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9 Longevity Habits for a Happy and Healthy Older Age

What every adult should know about a long, satisfying lifespan.

Key points

  • Love, including friendship and a supportive social network, might lower mortality risk.
  • People who keep their commitments, including doctors’ appointments, dates with friends, and work meetings, are more likely to live longer.
  • Recent exercise research shows that even two to ten minutes of daily walking can lower blood sugar and the risk of “sitting diseases.”
Image by Petr Kratochvil, publicdomainphotos
Source: Image by Petr Kratochvil, publicdomainphotos

“Old age is like everything else. To make a success of it, you’ve got to start young.”

Theodore Roosevelt said that, and he was right. But exactly how do you “start young?”

This post will reveal the essential longevity habits to practice now if you want to experience happiness, health, and fulfillment as you age. By the way, these habits work for anyone, at any time or age. It’s not too late to take action.

Why aim for a long life? For one, older people tend to be happier people. Surprised? I was. I was so astonished that most people became happier as they aged that I wrote a whole book about it.* As I wrote here:

As they aged, older adults (from numerous countries) rated their life satisfaction much higher, with happiness ratings rising gradually and steadily from age 50 through the decade of the 90s.

You, too, can experience this happiness. Of course, not everything is within your control. Luck, genes, environment, and social support play their part. Still, improving your life now with these nine longevity habits will greatly increase your odds of a fulfilling older age. All the longevity recommendations below are science-based and backed by evidence.

Here is the first step: Decide that you want to become a healthy and fit older adult.

Just decide? What!? How can a simple decision boost your chances of staying healthy as you age? It sounds like wishful thinking.

But I am not advocating voodoo psychology. It turns out that successful change begins with the decision to change. The research of psychologist John Norcross shows that people who make a specific resolution to change are 10 times more likely to change than those who want to change but don't make specific resolutions. According to Norcross, it's the key factor.

To decide to change, you need to know why you want to change. Make a list of two to three reasons. For example, you might want to stay strong and vigorous as you age because:

  • You want to avoid chronic illnesses, hospitalization, and early death.
  • You want to have time for creative projects or a second career after you retire.
  • You want to spend quality time with your partner, family, and friends for as long as possible.
  • You want to travel.
  • You want to experience the happiness of living a long, full life.
  • You want to contribute to your community.
  • You want to stay independent for as long as you can.
  • Other: ____

To increase your motivation, write down your reasons. Then, make that decision to change.

Now you're ready to work on one or more of the longevity habits below. I’ve included a few mini-goals to give you an easy way to begin.

Longevity habit 1: Cultivate love, friendship, and social connections.

What is the most important factor in determining whether seniors flourish in their later years? Love. Whether in the form of a long-term relationship with one person or with a network of friends and family, love and friendship are the most potent factors in a satisfying old age, according to Marta Zaraska in Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism, and Kindness Can Help You Live to 100. She cites evidence that building a strong social network of family and friends can lower mortality risk by about 45 percent. In contrast, a committed romantic relationship might reduce mortality risk even more.

Possible mini-goals:

  • Call or email one friend every day.
  • Start a birthday list. Send cards, e-cards, or just good wishes via a call or email.
  • Organize a monthly get-together with a friend(s).

Longevity habit 2: Become more conscientious.

People who keep their commitments, including doctors’ appointments, dates with friends, and work meetings, are more likely to live longer than those who don’t. Conscientious people are physically healthier than those who are more carefree–they take their medications, follow safety rules, pursue healthy habits, and avoid harmful habits like smoking, alcohol, and drugs.

Conscientious people reap other surprising benefits, including a lower risk of dementia. According to Zaraska, conscientious behaviors can reduce the probability of early death by about 44 percent.

Possible mini-goals:

Longevity habit 3: Exercise and stay active.

Exercise has such a powerful effect on your physical, mental, and longevity that it can slow the aging process. Exercise lifts your mood, helps you maintain a healthy weight, lowers blood pressure, reduces stress, and lowers the risk of chronic illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, among many other benefits.

But you don’t need to set an Ironman-style exercise goal to reap health benefits. Even getting up from your chair and moving around every hour will benefit you. Ideally, get 150 minutes of mild to moderate exercise per week–just 20-30 minutes a day.

But recent exercise research tells us that even two-10 minutes of walking daily can lower blood sugar and the risk of “sitting diseases.”

A meta-analysis of exercise studies from 2008 cited by Zaraska showed that exercise could lower mortality risk by about 23-33 percent.

Possible mini-goals:

  • Take a ten-minute walk daily.
  • Get up from your chair every hour and walk around your living space.
  • Try different types of movement--tap-dancing, yoga, ballroom dancing, or whatever you enjoy.

Longevity habit 4: Cultivate positive beliefs about aging.

Numerous studies by researcher Becca Levy, described in her book, Breaking the Age Code, support her assertion that positive age beliefs can increase your lifespan by about seven and a half years. Seven and a half years! Her research indicated that the benefits of positive age beliefs also extend to better health, reduced risk of dementia, better memory and hearing, better balance, and even a faster gait.

How do beliefs about aging play a part? People with positive age beliefs (for example, that aging can be a time of growth, wisdom, and creativity) are more likely to care for themselves because they envision an active, happy, and meaningful future. They also feel less fearful of aging, reducing levels of harmful stress chemicals in the blood. By contrast, people with negative age beliefs have lower self-esteem and higher levels of stress.

How could you envision a better future for yourself? The next longevity habit offers clues.

Longevity habit 5: Seek a purpose for your later years.

A 2019 study of almost 7,000 U.S. adults over 50 concluded that individuals with stronger purpose in life had lower all-cause mortality and a lower risk of premature death.

Like positive age beliefs, a sense of purpose can motivate you to stay healthy to achieve your most meaningful goals. In addition, people with a sense of purpose have lower levels of stress chemicals such as cortisol, feel a greater sense of well-being, and look forward to getting up each morning.

Possible mini-goals:

  • Consider the values, interests, strengths, and goals that make life most exciting and authentic for you. Build on one of those attributes.
  • See a career counselor for activities/jobs that could build on your strengths and interests.
  • Be mindful of and grateful for the meaningful moments of your daily life.

Longevity habit 6: Save for the future.

It does not take a financial expert (and I am not) to know that if you build a strong financial foundation for your older years, you will have more choices about spending your time after retirement. You could continue to work--or not. You could work part-time or volunteer. Money worries are major sources of stress at any age; building a cushion of savings alleviates that stress.

Possible mini-goals:

  • Start educating yourself about money matters. Consult with experts if need be.
  • Save a little every month. Then save a little more and more.
  • Make sure you have an emergency fund that could cover four to six months of expenses.
  • Make automatic monthly investments into your retirement account.

Longevity habit 7: Reduce excessive and chronic stress.

While a certain amount of stress can help you adapt to the challenges of life, excessive and chronic stress exacts a toll on your mind and body, including your immune system. Stress is linked to chronic inflammation, which, in turn, is a factor in diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Consider one of these options:

  • Build simple breathing exercises into your day.
  • Take a yoga or tai chi class.
  • Meditate, listen to music, or express yourself with a creative activity.

Longevity habit 8: Avoid these top causes of preventable deaths.

Smoking, drinking, obesity, and drug overdoses are among the leading causes of preventable deaths in our society. Overcoming these addictive habits by yourself can be difficult. Get help if you need it. (Call 988, the new suicide and crisis hotline number, to get immediate help or to link up to resources in your area. The 211 hotlines can also provide social service information and referrals.)

Longevity habit 9: Create healthy eating and sleeping habits.

Experts recommend seven to eight hours of sleep, a regular bedtime and wake-up time, and a quiet, cool sleeping environment. Regular sleep is good for the brain as well as the body.

As there are as many opinions about "healthy eating" as stars in the sky, I'll just throw in my two cents: I advocate mindful, moderate eating, with no dieting, using the sensible guidelines that have kept me at the same healthy weight for 50 years.

"Weight" can be controversial, but it seems clear that obesity (as opposed to being overweight) takes a toll on your joints, heart, brain, lungs, and lifespan.

Better Longevity Habits for Our Society

Where do you think the United States ranks in longevity among the world's countries?

America’s longevity ranking in the world is shockingly low–54th of 183 countries ranked by the World Bank in 2020. And life expectancy has dipped in the last two years to 76.99 from 78.86. according to Steven Woolf, an author of a global study on life expectancy.

While a poor response to the COVID pandemic is partly responsible, the lack of a strong social safety net has been a longtime problem in the U.S. As Woolf explained, “a fragmented, profit-driven health care system; poor diet and a lack of physical activity; and pervasive risk factors such as smoking, widespread access to guns, poverty and pollution” have all played a role in eroding American lifespan.

If we want all Americans to have a chance at a happy and useful old age, we must advocate for a more robust and broader social safety net.

Summary

These nine longevity habits could increase the odds of living a long, healthy, and satisfying life. However, they also help in ways not so easily described. Successful acts of self-improvement give us energy and pride, even helping us discover who we are. Experiencing all that life has to offer at every age and stage is a priceless reward for developing good longevity habits.

© Meg Selig, 2022. For permissions, click here.

References

Zaraska, M. (2020). Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism, and Kindness Can Help You Live to 100. NY: Random House.

Levy, B. (2022). Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long & Well You Live. NY: William Morrow.

Mini-goals. Selig, M. (2009). Changepower: 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success. NY: Taylor & Francis.

Norcross, J.C., et al. (2002). Auld lang syne: success predictors, change processes, and self-reported outcomes of New Year's resolutions. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 58 (4), 397-405.

Selig, M. (2000). Silver Sparks: Thoughts on Growing Older, Wiser, and Happier.

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