Wow, would I love to inherit my 93-year-old Nana’s longevity. This pistol in pantyhose still has her own Manhattan apartment and only recently retired from her bookkeeping career. She surfs the Internet, plays bridge regularly with her gal pals, and can tick off the birth date of everyone in our clan, right down to the youngest great-grandchild. There’s just one hitch, my husband reminds me: Nana is on his side of the family.
Point taken. But experts now say that I might actually have more to gain by following Nana’s example than I would if I shared her bloodline. In fact, an explosion of research has found that how you approach life and the choices you make play major roles in how long and well you’ll live. Here’s what experts on aging say you can do to stay young at heart for a long time to come.
1 Think positively We can learn a lot from the Roman Catholic nuns researcher David Snowdon, Ph.D., has been studying for the past 15 years. In looking at personal essays the nuns wrote upon first entering the convent, Snowdon found that those who frequently used positive words such as joy and hopeful lived up to ten years longer than nuns who expressed fewer positive emotions. Snowdon, author of Aging with Grace, which recounts his work with the nuns, notes that when you’re angry or depressed, your body releases powerful stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, which can weaken your immune system and increase your risk of stroke or heart attack.
More evidence: In the 1960s, the Mayo Clinic gave a personality test to more than 800 people. Each person was typed as either an optimist or a pessimist. Thirty years later, the pessimists were 19 percent more likely to have died than their cheerier counterparts. “Pessimists believe things happen to them, while optimists express a sense of control over their lives,” says Christopher Peterson, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. If you don’t believe you can change the future, you’re more likely to engage in unhealthy habits such as drinking and smoking. By contrast, an optimist tries to take care of herself and improve her life.
What to do Try to surround yourself with positive people. “It’s possible they’ll bring you up,” Peterson says. Master something new–anything from whipping up a perfect souffle to becoming handy around the house. A new activity will be satisfying and may motivate you to make healthy changes elsewhere in your life. Finally, get some exercise. After a half hour on the treadmill (or doing another aerobic activity), you’ll see life in a whole new light thanks to feel-good hormones called endorphins, which are released during your workout.
2 Stimulate your mind Believe it or not, somewhere between ages eight and ten, the brain begins a gradual decline. Experts used to think there was nothing we could do about it. But studies have found that rats exposed to a stimulating environment continued to develop key structures in their brains that help process information. “An interesting environment can have a similar effect on humans,” says Marian Diamond, Ph.D., a professor of integrative biology at the University of California at Berkeley. Building–and maintaining–brainpower has other benefits too. Snowdon found that nuns who kept challenging themselves intellectually were less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.
What to do Constantly give yourself opportunities to learn. “Crossword puzzles are an especially good exercise, but if you always do them, try something else,” Diamond advises. Take a French class or learn to play piano, for example. If you’ve got kids and are pressed for time, start a book group and meet after your children have gone to bed. And try balancing your checkbook without the help of a calculator. Challenging your brain has major payoffs no matter what your age, experts maintain.
3 Get spiritual Research has found that people who have religious or spiritual beliefs experience less anxiety and depression than others, have lower blood pressure and fewer strokes, and are healthier overall. Praying may also slow the body’s production of harmful stress-related hormones. A large study from the Duke University Medical Center, in Durham, North Carolina, recently found that people who rarely or never prayed had a 50 percent greater risk of dying over a period of six years than those who prayed more frequently. Another Duke study showed that hospitalized patients who questioned their faith were 19 to 28 percent more likely to die within two years.
“Religion and spirituality act as buffers against the bad things in life,” Peterson says. Religious beliefs also encourage healthier behaviors such as not smoking or drinking. And, Peterson adds, “attending services provides important social contact and support.”
What to do Reconnect with your faith if you’ve lapsed. If organized religion doesn’t suit your belief system, take time on a regular basis to think about things that give you comfort and strength, recommends the American Academy of Family Physicians. Or attend to your spiritual self by enjoying nature, volunteering in the community, or meditating.
4 Cultivate your creativity When the Center for Creative Retirement, in Southampton, New York, surveyed about 600 people between the ages of 80 and 100, many maintained that their creative endeavors had a major impact on their longevity. This was also true for those who participated in the Okinawa Centenarian Study, a 25-year project that is exploring the remarkable longevity of the residents of Okinawa, Japan. “Many are devoted to hobbies such as writing their life history or painting,” according to Bradley Willcox, M.D., and Craig Willcox, Ph.D., coinvestigators of the study and authors of The Okinawa Program. “Creative activities not only keep the brain stimulated, but they also keep people engaged and interested in their lives.”
What to do If you don’t already have a hobby, find one–be it gardening, listening to opera, or compiling a family cookbook. “If you lay the groundwork now, you’ll have something meaningful to pursue when you retire or send the kids off to college,” says Gene D. Cohen, Ph.D., M.D., director of the Center on Aging, Health & Humanities at George Washington University, in Washington, D.C., and author of The Creative Age.
5 Socialize Studies sponsored by the esteemed MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Successful Aging have described loneliness as hazardous to a person’s health. In fact, the death rate for older people who have limited social contact is twice as high as the rate for those with a strong support system. By stressing the body and increasing vulnerability to disease, isolation accelerates the rate at which people age, explains Lisa F. Berkman, Ph.D., chair of the department of health and social behavior at the Harvard School of Public Health.
What to do Berkman has found that interacting with others lowers a person’s overall risk of dying as much as physical exercise does. This doesn’t mean you should forsake your morning jog for a social hour at Starbucks. But it’s a good argument for getting out with your friends, no matter how busy you are. Be sure to diversify your relationships among family members, coworkers, and friends. That way, if you lose a spouse or retire, or if your kids move across the country, you’ll have other relationships to fall back on. “Pay as much attention to building your social portfolio as you do to building your financial portfolio,” Dr. Cohen advises. And don’t neglect sex. A study of 1,000 middle-aged Welsh men found that the least sexually active men were twice as likely to die over ten years than those who were more amorous.
6 Keep working “People do best if they have work–or something that resembles work–in their life,” says Robert N. Butler, M.D., president of the International Longevity Center-USA, in New York City. Work keeps your mind engaged, brings you into contact with others, and gives you a sense of responsibility and self-worth.
What to do “Work in whatever capacity you can for however long you can,” Dr. Butler says. If you don’t like what you do, take steps now–however gradual–to find something you’ll want to keep doing, even if it’s light-years away from your chosen career. Consider giving tours at a local historic site or parlaying your love of cooking into a part-time catering operation. “Anyone can turn her life around,” Dr. Cohen says. “It’s good to start early, but it’s never too late.”