One of the single greatest determining factors for people’s happiness as they age is their health. While Americans today may be living longer than their ancestors, that does not necessarily mean that they are living healthier lives.
In 2019, 19% of adults aged 65 and older reported that they “had a lot of difficulty with” or “could not function at all” regarding at least one of six functioning domains: vision, hearing, cognition, self-care, communication, and mobility. 22% reported trouble seeing (even if wearing glasses), 31% reported difficulty hearing (even if wearing hearing aids), 40% reported trouble with mobility (walking or climbing stairs), 8% reported difficulty with communication (understanding or being understood by others), 27% reported trouble with cognition (remembering or concentrating), and 9% reported difficulty with self-care (such as washing all over or dressing).
It’s important to not just add years to people’s lives, but to add quality of life to those years. So how do people improve quality of life as they head into their golden years?
Luckily, this topic has been rigorously studied within populations that have an unusually high percentage of centurions, or people who live to be over 100 years old without physical or mental disabilities. Within these extremely varied populations, nine similarities show up every time:
1. Move naturally. We don’t need to engage in intense workout regimens or run marathons to live longer, better lives. Instead, we need to make movement a natural part of our everyday lives. When possible, substitute activities like walking or biking instead of driving; stand instead of sit; garden, cook, have sex. All these natural activities add movement without ever stepping foot in a gym.
2. Having a daily purpose. Find something that adds value and purpose to each day, whether it be a job, a social group or volunteer organization, a hobby, or a pet. Getting into the habit of asking yourself, “What’s my purpose today?” as you wake up can make a huge difference in your quality of life. Setting short-term goals and long-term goals for yourself is a great way to make sure you are still growing and learning as you age.
3. Manage your stress. Finding healthy coping strategies for dealing with stress may be easier said than done but doing so is critical to long-term health. Try breathing exercises, a meditation routine, or yoga practice. Managing stress may also mean removing negative people and/or situations from your life where possible.
4. Follow the “80% Full” rule. Rather than eating until one is stuffed, this rule suggests stopping once a person is 80% full. One can practice this alongside other “mindful eating” behaviors, such as eating with friends and family, sitting down at the table at mealtimes, opting for set meals over snacking, and eliminating distractions from phones or TV so one can pay attention to how their body feels while eating. Look at your regular eating routine and see what small changes you can make to improve your habits.
5. Have a “Plant Slant” diet. Make vegetables the centerpiece of your diet. This doesn’t mean going vegan or cutting out your favorite non-vegetable foods. Rather, it suggests making meat and dairy products the side dish to vegetables, rather than the other way around. Implement minor changes that you can stick to and build from there. A good rule of thumb: aim to buy more from the produce section than from the other aisles at the grocery store.
6. Moderate drinkers outlive non-drinkers. “Everything in moderation…” Research has shown that people who drink (moderately) live longer than non-drinkers. So, enjoy a glass of wine here and there with friends and family!
7. Belong to a community. Research suggests that attending faith-based services four times per month – regardless of denomination – can add up to 14 years to a person’s life expectancy! Find a group that aligns with your beliefs and participate as often as you can.
8. Keep family close. Investing in family relationships – whether it be through a life partner, children and/or aging family members – can have demonstrable health benefits. Reach out to your family members, even if they don’t live physically close to you. Regular phone calls, letters, emails, or gatherings can still have an amazing impact on your longevity and wellbeing.
9. Find the right tribe. Surround yourself with people who support healthy behaviors and activities. This doesn’t just mean people who eat healthy and exercise; people with healthy boundaries who support and respect your unique identity, goals, and beliefs are essential cornerstones for physical, emotional, spiritual, and mental well-being.
These nine goals can seem daunting at first, but they can also be inspiring reminders for how we can invest in our long-term health. Rather than overhauling your entire lifestyle all at once, start by making minor changes to your existing habit. Enough minor changes can result in positive lifestyle habits that can lead to a healthy, happy 100 years!