude toward aging: Feeling positive about aging may influence the number of years one lives. Yale psychologist Beca Levy found that people who had a positive view of aging lived about 7-and-a-half years longer than those with a negative view. The mind-body connection is strong. According to one study, middle-aged people with no cognitive impairment who had negative views of aging were more likely to develop brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s disease. The more negative their views, the worse the brain changes. In contrast, another study found that those with positive views of aging were resilient and more likely to recover from major health setbacks. 

Have a sense of purpose: In the Blue Zone study, Dan Buettner studied characteristics shared by the longest-lived people on the planet. One of those characteristics was evident in his studies in Okinawa; older people he interviewed had a sense of purpose. The Japanese have a word for it, it called ikigai – a reason to get up in the morning. A sense of purpose could also be combined with having meaning in your life or feeling productive. It’s focusing on what is important to you.

Here are two more for consideration: be curious and give back to the community and others. 

Alan D. Castel, author of “Better with Age: The Psychology of Successful Aging,” indicates we tend to “medicalize” aging and look for solutions in a pill or bottle. Solutions often are within us. The behaviors we choose regarding what we eat, if we exercise, how we think and our interactions with others make a difference in our well-being. 

These essentials, goals or aspirations are not achieved overnight. They may take some work. So, be informed, thoughtful and take action. Although there are external influences, the responsibility is within each of us as we define for ourselves what living the highest quality of life means in our later years – and how to make it happen. 

Thank you B.R. for your good question. It helps each of us think about how we can age – successfully. 

Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging, employment and the new retirement with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience. Contact Helen with your questions and comments at [email protected]. Visit Helen at HelenMdennis.com and follow her on facebook.com/SuccessfulagingCommunity

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