By Tom Sightings | U.S. News
To some extent how long we live – and how healthy we are – is beyond our control. A lot depends on the birth lottery: How long your parents lived to a large degree determines how long you will live. Meanwhile, there are all kinds of studies and controversies surrounding the value of diet, exercise and a host of other behaviors.
Still, while there are no guarantees in life, these are seven strategies that most health experts agree can have a major impact not only on how long we’re likely to live, but on how we feel as well.
- Eat a good diet. You’ve probably seen lots of fad diets come and go. But the real answer is no secret. In general, people who live the longest, and feel the best, are those who avoid too much saturated fat in the form of meat or dairy products. They restrict the amount of sugar and salt in their diets. Instead, they drink lots of water, tea and coffee and perhaps a small amount of alcohol. They also consume lots of fruits and vegetables. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has determined that any diet rich in fruits and vegetables is linked to a reduced risk of cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
- Get plenty of sleep. Various studies have determined that a good night’s sleep leads to lower blood pressure and boosts your immune system, making your body better able to fight off infection. Other research suggests that too little sleep might be linked to an increased risk for stroke and a higher risk of cancer. Some studies have even suggested that sleep deprivation affects the brain, leading us to make poor decisions that are detrimental to our health.
- Get some exercise. Experts argue over how much is enough, but everyone agrees that some exercise is better than none at all. The CDC recommends sweating our way through aerobics for at least two and a half hours a week. We also should engage in at least some moderate strength training, such as lifting weights, doing sit-ups and push-ups, digging in the garden or practicing yoga. The important thing is to pick an activity that you enjoy, that you will keep doing and that will help you sleep at night.
- Drive safely. We sometimes forget in this age of seat belts, airbags and crash zones that traffic accidents are still a major cause of death among Americans – some 40,000 deaths in 2016, according to the National Safety Council, the most in ten years. So wear your seat belt, obey speed limits and other traffic laws and watch out for aggressive drivers. Also, try to drive during daylight hours, plan your trips ahead of time and ask your doctor or pharmacist about side effects of any prescription or over-the-counter medications you take.
- Maintain an active social life. People who enjoy a close family life or have plenty of friends often live longer than people who are lonely. The protective effect of having fulfilling relationships is comparable to that of quitting smoking or losing a significant amount of weight. Nobody knows exactly how the health mechanism works. Some experts have suggested that being engaged in a community gives people a sense of connection and security, may promote healthy behavior such as exercising and eating well and helps people avoiding self-destructive habits like taking drugs or drinking too much. You might find it easier to stick to a healthy diet, or keep to an exercise program, if you’re doing it with family or like-minded friends.
- Stay involved and engaged. Mortality tables show that death rates for older men who are still working are half of what they are for men of the same age who are fully retired. The mortality trends for women are similar, though less pronounced. Researchers have concluded that it’s not working that makes the difference, but staying engaged in life and involved in something bigger than your own personal problems. Self-sufficiency is not the key to a longer life. Staying connected to a community is the secret.
- Go to the doctor. Flu and pneumonia comprise the seventh leading cause of death among older Americans. We should all get the pneumonia vaccine at least once and the flu vaccine every year in the fall. We should also keep up with recommended screenings, such as colorectal tests like the fecal occult blood test and a colonoscopy that can find polyps in your colon before they turn into cancer and while they can be safely removed. The CDC points out that over 60 million Americans have high blood pressure, yet fewer than half of them have it under control. High blood pressure is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease and the leading cause of illness and death among older adults. So we all need to get our blood pressure checked, take our medications as prescribed and make the necessary lifestyle changes that will make us healthier and happier.