One in seven Americans is 65 or older — that’s 15 percent of us. And whether you’re in that group or drawing nearer to it, you may be thinking not just about how long you want to live, but how well. While you can’t avoid dying altogether, of course, you might wonder what payoff accompanies taking good care of yourself.
We’ve been living longer on average thanks to advances in medicine. If we develop heart disease or cancer, we’re more likely to survive it. But the number of years we spend managing a chronic disease — high blood pressure, arthritis, heart disease or diabetes — has increased. But as we age, our health isn’t completely out of our hands.
“There are a lot of changes to the body just dealing with aging in general,” said Seattle registered dietitian Angel Planells, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “There’s a decrease in lean body mass, plus changes to joints, eyes and bones.” As for what factors are most important to age well, they aren’t much different from what everyone can do to live well. “Making smarter food choices, being more physically active, being able to deal with stress and sleeping more,” he said. “Eating well and being active make people feel better, plus they’re stronger and more self sufficient, leading to a better quality of life.”
Here are some ways you can make a difference:
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Pair protein and physical activity. Many people over age 50 have a condition called sarcopenia, an age-related decline in skeletal muscle. It starts as early as 40 and, unless you take intentional action to counteract it, it gets worse as you age — you could lose as much as half of your muscle mass by 70. Fortunately, two tools in your anti-aging toolbox will help keep you strong: protein and physical activity.
Ignore the generic advice that women need 46 grams of protein a day and men need 52. The amount of protein you need depends on what you weigh, and research strongly suggests that even if you’re the same weight in your 50s and 60s that you were in your teens and 20s, you need more protein in later decades. Whatever you weigh in pounds, divide it in half, and aim to eat about that many grams of protein per day. If you eat meat, chicken and fish, one ounce by weight equals seven grams of protein; for other foods, read labels.
And don’t forget about physical activity. “I think a lot of the population struggles because they think they need to go to the gym and lift heavy weights, but that’s not necessarily the case,” Planells said. “What’s important is making sure to get out there and do some type of activity. People who have stayed active though the years have a higher quality of life. They’re capable of getting up if they happen to fall, they’re able to support themselves and remain independent through the years, doing the things they want to do without relying on others.”
Getting the recommended 150 minutes of physical activity each week can feel daunting, so Planells suggests breaking it down into 5- to 10-minute chunks. “Park further away from the store, get off one bus stop earlier,” he said. “You can make that recommendation much easier to accomplish. There’s no need to be a hero. If we’re 50, we’re clearly not teenagers anymore. Go for a walk, golf without a cart, garden — it doesn’t have to be strenuous. Activity should make you feel good.”
Look at key nutrients. “By age 70, 30 to 40 percent of women will have at least one fracture, and it’s an issue for men as well,” Planells said. That makes getting enough calcium and vitamin D important. While iron needs aren’t particularly high (8 milligrams for both men and women) it is important to get enough for healthy blood function. Getting enough vitamin C helps us absorb iron, and Planells said fiber can help manage age-related changes to digestion.
Getting enough vitamin B12 is also important. “People who eat a wide variety of different foods, such as B12-fortified products or meat, fish and dairy, usually get enough,” Planells said. “However, when a person gets older and if they’re having trouble chewing or producing saliva, they may have trouble eating some of these foods. Lower stomach acid can also make absorbing B12 difficult.”
However, while age-related changes may make it harder for some people to absorb certain nutrients, supplements aren’t always the answer. “If you know that your diet is insufficient, before you do anything, you should reach out to a dietitian, [a] health care provider, or [a] pharmacist,” Planells said. “If you’re taking a bunch of medications, and you start taking a supplement, you could have drug-nutrient interactions. Plus, taking the supplement could mask some other health issues.”
Set reasonable goals. If you want to improve your eating habits, pick one or two things to look at, Planells suggests. “That could be improving fruit intake. If you’re only getting one serving a day, start to get two. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” He also points out that healthy aging is partly about mindset. “I think that’s a nice thing about our culture is that the way that we’re thinking about aging, it’s definitely changing. Forty is the new 20, 60 is the new 40. Clearly, as we age our risk of disability goes up, but if you take care of yourself, positive changes can happen over time.”