According to data from the World Bank, people are living longer than ever. Average life expectancy worldwide increased from 52 years in 1960, to 72 years in 2016 (for males and females). While the added time seems innately like a blessing, some may find it a curse. With age and experience comes the various trials of life: changing jobs, retiring, losing loved ones, and declining body functions. Furthermore, age often leads to the development of cognitive impairments, one of the most well-known being dementia.
Alzheimer’s Disease International reports that somebody in the world is diagnosed with dementia every three seconds. Per their statistics, from 2015 to 2017 dementia incidence has increased by nearly 3.2 million people worldwide. This number is expected to climb to include another 81.5 million individuals by 2050.
Depression rates also may increase with age. A study published in the Journal of Social Health and Behavior found that while depression rates are lowest in middle-aged individuals, rates climb and peak around 80 years of age and beyond. The study’s authors attribute the cause of this rise in depression to feelings of loss of control and physical dysfunction as people age.
How can you live longer, while maintaining both your joy and acuity? Here are six suggestions, pieced together from my observations working in long-term care as well as from research data, which I offer as keys to maintaining a youthful, vibrant mind throughout the life stages.
1. Practice Optimism
We’re all familiar with the old adage, “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.” Well, like it or not, life hands you aging. It is entirely up to you how you perceive that reality, and the perception alone can make a huge difference.
It’s true that you often do not control the things that happen to you, especially in aging. However, you can always regain some degree of control by choosing your own story, or way of describing, the things happening to you and around you. This concept is known as reframing.
For example, Steve Jobs famously described getting fired from Apple as “the best thing that could have ever happened to me.” In this way, he reclaimed power over the event of getting fired—an event over which he had no control—by telling the story in a way that created a “for the greater good” type of reality. You will face obstacles with aging. Loved ones pass away, finances may become tight, or maybe your muscles start to weaken. Your challenge is to frame changes in a way that enables you to regain your power, carrying with you an overall lightness and optimism.
2. Foster Humor
Perhaps you’re familiar with the adage, “If you want to tell somebody the truth, you’d better make it funny.”
Humor has a way of creating lightness and connection around difficult and otherwise potentially isolating matters. Aging brings life experiences that can feel embarrassing, isolating, or sad. You can maintain your connection with others and with yourself by finding solace in the fact that everyone will experience various aspects of aging at one point or another. Furthermore, absolutely everyone has experienced shame and embarrassment. By reframing and retelling some of these experiences with a new light of humor, you will be able to shed your own shame and also connect with others who have felt the same.
One of my favorite examples comes from a gentleman I worked with who I’ll call “Tom.” Tom used a motorized wheelchair to travel to the grocery store weekly. At times, his chair would stall in the middle of an intersection, resulting in angry drivers. Tom asked me to print him a sign that read, “The Speed Demon,” and hung it on his chair. Now instead of being ashamed when others were frustrated with his limitations, he would good-naturedly point to his sign, laugh, and wave in understanding. The angry drivers started to laugh with him. They were diverted from their frustration, and instead connected with this man who was doing the best he could. By choosing to make light of his limitation, Tom chose to live in joy rather than shame, and he gave others permission to connect with him over their own limitations.
3. Connect with Your Body Through Diet
Think of a baby. A baby eats when she is hungry and stops when she is full. She sleeps when she is tired, and wakes when she is rested. She is fascinated with knowing her body. Lying on the floor, she pokes her eyes, grabs her feet, pulls her toes, and reaches high up, then twists to each side trying to roll over.
Somehow as an adult, you know how to walk, but forget that you have a body. Symptoms of disconnection with your body manifest in many ways and may increase with age. For example, older individuals tend to neglect diet and movement, leading to a general resignation that weight gain, immobility, and poor strength are inevitable. While all of these symptoms are indeed associated with aging, the degree to which they manifest is largely up to the individual.
You can take time each day to connect with your body through diet. The Nurse’s Health Study found that that those who have healthy diet patterns at midlife were 34 percent more likely to age successfully. “Successful aging” was defined as surviving to 70 and beyond with no major chronic disease, cognitive dysfunction, mental impairments, or physical function.
In order to follow a healthy diet similar to that defined in the study, make sure to:
- Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables (focus on non-starchy vegetables and whole fruits rather than fruit juices).
- Include whole grains (such as barley, brown rice, or oatmeal).
- Choose protein primarily from plant sources, such as nuts, legumes, pea protein, and quinoa.
- Eat foods rich in omega-3s regularly (including fish and some types of nuts and seeds).
- Decrease your intake of sugary beverages, red/processed meat, trans fats, processed foods, and salt.
- Limit your consumption of alcohol to no more than .5-1.5 drinks daily.
4. Connect with Your Body Through Movement
One good reason to connect with your body through movement is that physical activity helps to combat depression. Compared with inactive individuals, active men and women have lower rates of depression, as well as a variety of physical health benefits.
In one small study of 32 older adults displaying depression symptoms, those who participated in a regular strength-training exercise saw improved depressive symptoms. Similar results were noted in a separate study, where a group of post-menopausal women participated in walking for three days a week, 40 minutes at a time, for six months. The women reported significantly decreased symptoms of depression.
Regular physical activity also helps protect against brain volume loss associated with aging. This loss of brain material, known as gray matter, is linked with cognitive impairments and dementia.
Start a routine of regular physical activity now. Don’t wait! The CDC recommends that older individuals (those over age 65) who are generally fit and have no major health concerns maintain at least the following weekly physical fitness regimen:
- Aerobic activity: 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity (such as brisk walking) or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity (such as jogging) per week.
- Strength training: 2 days each week of strengthening exercises which work all the major muscle groups
5. Remain a Student
Many older individuals have spent at least 18 years raising children—a role in which being considered a “teacher” is necessary. By the time you reach retirement, you may have forgotten the joy of learning, or even feel like the task of learning a new skill is insurmountable. Can you really teach an old dog a new trick? The answer is, of course, yes you can.
Learning new tasks results in increased myelin in the brain. Myelin is a white, fatty coating that surrounds nerve endings. It increases the speed and strength of nerve firing, resulting in sharper mental acuity. Loss of myelin is associated with feelings of social isolation, as well as with symptoms of poor nerve functioning: loss of dexterity, blurry vision, loss of bowel control, and generalized weakness and fatigue—all of which are typically symptoms associated with aging. Help stave off these declines by continuing to learn about the world!
Learning new things is also a way to enhance confidence, and therefore mood. Think of it this way: Do you want to consider yourself the expert but constantly fear you will be asked a question to which you don’t have the answer? Or, instead, consider yourself a lifelong learner, and look forward to encountering questions to which you can seek out the answers?
Wonder is truly a trait abundant in youth, yet tends to be more sparse later in life. By remaining a lifelong learner, you keep your mind open and expanding, rather than contracting.
6. Practice Daily
While our lives are now longer than ever, how do we maintain fresh energy in a way that is sustainable? Sure, you can learn something new today, but daily, and for the next 20 years? This may seem like a tiresome task when instead you could be watching your television and relaxing over comfort food.
I recommend keeping a daily list. Like anything in life, large shifts start with daily intentions. Reflect on each area. Ask yourself these four questions:
1. What am I looking forward to tomorrow? (Practice optimism)
2. What made me laugh at myself today? (Foster humor)
3. What action(s) did I take to nurture my physical body today? (Connect with your body)
4. How did I learn today? (Remain a student)
By reflecting daily on these questions, I believe we can all walk through the final chapter of our lives with the wisdom of experience, yet the wonder and vitality of a child.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.