10 Essentials of Aging Well
We all start aging the minute we’re born, but in our 40s and 50s, it’s a new game. Our bodies begin naturally shifting into a mode with a focus on maintenance rather than production and growth. Hormones reshuffle, and cellular function is generally less efficient.
Some of us worry that we’re destined to age in a certain way because of how our relatives did. Nope. The idea of “bad genes” creating our destiny is grossly exaggerated.
Sure, we can look at our family and gather useful information, but this is only the beginning of the story. Lifestyle choices have tremendous impact. How we age is, in many ways, up to us — and it’s never too late to start aging well.
Lifestyle choices have tremendous impact. How we age is, in many ways, up to us — and it’s never too late to start aging well.
Don’t despair or get stuck on choices you wish you’d made sooner. Improvements today make a difference at any point in your health journey.
We’ve written about the fundamentals of healthy aging in our book The New Rules of Aging Well. Here, we give some of the essentials — the powerful changes you can make today to strengthen -immunity, increase energy, and age better immediately.
1. Just Eat Less.
After about age 45, your body doesn’t need as many calories as it once did. It’s not building anymore; it’s protecting and preserving, and this requires less fuel.
A recent study showed that subjects who reduced their caloric intake by 30 percent lived longer and even avoided some age-related diseases. This research didn’t take into account what the subjects were eating, only the amount. This single change — eating less now and cutting back a little more every five years or so — can have a serious impact.
Consuming less food is easier on your system. Less food means less for your body to process. It lightens the workload, and that translates to better overall function. (While this approach applies broadly, endurance athletes and others who burn calories at high levels might need to consume more.)
We get that this is a big ask. Time around the table with family and friends is precious and also an important part of aging well — community, love, sharing, connection. Just be smart about what’s on that table. And start with the simple idea of eating until you’re only 80 percent full. It’s the difference between satisfying your hunger and feeling the need to unbutton your pants.
2. Try 16-Hour Overnight Fasting.
One easy way to eat less overall is to practice fasting for 16 hours a couple of times a week. These short fasts benefit you in a few ways:
- When you don’t eat for an extended period, you naturally eat less overall.
- Your digestive system works better when it has a chance to rest and recover, and your body can repair itself better when it isn’t constantly diverting energy to digestion.
- Fasting helps regulate several crucial hormones — including insulin and growth hormone — that impact aging and weight.
- Fasting is one of the hermetic “small stresses” that stimulate the longevity gene pathways.
- Fasting kicks in autophagy, the cellular cleanup process critical to strong immunity and aging well.
Here’s the plan:
- Twice a week, eat dinner earlier than usual; the next day, have your first meal a little later, leaving a good 16 hours in between. Make it a point to be finished eating by 7 or 8 p.m.; this ensures you’ll be done digesting before you lie down to sleep, which helps prevent acid reflux.
- In the morning, get up and have a big glass of water.
- Then eat a nice nutritious meal at 11 a.m. or noon.
If 16 hours sounds like too much for you, begin with 12 hours, then move to 14, and build to 16. Once your body adjusts, you won’t wake up craving food.
As for drinking your usual cup of coffee or tea, the jury is still out on whether it marks the end of your fast. If you do crave a caffeinated drink first thing, just take it straight; any kind of milk or sweetener will trigger the body to produce insulin. (Learn more about fasting and health at “Everything You Need to Know About Intermittent Fasting“.)
3. Take Care of Your Gut Health.
At least 70 percent of the immune system is located in the gut. As you age, it’s critical to cultivate a healthy gut microbiome full of many different strains of good bacteria and low on bad ones.
When the microbiome is not healthy and balanced, your gut wall loosens, leaving tiny spaces where bacteria, toxins, and partially digested food can leak into the bloodstream, creating leaky gut syndrome.
Feed your body prebiotics every day.
These particles can spark inflammation almost anywhere in the body, leading to joint pain, skin rashes, moodiness, anxiety, depression, brain fog, or hormonal issues. This can weaken immunity and exacerbate autoimmune problems. Many of the issues we chalk up to aging could be the result of an imbalanced microbiome — which, fortunately, we can do something about.
The short version:
- Eat fresh, organic, unprocessed food, and avoid antibiotic- and hormone-riddled animal products.
- Feed your body prebiotics (garlic, onions, leeks, asparagus) and probiotics (fermented foods) every day.
- Take probiotic supplements.
- Sleep, hydrate, and meditate; use antibiotics only when you absolutely need them; and don’t take antacids for long periods — this can diminish the effectiveness of your digestion.
In other words, many of the lifestyle habits that promote general wellness are also key for gut health and immunity as you age.
4. Get Serious About Cutting Sugar.
If you make only one change, let it be cutting refined sugar from your diet. Sugar is extra harmful as we age. It weakens the immune system and feeds diseases we all fear: type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s, to name a few.
In combination with certain proteins, sugar creates deposits that enter the bloodstream. They become lodged in various areas and sit like rust on your organs; this is what we call oxidative stress. These deposits damage cell membranes and can bore tiny holes in the walls of blood vessels.
If you make only one change, let it be cutting refined sugar from your diet.
Sugar is hiding in a lot of processed foods, but start with eliminating the obvious stuff: cereal, cookies, candy, and soda. When you need something sweet, enjoy some berries or a green apple. Unlike refined sweets, fruit contains fiber that slows the absorption of sugar somewhat, minimizing the sudden rush and subsequent plummet of your blood sugar.
If you’re sugar dependent and struggling to cut back, the supplement glutamine could be helpful. It basically tricks the brain into thinking it’s getting glucose. Try taking it during your first weeks tapering off sugar. (Find out more about glutamine at “The Health Benefits of Glutamine“.)
5. Sleep More and Sleep Better.
Most people do best with seven to nine hours of sleep. (Yes, nine.) High-quality sleep is a critical piece of the puzzle as you age. Much of what people think of as signs of aging are just signs that the body needs more — and better — rest.
Learn to set yourself up for a good night’s rest. This is not just about winding down in the evening; it’s also about daytime habits. Meditating in the mornings has a positive impact, as does daytime cardio exercise; both make it easier to fall asleep at night. Step outside into the sunshine first thing in the morning to keep your circadian rhythms in sync with nature.
It’s important to get enough REM sleep, which involves dreaming, as well as deep sleep, a type of non-REM sleep that involves little brain activity. This is when recovery happens, and when the brain’s glymphatic system kicks in to clear proteins and other toxins.
If you sleep poorly and miss out on deep sleep, this cleansing system is not able to do its job. Then toxins build up in the brain, leaving you foggy and off-kilter. (Learn more about sleep and the brain at “Get in Sync: On Sleep and Health“.)
If falling or staying asleep has become a challenge, don’t give up. Yes, there are times when hormones will interfere with your ability to fall or stay asleep. But before you throw your hands up, try these changes:
- Don’t drink caffeine past 2 p.m.
- Skip the wine at dinner and avoid bedtime snacks.
- Keep your bedroom dark and cool.
- If you use the TV to fall asleep, try a sound machine instead.
6. Get Active, Every Day.
Exercising as you age is about more than defined workouts; it’s about moving as much as you can every day, all day. It’s about being a physical person. Get off the bus a couple stops early and walk. Trade the elevator for the stairs. Make your lunch break a movement break. You’ll fend off stress and depression, enjoy higher-quality sleep, regularly build immune resilience, and reduce the risk of chronic diseases.
How you move also matters. As you age, place less emphasis on heavy exertion and more on frequency. As your body shifts from growing to preserving, you want to maintain strength and mobility and prevent injury. Your new mantra is “do no harm,” because your capacity to heal declines over time.
Your new mantra is “do no harm,” because your capacity to heal declines over time.
When you sprain an ankle, some of the energy that goes into daily maintenance must be diverted. Your body needs to produce enzymes and anti-inflammatory nutrients to heal the ankle, and this can detract from its ability to keep up with other necessary recovery.
As for your fitness routine, the key is to adapt as your body changes — don’t wait for an injury to force your hand. Be open to gentler workouts, and if something hurts, don’t do it. Sounds obvious, but a lot of us ignore pain and push through. That mentality is not great for aging well.
If you find you can’t run pain-free anymore, ride a bike. If you can’t ride, swim. If it hurts to jump into a yoga pushup, step back instead.
This can be tough, because a lot of us are attached to our activities and consider them essential to our identity. But it’s more important to preserve than to push. You need your muscles and your joints forever, so think twice before wearing them out. Being nimble at 90 depends on how you take care of yourself now.
7. Mind the Alcohol.
As we age, our capacity to process alcohol decreases. You may have noticed this if you’ve found yourself tossing and turning in bed after a second glass of wine with dinner. You used to be fine with two glasses; now you’re not. That’s normal.
Alcohol can be hard on your body in a number of ways, but the fact that it interferes with sleep is especially problematic. If you’re not rested, your body craves sugar and carbs for quick energy; you may find yourself too tired for exercise and then overdo the caffeine, which messes up your next night’s sleep. And then it’s game on: One bad night leads to another, and the cycle continues. It’s easier just to skip the second glass.
That said, sharing a drink with friends or family can be nourishing in an emotional way. So, we’re not saying never. Just keep it to one drink, a couple of times a week. The polyphenols in red wine don’t necessarily make it good for you, but they do make it better than other forms of alcohol. And if you prefer a cocktail, choose 100 percent agave tequila or good-quality vodka with seltzer. These are both lower in simple carbohydrates.
For some of us, the thirst signal can fade as we age. Although the body wants water, it doesn’t convey that to the mouth as clearly as it once did.
The need for fluids may express itself in other ways: loss of energy, irritability, fuzziness. Brain function can be affected by hydration, so if you can’t concentrate, someone’s voice is irking you, you feel unable to cope, or you have a headache — start with water.
Every day, drink at least four big glasses, ideally filtered, because the chlorine in straight tap water can attack the good bacteria in your microbiome.
Drinking over the course of the day is a more effective strategy for staying hydrated than standing by the sink and guzzling your daily allotment. Drink anytime, with meals or without. It all counts.
If you don’t love water, infuse it with a handful of mint leaves or a squeeze of citrus. Make a pitcher or fill a large jar and leave it in the fridge. (Make your own gut-supporting flavored water with the recipe at “Good Gut Water“.)
9. Grow Your Friend Group.
In certain phases of life, there’s no shortage of community: We have built-in relationships at school and then at work; for parents, there’s a community involved in raising kids.
But as you get older, you switch jobs, the kids go off to college, you retire. You don’t necessarily have a ready-made social network anymore. You might need to make some extra effort to tend important relationships and cultivate new ones — and it’s important for your health that you do.
Studies show that without social support, we age more quickly; with plenty of social engagement, the risk of dementia drops. In the Blue Zones — the places around the world where people live the longest — communal living is a common factor. (Listen to our podcast with Blue Zones founder Dan Buettner.)
Let your interests lead you, and you’ll gradually find yourself in the company of kindred spirits.
Think of socializing as a wellness practice and figure out what you need to change so you can spend more time with dear friends. Consider how good it feels to sit with a friend and talk and laugh. Why shouldn’t this be the rule rather than the exception in your days? Try to make sure you get this at least once a week.
As for meeting new people, it does get trickier as we get older. Accept that making new friends takes time, and adopt a mindset of planting seeds and seeing what grows. Pay attention when you meet people you like and be open to the notion of hanging out with new people. Let your interests lead you, and you’ll gradually find yourself in the company of kindred spirits.
While you may not yet be at risk of isolation, building a strong, loving social structure around you will ensure that it doesn’t become an issue later. It provides a cushion for when life’s challenging transitions inevitably hit. (Learn more about the health risks of loneliness.)
10. Have a Sense of Humor About Aging.
Aging well involves cutting back on some classic pleasures: sweets, alcohol, fried foods — and complaining. If you can find a way to cultivate a positive approach and stay cheerful about changes that are beyond your control, aging is much easier.
Try to view dietary sacrifices as an opportunity to learn about what else you like. Develop an appetite for learning or nature or meditation.
Embrace the changes that come with age, nurture your body and mind, and smile more at the humbling aspects.
Be generous with yourself in other ways, too. What is it that feels good, brings excitement, and motivates you while also doing no harm? Is it more time with certain friends? A class you’ve been wanting to take? An instrument you love and want to return to or learn?
Make your life rich in small, healthy pleasures: a hot bath, a sunset walk, a weekly treatment like an infrared sauna or a massage. As you move into a way of living that really supports you, try redefining indulgence as a life filled with an array of health-affirming practices.
Those practices can include a habit of laughing freely — and laughing at yourself. Most of us take ourselves way too seriously. Embrace the changes that come with age, nurture your body and mind, and smile more at the humbling aspects. It’s all a gift and, as they say, better than the alternative.