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What Do We Know About Healthy Aging?

What factors influence healthy aging? Research has identified action steps we can take to maintain our health and function as we get older. From improving our diet and levels of physical activity to getting health screenings and managing risk factors for disease, these actions may influence different areas of health.

Get Moving: Exercise and Physical Activity

SneakersSome people love it, some people hate it, but regardless of your personal feelings, exercise and physical activity are good for you—period. In fact, exercise and physical activity are considered a cornerstone of almost every healthy aging program. Scientific evidence suggests that people who exercise regularly not only live longer, they live better. And, being physically active—doing everyday activities that keep your body moving, such as gardening, walking the dog, and taking the stairs instead of the elevator—can help you continue to do the things you enjoy and stay independent as you age.

Specifically, regular exercise and physical activity can reduce your risk of developing some diseases and disabilities that often occur with aging. For instance, balance exercises help prevent falls, a major cause of disability in older adults. Strength exercises build muscles and reduce the risk of osteoporosis. Flexibility or stretching exercises help keep your body limber and give you the freedom of movement you need to do everyday activities.

Exercise may even be an effective treatment for certain chronic conditions. People with arthritis, high blood pressure, or diabetes can benefit from regular exercise. Heart disease, a problem for many older adults, may also be alleviated by exercise. Scientists have long known that regular exercise causes certain changes in the hearts of younger people. These changes, which include lowering resting heart rate and increasing stroke volume (the amount of blood pumped with each heartbeat), make the heart a better pump.

Evidence now suggests that people who begin exercise training in later life, for instance in their 60s and 70s, can also experience improved heart function. In one study, researchers with the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging (BLSA) observed a decreased risk of a coronary event, like a heart attack, in older male BLSA participants who took part in high-intensity, leisure-time physical activities like lap swimming or running.

In addition to benefits for the heart, studies show that exercise helps breathlessness and fatigue in older people. Endurance exercises—activities that increase your breathing and heart rate, such as dancing, walking, swimming, or bicycling—increase your stamina and improve the health of your lungs and circulatory system as well as your heart.

There are many ways to be active. You can be active in short spurts throughout the day, or you can set aside specific times of the day or specific days of the week to exercise. Many physical activities, such as brisk walking or raking leaves, are free or low-cost and do not require special equipment.

For more information about how to get started and stick with an exercise and physical activity program, visit Go4Life, NIA’s exercise and physical activity campaign for adults 50+.

Pay Attention to Weight and Shape

Three rocks of increasing size balanced one on top of the otherWeight is a very complex issue. For older people, the health problems associated with obesity may take a back seat to problems associated with body composition (fat-to-muscle ratio) and location of fat (hip or waist) on the body.

Many health problems are connected to being overweight or obese. People who are overweight or obese are at greater risk for type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, some types of cancer, sleep apnea, and osteoarthritis. But data show that for older adults, thinner is not always healthier, either. In one study, researchers found that older adults who are thin (a body-mass index or BMI of less than 19) have a higher mortality rate compared with those who are obese or of normal weight. In another study, women with low BMI had an increased risk of mortality. Being, or becoming, thin as an older adult can be a symptom of disease or an indication of developing frailty. Those are possible reasons why some scientists think maintaining a higher BMI may not necessarily be bad as we age.

Red apple and green pearBody-fat distribution, specifically waist circumference and waist-to-hip ratio, can also be a serious problem for older adults. We know that the "pear" shape, with body fat in peripheral areas such as the hips and thighs, is generally healthier than the "apple" shape, with fat around the waist. Being apple-shaped can increase risk for heart disease and possibly breast cancer. With age, the pattern for body fat can shift from safer peripheral areas to the abdominal area of the body. BLSA researchers examined 547 men and women over a 5-year period to observe body measurement changes. They found that men predominantly shifted in waist size, while women showed nearly equal changes in waist and hip measurements. The men developed a more dangerous body-fat distribution, even though women carried more total body fat. This may help explain why men generally have a higher incidence of certain diseases and a shorter lifespan.

So, is there a "normal" weight range or pattern for healthy aging? For older adults, one size does not fit all. Although we have learned a lot about patterns of weight and aging, watching your weight as you age is very much an individual matter. Talk with your doctor about any weight concerns, including decisions to lose weight or any unexplained weight changes.

Learn more about maintaining a healthy weight.

Healthy Food for Thought: Think About What You Eat

Vegetables on a cutting boardFood has been shown to be an important part of how people age. In one study, scientists investigated how dietary patterns influenced changes in BMI and waist circumference, which are risk factors for many diseases. Scientists grouped participants into clusters based on which foods contributed to the greatest proportion of calories they consumed. Participants who had a "meat and potatoes" eating pattern had a greater annual increase in BMI, and participants in the "white-bread" pattern had a greater increase in waist circumference compared with those in the "healthy" cluster. "Healthy" eaters had the highest intake of foods like high-fiber cereal, low-fat dairy, fruit, nonwhite bread, whole grains, beans and legumes, and vegetables, and low intake of red and processed meat, fast food, and soda. This same group had the smallest gains in BMI and waist circumference.

Scientists think there are likely many factors that contribute to the relationship between diet and changes in BMI and waist circumference. One factor may involve the glycemic index value (sometimes called glycemic load) of food. Foods with a low glycemic index value (such as most vegetables and fruits and high-fiber, grainy breads) decrease hunger but have little effect on blood sugar and therefore are healthier. Foods like white bread have a high glycemic index value and tend to cause the highest rise in blood sugar.

Another focus of research is the relationship between physical problems and micronutrient or vitamin deficiency. Low concentrations of micronutrients or vitamins in the blood are often caused by poor nutrition. Not eating enough fruits and vegetables can lead to a low carotenoid concentration, which is associated with a heightened risk of skeletal muscle decline among older adults. Low concentrations of vitamin E in older adults, especially in older women, is correlated with a decline in physical function. Compared with other older adults, those with low vitamin D levels had poorer results on two physical performance tests. Women with a low vitamin D concentration were more likely to experience back pain. These studies support the takeaway message: the nutrients you get from eating well can help keep muscles, bones, organs, and other parts of the body strong throughout life.

So, eating well is not just about your weight. It can also help protect you from certain health problems that occur more frequently among older adults. And, eating unhealthy foods can increase your risk for some diseases. If you are concerned about what you eat, talk with your doctor about ways you can make better food choices.

Learn more about healthy eating and smart food choices for healthy aging.

Participate in Activities You Enjoy

Granddaughter and grandfather gardeningSure, engaging in your favorite activities can be fun or relaxing, but did you know that doing what you like to do may actually be good for your health? It's true. Research studies show that people who are sociable, generous, and goal-oriented report higher levels of happiness and lower levels of depression than other people.

People who are involved in hobbies and social and leisure activities may be at lower risk for some health problems. For example, one study followed participants for up to 21 years and linked leisure activities like reading, playing board games, playing musical instruments, and dancing with a lower risk for dementia. In another study, older adults who participated in social activities (for example, played games, belonged to social groups, attended local events, or traveled) or productive activities (for example, had paid or unpaid jobs, cooked, or gardened) lived longer than people who did not report taking part in these types of activities.

Other studies have found that older adults who participate in what they see as meaningful activities, like volunteering in their community, reported feeling healthier and happier.

Learn more about participating in activities you enjoy.

The National Institute on Aging’s Baltimore Longitudinal Study on Aging (BLSA) is the longest-running longitudinal study of aging in the world. BLSA researchers, participants, and study partners have contributed immeasurably to our understanding of healthy aging. Learn more about the lessons from the BLSA.

For more information on healthy aging, search our A-Z Health Topics.