SALT LAKE CITY — Most people want to age well — to be mentally and physically healthy throughout a hopefully long and productive life — and they may have more control over their future mental and physical health than they think.
A study published in November in Genetics looked at data on 400 million people and concluded that genes don’t influence longevity as much as previously thought. The research by Calico Life Sciences used a massive set of Ancestry.com data (minus identifying information) to estimate that genes account for no more than 7 percent of how long one will live.
The rest is a combination of lifestyle and environment — and experts have a lot to say about how diet, exercise, sleep and attitude greatly impact not only how long, but how we live in our later years.
For those making it to old age — say 80 and above — the news can be a mix of good and bad. The Berlin Aging Study found that 3 in 10 men and 6 in 10 women ages 85 or older need help bathing, though only 20 percent need long-term care. The report did note that the numbers were somewhat high because they included an oversampling of 95-year-olds.
The study also found those who make it to a very ripe old age can forget that picture of wasting away while napping in a chair. Even its oldest participants spent no more than a fourth of their “waking” hours dozing. The idea that aging must include weakness, disability and confusion is contradicted by the real-life experience of millions.
Here are five things we learned in 2018 from science about aging well.
1. Take up ballroom dancing.
Dr. Timothy R. Jennings, board-certified psychiatrist, brain expert and author of "The Aging Brain: Proven Steps to Prevent Dementia and Sharpen Your Mind," is among a growing number of aging experts who say to forget crosswords and similar puzzles that measure what you already know if you are hoping they’ll help you stay sharp. Instead, learn something completely new — though you can keep doing puzzles for enjoyment.
The top suggestion the Deseret News heard this year, from Jennings and several others, is ballroom dancing, if you don’t already know how. It’s a social activity, it provides exercise that doesn't feel like exercise and it forces your brain to memorize new moves and make connections that aren’t already in place.
If you don’t have a dance partner, that's OK. Learning a new language, which also strengthens the brain and helps keep it healthy, ranks high on experts' lists, too. What matters is doing new things or doing them differently, and these things can be simple or complex. You reportedly get benefit even from holding your fork and spoon in the hand you don't usually use when you eat.
2. Get enough protein.
A study of octogenarians in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found those who got enough protein had better muscle mass, were more likely to be active and were less likely to have life-limiting disabilities.
Science Daily recommends the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s dietary recommendations calculator to figure out how much protein one needs based on gender, weight, age and activity level.
The recommendations are for all ages, not just those who are older.
3. Get help if you've experienced trauma or depression.
Young people who have experienced abuse or other trauma or who battle serious depression should seek treatment, because those factors accelerate aging. The Netherlands Study of Depression and Anxiety found the body’s “epigenetic clock” speeds up in those who are depressed or suffered stress. The results were published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.
Research has linked mental illness and adverse childhood experiences to life-altering and life-limiting challenges. The list from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention includes substance abuse, mental illness, liver or heart disease, domestic violence, sexually transmitted diseases, obesity, smoking and suicide attempts, among others. Different agencies also suggest behavior issues, lower educational attainment and lower earnings, as well as health impacts, which are all factors that can influence resources and subsequent health and quality of life as one ages.
4. Build physical strength.
It’s never too late to get moving. A study from the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA) at Tufts University published in Agricultural Research magazine found that even people who suffer from sarcopenia, which is age-related muscle loss, can benefit greatly from exercise that includes aerobics, strength training and work on balance and flexibility.
Staying strong — or getting strong if one has let it lapse — is crucial to healthy aging. A study from the University of Würzburg noted, “This has severe consequences for those affected: They often suffer from paresthesia and excruciating pain in the extremities. Progressive muscle loss is particularly important as it considerably limits mobility and often leads to dangerous falls which frequently mark the end of a person's independence.”1 comment on this story
If that’s not enough to get you moving and keep you going, a study in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease points out that greater physical fitness is associated with better cognition. A healthy body is more likely to include a healthy brain. And University of Buffalo research says women, in particular, need to work on maintaining their strength.
5. Build and maintain a social network.
Ohio State University is one of many doing research that suggest being connected to other people is very good for aging well. They showed using mice that social connection improves memory and slows brain decline. Studies of people carry the same good news for healthy aging.