We talk about aging gracefully, but what does it mean? How does one age gracefully? To me, it means ensuring your final years are good ones. Basically, we want to avoid the “regular” maladies of aging like dementia, osteoporosis, blindness, sarcopenia, and immobility. We want to live long and drop dead, not live long and wither away from a host of degenerative illnesses that prevent our ability to enjoy or even experience life, relegated to a bare room tucked away in a building somewhere. That scares me more than anything, more than heart disease or cancer or shark attacks: helplessness.
When I’m nearing 100, I want to be able to…
- Fix a meal for myself.
- Go for a walk.
- Use the stairs.
- Use the bathroom without help.
- Lift a grandkid or two.
- See where I’m going.
- Recall distant memories.
- Create new ones.
- Hold conversations.
- Play – and play hard.
- Be witty.
- Be sharp.
How do we do it, though? What steps can we take, what foods can we eat, what exercises can we do to ensure these things – or at least boost our chances?
Going and staying Primal is a good start. Hewing to the 10 Laws will help. But I thought I’d dig into the research and get a bit more specific. What can we – the young and the old and the in-between – do to improve our chances at graceful aging?
Start walking every day.
One of the most effective predictors of an older adult’s mortality risk is his walking speed. The faster you (normally) walk, the longer you (normally) live. That doesn’t necessarily mean that grandma should start speed walking to live longer, because it may not work exactly like that. It’s “walking speed at a normal pace” that matters, not “how fast you can force yourself to walk.” But “forcing yourself to walk” and cultivating that walking ability – right now, this instant – will certainly help predict normal walking speed later in life, or later this week. So get on it.
Lift heavy things and stay active.
A while back, I linked to undeniable visual evidence of the importance of staying active all throughout life. It depicted cross-sections of the thighs of a 40 year old male triathlete, a 70 year old male triathlete, and a 74 year old sedentary man. The first two were nearly identical – a good sized cord of dense bone surrounded on all sides by several inches of lean muscle with very little fat – while the sedentary thigh had a more narrow bone and pitiful amounts of muscle that seemed to be actively degenerating, plus about two or three inches of pure fat. The stronger you are, the more able you are, the less likely you are to fall, and the longer you are likely to live. The good news is that even if you weren’t very active in the past, starting today can make a big difference.
Take the stairs.
Stair-climbing is a fairly simple, highly accessible mode of exercise for anyone, but it’s been shown to improve resting and exercise heart rates, balance, and perceived exertion particularly among seniors.
All movement originates from the core – from the torso. If it’s not stable and strong, you’ll be less sure-footed and more prone to make mistakes. A strong trunk is a stable trunk, and stable, strong trunks help prevent falls and improve balance. Planks are a great way to strengthen your trunk. Almost anyone can get started on them, too, so don’t wait any longer. Doing a few minutes (with some rest, of course!) of planks every other morning is a good recipe for strength and stability. Check out the basic plank progression here.
Eat your spinach with butter.
Spinach is a great source of lutein, a micronutrient that can help protect against eye diseases like age-related macular degeneration, cataracts, and retinitis pigmentosa, but you have to absorb it for it to do its thing. The saturated fats in butter seem to be the best vehicle for lutein absorption when compared to MUFAs (olive oil) or PUFAs (fish oil), so eat your butter and spinach! Similar effects were found for absorption of zeaxanthin. Shrimp scampi, anyone?
Keep in touch with your friends, or make new ones.
Being social animals, humans need contact with other humans. Whether it’s a spouse, a son, a daughter, or an old friend, these are the real human connections that give us meaning and indeed promote better physical health. Having a strong social network improves the quality of life in everyone, including people with dementia. It also improves mortality risk in senior citizens. So say “hello” to the neighbors.
Play doesn’t necessarily mean “play a sport.” Play can be card games, video games, board games. Heck, go LARP if that’s what you enjoy. Play simply has to be fun. Those are the only requirements. Sorry – no studies to reference here. You’ll have to take my word for it.
Have a pet.
A sad reality for many older adults is loneliness. Spouses and partners pass away, children move, and friends drift apart. But pets? Pets remain, and pet ownership has been shown to attenuate the negative effects of loneliness in seniors. Plus, a dog will keep you active by requiring daily walks. Cats on the other hand will keep your ego in check. And hey, you could always be the eccentric old guy with a snake draped over his shoulders or a ferret in his pocket.
Laugh a lot.
If you haven’t laughed yet today because of something funny, go ahead and force it. The simple act of laughter, even if it’s contrived, can reduce stress and improve immune function.
Eat a variety of plants.
Corn, potatoes, and peas for dinner every night just won’t cut it. Research suggests that seniors with a wide variety in the fruits and vegetables they eat have improved health markers, including higher HDL and lower triglycerides, higher folate levels, higher potassium levels, and more lean mass. Eating a wide variety of edible plants also gives you a wide variety of plant polyphenols, which have been associated with reduced cognitive decline in old age.
Eat a diet that allows you to maintain good blood sugar control, avoid obesity, and keep chronic inflammation at bay.
Simple, right? Though it’s a non-linear, somewhat confusing one, a relationship does appear to exist between Alzheimer’s disease and the standard outcomes of a standard American diet: hyperglycemia, hyperinsulinemia, obesity, and chronic inflammation. That makes a Primal eating approach more important than ever.
Get plenty of sleep.
Some people have the weird idea that sleep is a waste of time when you could be out doing stuff and living life. Don’t listen to them. Sleep is restorative, preserving immune function and insulin sensitivity and repairing muscle tissue. Sleep is when our sex hormones are made and growth hormone is secreted. If we get bad sleep on a regular basis, our bodies will be too broken to enjoy the waking time we have left.
Drink coffee, tea, or both.
In aging rodents, coffee (both the caffeine and the bioactive compounds) has neuroprotective, cognitive-enhancing qualities, and in humans hoping to avoid Alzheimer’s disease, it may offer therapeutic potential. Humans and rodents both show similar brain biomarkers upon coffee consumption, and among older women with vascular disorders, caffeine intake is associated with improved maintenance of cognitive function. Meanwhile, most studies of both tea and coffee consumption report protection against cognitive decline in consumers of the beverages.
When losing weight, be careful, eat more protein and lift more weights.
In the elderly, ever ounce of lean mass is precious. Unfortunately, weight loss in the elderly often means more lean mass is lost than fat mass, which probably explains the connection between weight loss and mortality in that demographic. That’s why eating more protein and resistance training is more essential than ever in seniors looking to lose weight; both will help reduce the loss of lean mass. Don’t go on crash diets.
Or rethink it.
Meditation can reduce stress and improve sleep and lower inflammation, all of which are good for functioning as we age, but it may be more than that. Evidence suggests that meditation may directly improve cognitive function in older people. There’s also some limited evidence linking meditation to increased telomere length and life extension.
Keep your bones strong.
Underneath all the skin, fat, muscle, nerves, and organ tissue, your bones support you. When they break, your mortality risk goes up. You need to support them with the right nutrients and weight-bearing activities: vitamin D, vitamin K2, calcium, and resistance training.
Take vitamin D.
Vitamin D isn’t just good for your bones, immunity, and heart. It also improves neuromuscular function, especially in older adults with a history of falling (which indicates poor neuromuscular function), and reduces the incidence of falls with somewhere around 1000 IUs as the highest and most effective dose studied. Get sunlight, too, but don’t rely on it for vitamin D because our ability to synthesize it wanes with aging.
Don’t let your cholesterol get too low.
“High” levels of cholesterol are fairly consistently associated with lower risks of all-cause mortality, in both women (PDF) and in men (I particularly love the conclusion in that last study: “We have been unable to explain our results.”) Meanwhile, elderly with cholesterol levels lower than 189 mg/dL – which is often high enough to get you put on a statin – are at an increased risk of dying, even when all other variables are accounted for. Low total cholesterol can also predict future cognitive decline.
Challenge your brain.
It could be the daily crossword (that’s mine). It could be sudoku. It could be a game of chess down at the cafe, or a weeks-long game of Risk that ends with a Ukrainian guy smashing the board on the subway. It could be a great conversation or a day whittled away at the library. Just use your brain.
Eat fermented foods.
With all the research coming out concerning the interplay between the health of our guts and the function of our brains, it’s no surprise that the gut microbiome might also affect cognitive decline during aging. Eating fermented foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, and natto (a great source of vitamin K2) and taking probiotic supplements is a good way to hedge your bets while the research is being sorted out. Eating prebiotic fibers to feed your probiotic flora is a good idea, too.
Sex promotes graceful aging for many reasons. First, it’s a form of play, and play keeps you vibrant and engaged with life. Second, it’s pleasurable, and pleasure is an important motivator and a vital component of a happy life in its own right. Third, it may even promote neurogenesis – the growth of new neurons.
Use coconut oil.
The medium chain triglycerides present in coconut oil are uniquely ketogenic, meaning they increase the production of ketone bodies, even in the presence of carbohydrates. High levels of one of these coconut-derived ketones, beta-hydroxybutyrate, have been linked to improved cognition in patients with Alzheimer’s and other forms of cognitive decline.
Find ways to avoid medications when it’s possible.
In some cases, medication is absolutely called for, but not always. Don’t avoid medication by just not filling the prescription and going about your day (the head in the sand approach). Instead, ask the doctor or health practitioner if there are other, more lifestyle-driven ways to tackle the problem, instead of turning immediately to, say, statins that might speed up cognitive decline and increase the risk of cataracts. Avoiding unnecessary medication also helps you avoid the medication meant to fix the side effects of the unnecessary medication.
Cut the cord.
Some would have you ditch the TV altogether, but I don’t think you need to do that. Just eliminate the mindless droning of reality TV and commercials. Stick to watching great movies, good TV shows that you’ve vetted, and maybe even playing the occasional video game (which may enhance cognitive function in older adults, provided they learn how to use the controllers!).
Believe in something.
It doesn’t have to be a deity (although that can work) or anything “mystical.” But being committed to something, having a purpose (whether originating within of your own motivations or from an outside source), being a part of something bigger, or having something to live for in other words – these are good practices that foster long life. For me, it’s my family first and foremost, but I also believe in and derive meaning from this blog, my books, and this movement.
As you can probably tell, a lot of it comes down to doing the same Primal stuff we talk about on here all the time, only with more urgency and specificity. And that’s not even everything. In the future, I’ll dig more into how things like supplementation and glucose restriction might be able to improve how we age.
Thanks for reading, everyone! Got anything else to add?