The Big Four
According to most researchers genetics account for only one-third of how we age; the other two-thirds are influenced by our expectations, choices and environment. Improvements in public health and medicine have increased life expectancy. Someone born in the USA in 2010 had a life expectancy of 78.2, and 70,000 Americans celebrated their 100th birthdays that year. This is good news for the growing number who are redefining retirement and using their bonus years to do good work. However, without good physical and mental health, living longer may not be a blessing, so it is important to live better, not just longer. We can significantly improve how we age by focusing on what I call the “big four”-physical activity, social engagement, diet and nutrition, and life purpose.
Physical activity benefits our bodies in many ways: improving strength and fitness, helping balance, improving mood, managing weight, and preventing or treating certain diseases. But the benefits of physical activity don’t stop with our bodies; they extend to our brain function. Numerous studies have shown that physical activity is one of the strongest factors in preventing or delaying Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. A new study in the journal Neurology suggests that working out is more effective at protecting the brain than cognitive challenges such as games and puzzles. According to the Mayo Clinic, people who are physically active are less likely to experience a decline in their mental function and have a lowered risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Social connection could be the single most important factor in healthy aging. One study of 7,000 men and women living in Alameda County, CA found that people who were not connected to others were three times as likely to die over the course of nine years as those who had strong social ties. Those with social ties and unhealthful lifestyles actually lived longer than those with poor social ties but more health-promoting habits. The Beta Blocker Heart Attack Trial of 2,300 men who had survived a heart attack found that those with strong social connections had only one-quarter the risk of death of those not socially connected, even when factors like smoking, diet, alcohol, exercise and weight were taken into account.
The Blue Zones study offers dramatic support for the importance of diet and nutrition to aging well. The Blue Zones identified areas in the world that had the highest life expectancy or highest proportion of people living to 100 and looked at their common characteristics. Of the nine shared characteristics, three dealt with diet and nutrition. Blue Zones’ inhabitants ate primarily plant-based diets with a heavy emphasis on beans. They practiced the 80% rule of eating, stopping when they were no longer hungry and before they were full. And, finally, all Blue Zones’ inhabitants except one drank alcohol moderately and regularly.
Living with purpose adds seven years to life expectancy according to the Blue Zones study. Having a life purpose is what gets us out of bed in the morning and makes life worth living. Richard Leider, life coach and author, defines the good life as “Living with the people you love, in the right place, doing good work on purpose.” Purpose is where our talents and our passions intersect with a need. It is meeting a need by doing what we love and do well, the intersection of our gifts, passions and values. Finding our encore career, where we can make a difference, can be a rich source of living with purpose.
Focusing on the “big four” and making even little changes can result in big rewards.