A long, healthy life is the goal for many Americans, but according to a study published in September 2022 in BMJ, the average life expectancy in the United States fell from 78.8 years in 2019 to 76.1 in 2021, marking the steepest two-year decline in a century. Research shows that the risk of many chronic diseases — including heart disease, diabetes, dementia, and osteoporosis — increases with age as well.
The news isn’t all bleak, however. There are things anyone can do to lower their risk of many age-related diseases, add years to their lifespan, and make the dream of a long, healthy life a reality. The key is to start building those healthy habits now. Longevity experts share eight things you can do every day to make your golden years really shine.
1. Make Sure You’re Getting Some Physical Activity
Why It’s Important Regular physical activity has been shown to counteract normal muscle aging and help preserve lean muscle mass, research shows.
How to Do It To get the most health benefits from physical activity, adults need at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (such as brisk walking or fast dancing) each week, as well as muscle-strengthening activity, like lifting weights or doing push-ups, at least two days each week, according to guidelines issued by the President’s Council on Physical Fitness. That’s approximately half an hour a day during the workweek, and the activity does not have to come from just a single gym session. Even short bouts of activity add up, and many experts (as well as the guidelines) argue that it’s better to spread them out, says Laura Carstensen, PhD, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity in California.
“Find something you enjoy doing that is sustainable over time,” she recommends. “When it’s something that you can do relatively easily, it becomes a habit.” You might love to swim or take spin classes, but if getting to the pool or the gym takes too much effort, you’ll probably skip your workouts. You might be better off keeping some exercise equipment at home, where the barrier to using it is lower.
2. Stay on Top of Health Screenings
Why It’s Important According to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, routine screenings can reduce your risk of early death because they help prevent illnesses or detect them earlier, when they are more treatable.
How to Do It Rachel Marquez, MD, a board-certified family physician at Kaiser Permanente in Virginia, recommends talking to your doctor to make sure you’re up to date on your screenings. She says that depending on your age, gender, and other risk factors, you may need to be screened for colorectal cancer, lung cancer, breast cancer, cervical cancer, high blood pressure, abnormal cholesterol levels, high glucose levels, osteoporosis, or mental health conditions. It’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the screenings that are recommended by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.
3. Cut Back on Red Meat and Processed Meat
Why It’s Important Lots of research has linked plant-based diets to longer lifespans. That doesn’t mean you have to forego meat completely though. “The evidence on meat is mixed,” says Dr. Carstensen. “Diets heavy in red meat are not recommended, but chicken and other meats are often recommended as good sources of protein.”
Eating plans such as the Mediterranean diet and the Blue Zones diet, which emphasize seafood and poultry and minimizing red and processed meats, have been shown to reduce your risk of a host of conditions that can shorten your lifespan, such as heart disease, metabolic disorders, and some types of cancer, according to research published in Nutrients in 2021.
How to Do It If it’s more sustainable for you to switch to mostly poultry and fish rather than going full vegetarian, that’s a step in a potentially healthier direction. Start by cutting back on beef and processed meats such as bacon, lunch meat, and sausage. Replace them with lean protein sources like fish, chicken, and turkey, as well as vegetarian sources like legumes and quinoa. It can help to experiment with healthy foods to find the ones you like, Carstensen says. If you need more help, or if you have some emotional eating challenges, finding a nutritionist could be beneficial.
4. Build and Maintain Balance and Core Strength
Why It’s Important According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), falls are the top cause of injury-related death in people ages 65 and older, and the death rate from falls is getting worse, especially in people ages 85 and older.
“Core strength is central to balance,” says Carstensen. “Getting slightly off-balance is very common, but most of the time people don’t even detect it because we automatically correct by using our core muscles. If your core is weak, you can’t self-correct in this way and are more likely to fall.”
How to Do It Exercise to strengthen your core. For an easy habit that can help, when you get up from a chair, use only the strength in your core and legs — not your arms. “Using your arms reduces the tension on your core muscles,” Carstensen says. To strengthen your balance, try standing on one foot every time you brush your teeth. And talk with your doctor if you need more help: Working with a physical therapist could be beneficial, as most are trained to help with developing a fall-prevention routine.
5. Stand Up!
Why It’s Important Spending lots of time sitting increases your risk of heart disease and diabetes, even if you exercise, according to research published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine in 2019.
How to Do It If you’re working from home, you may need to make an extra effort to add some movement to your day. You may not have those natural breaks where you walk into and out of the building, talk to colleagues in person, or move to a meeting room. So, you might want to walk around the block, take breaks for household chores like making your bed, or spend a few minutes doing some yoga poses. A meta-analysis published in March 2022 in The Lancet Public Health found that, in terms of reducing mortality risk, the ideal number of steps per day is between 6,000 and 8,000 for older adults and between 8,000 and 10,000 for younger adults. Even if you aren’t the fitness tracker–wearing type, just developing a habit of walking more during the day is important, Carstensen says, even if it’s just for a minute every hour.
6. Practice Good Sleep Hygiene
Why It’s Important “Good sleep predicts life expectancy,” says Carstensen. And that doesn’t just mean sleeping longer; it means getting the right amount of restful quality sleep for your needs. One study found that getting fewer than seven hours or more than eight hours of sleep per night increased mortality risk by 24 percent and 17 percent, respectively. Official recommendations vary, and it’s not only the amount but also the quality of sleep that matters. The CDC recommends that adults ages 18 to 60 aim for seven or more hours per night, that those between ages 61 and 64 get between seven and nine hours a night, and anyone age 65 or older gets seven to eight hours.
How to Do It Some components of good sleep hygiene include having a consistent sleep schedule, limiting caffeine and alcohol, especially before bed, and avoiding the use of electronic devices before bed as well, according to the division of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School and WGBH Educational Foundation. If you practice good sleep hygiene but still have daytime sleepiness, it’s a good idea to follow up with your doctor to rule out things like sleep apnea.
7. Take Time to Be Grateful
Why It’s Important While the evidence examining the effects of gratitude practices on health is limited, being grateful could help you be more inclined to participate in healthy activities such as exercise and also more likely to seek help when you have a health concern, according to The Wiley Encyclopedia of Health Psychology.
How to Do It Carstensen practices gratitude by taking time to “sit and reflect and be grateful,” she says. “Breathe, and think about what’s good in the world and what you appreciate. It calms you. There’s a kind of a reset to it that is very useful for mental health. It really does change your outlook.”
8. Carve Out Time for Friends
Why It’s Important Having fewer friends is linked with negative health outcomes as well as loneliness, depression, stress, and anxiety. Having just two to four close friends can reduce your risk, according to research published online in Ageing and Society in July 2022.
How to Do It Reach out to your friends, whether by text or a phone call and make plans to spend time together. “Make sure they know you care. If you let them know you care, they are much more likely to let you know they care too, so carving out time for those exchanges is really important,” Carstensen says.