Erin Brodwin Feb 15, 2018, 7:35 PM
The keys to a long and healthy life are right in front of you.
Instead of expensive face creams, a cache of vitamins and supplements, or a hard-to-follow diet, all you need are some research-backed tools to help you stay healthy as you age and fight cognitive decline.
These solutions involve simple tweaks to your diet, the right kind of exercise, and a healthy approach to relationships and the world around you. Armed with these tools, you can live long and prosper.
Eat like a Mediterranean.
Some of the best defenses against the normal cognitive decline that comes with age may be on our plates. A growing body of scientific evidence links a Mediterranean diet, based around vegetables, fruit, nuts, fish, and olive oil, with a strong, healthy body and a sharp mind.
Studies link the diet with a reduced risk of breast cancer and heart disease, and also suggest that the eating plan may be tied to higher cognitive performance and a potentially lower risk of dementia.
Maintain friendships and build new ones.
Loneliness can be deadly — some research suggests it poses a greater threat to public health than obesity. Fostering friendship is therefore key to aging well and boosting happiness, several recent studies have suggested.
One of them, published in 2008 in the British Medical Journal, found that people who had regular contact with 10 or more other people were significantly happier than those who did not, and that people with fewer friends were less happy overall.
Friends who are not your family may be especially important.
In a pair of studies involving nearly 280,000 people, psychologists at Michigan State University found that in older people, friendships were a stronger predictor of both health and happiness than relationships with family members.
“Keeping a few really good friends around can make a world of difference for our health and well-being,” Chopik said in a statement. “So it’s smart to invest in the friendships that make you happiest.”
Do cardio exercise three times a week.
Any kind of movement is beneficial, but the type that will have the most benefits for your body and brain as you age is aerobic exercise, or cardio.
Studies suggest that running, walking, and swimming helps to lift the mood, clear the mind, and may even help protect from some of the cognitive decline that occurs with age. Cardio also strengthens the heart and lungs and helps tone up muscles — but make sure you’re committing to it for at least 45 minutes at a time, at least three days a week.
Do strength training twice a week.
On the days when you’re not running or swimming, add some strength training exercises to your schedule.
Studies suggest that the best overall health results — mental and physical — for people over 50 come from a combination of aerobic workouts and resistance training (strengthening work like lifting weights or doing squats). That type of workout plan could be anything from high-intensity interval training, like the seven-minute workout, to dynamic-flow yoga, which intersperses strength-building poses with heart-pumping dance-like moves.
Try intermittent fasting or caloric restriction.
As far as adding years to your life goes, one of the most promising diets involve caloric restriction — quite simply limiting the number of calories you eat each day.
Although eating less sounds difficult, several recent studies suggest that one practical way to achieve this is through a plan known as intermittent fasting. The diet essentially involves confining your eating to a specific window, such as from noon to 8 p.m., and abstaining from food or drink (aside from water or black coffee) outside of that window.
Still, most of the research on the benefits of caloric restriction has been done in animals, and we don’t yet know if those benefits carry over into people.
Be more conscientious.
Do you often think about the needs of others? Are you thorough and efficient in your approach to tasks?
A 75-year study followed 300 engaged couples who enrolled during their mid-20s, and found that a handful of personality traits — conscientiousness being the most salient — were tied to a long life.
It’s impossible to say whether innately possessing these traits makes you inclined to live longer, or if there’s something about developing them at any age that could be tied to longevity, but this isn’t the only study to link conscientiousness with longevity.
Another study, this time of Californians, found that people who were seen as conscientious by friends and family both when they were children and when they were adults lived longer than their peers who were not seen as possessing that trait during either phase of their lives.
Cut back on alcohol.
Cancer is one of the biggest killers of Americans — especially older Americans. Starting around age 55, our risk of cancer begins to tick up with each passing year.
So it’s not surprising that after a spate of research found links between alcohol and two types of cancer, the American Society of Clinical Oncology issued an unprecedented warning to Americans to cut back on drinking. The group referenced a 2016 study that tied drinking even one glass of wine or beer per day to an increased risk of developing pre- and postmenopausal breast cancer.
“We’re not saying no one should ever drink at all — we’re just saying if you do drink, even trying to keep it down to less than one drink a day would be a smart choice,” Alice Bender, a registered dietitian, told Business Insider in May.
Get up and move around every hour.
Regardless of how frequently you hit the gym, you should be up and about at least once every hour.
That’s based on a set of guidelines compiled by an international group of scientists in 2015. An observational study of close to 4,000 US adults found that people who ambled around for about two minutes every hour had a roughly 33% lower risk of dying prematurely than those who sat all day.
A 2012 study of 243 men and women aged 95 to 100 concluded that the ability to freely express emotions was among a handful of key traits that appeared to play a strong role in helping people live long and healthy lives.
“This study adds to a growing body of knowledge which suggests that centenarians may share particular personality characteristics … that may play an important role in achieving positive health outcomes and exceptional longevity,” the researchers wrote in their paper.
Protect your skin.
As we age, our skin gets thinner and less supple, which can result in the appearance of things like wrinkles and under-eye circles. These signs don’t mean there’s anything wrong — over time, healthy skin stretches and begins to lose the structural proteins that keep it springy.
But protecting skin from sun damage is important, since too much exposure can contribute to skin cancer and worsen the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Not surprisingly, the best protection against the sun is sunscreen. Dermatologists recommend using a product with SPF 35 or higher.
“The most important thing is to take care of your skin before all these changes start to take place,” Suzan Obagi, an assistant professor in dermatology at the University of Pittsburgh and director of the Cosmetic Surgery and Skin Health Center, told Scientific American.
Be more open.
A 2006 study of Japanese people aged 100-106 suggested that being more willing to lend an ear to new and different ideas, feelings, and concepts — in other words, being more open — was linked to a long life. Still, as with any study of exclusively older people, it’s impossible to say whether this personality trait predisposed people to longer lives, or whether people who live this long develop openness later. Either way, however, the trait appears to be vital to a long and healthy life.
“We speculate that in the oldest-old, higher imaginativeness and openness to new experiences would help them to adapt to the many losses (friends, family, health, function) that occur in advanced age,” the researchers wrote in their paper.
Two large, 16-year studies strongly suggest that daily coffee drinking is tied to a lower overall risk of death.
The first study involved more than 520,000 Europeans, and found that men who drank three or more cups of coffee each day were 12% less likely to die from any cause than men who drank none. Women were 7% less likely to die than women who drank none.
The second study, involving more than 190,000 non-white Americans, mirrored those findings. According to those results, people who drank one cup a day were 12% less likely to die than those who drank none, and those who had two to three cups per day had an 18% lower risk of death.
Take things in stride.
Over the course of nearly five decades, researchers studied nearly 2,400 men and women who ranged in age between 18 and 78 at the time the study began. In a 2008 study summarizing their findings, the researchers concluded that emotional stability was one of the most salient personality traits tied to a long life.
In fact, in a preliminary analysis of their results, the scientists found that people who scored highly on measures of emotional stability — meaning they were relatively free from bouts of intense, negative emotions — lived on average several years longer than those with a low score on the trait.
Get 7 to 8 hours of sleep every night.
A large review of 16 studies that involved more than 1 million people found that both sleeping too little (less than 7 hours each night) and sleeping too much (more than 9 hours each night) are linked to a higher risk of dying.
Overall, people who regularly got fewer than 7 hours of sleep each night had a 12% greater risk of dying from any cause, while people who regularly slept more than 8 or 9 hours each night had a 30% greater risk of dying than people who slept between 7 and 8 hours a night.
Several studies have documented a link between sleep deprivation and a range of negative side-effects including low moods, depression, poor academic and athletic performance, an increased susceptibility to illness, and even Alzheimer’s.
On the other hand, chronically oversleeping has also been linked to depression and heart disease (though research suggests it is more of a symptom than a cause, at least in older people).