Successful aging is the ability to take pleasure from things that you enjoy, to discover new things, and to live your life in a way that is meaningful—at any age. It requires discipline and commitment throughout your lifetime. Although it is never too late to begin, the earlier you commit to the habits that promote successful aging the better.
In my book Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives, I use the acronym COACH to describe the key habits necessary to age successfully and lead a happier life: conscientiousness, openness, associations, curiosity, and healthy lifestyle.
Conscientious people are dependable, reliable, and proactive. They seek medical attention when they are sick. They listen to a doctor’s advice and take their medications. They live within their means and put money aside for future needs and retirement.
Being open to new experiences is crucial to successful aging and can even help prevent cognitive decline. Try a new sport, join a book club, or take piano lessons. You will feel better physically and mentally.
Associations with others, through friendships and hobbies, keep you engaged and not isolated. Maintaining these associations and adding new ones gives you new perspectives and can lead to new relationships as well as shared interests.
Curiosity. People who are curious are more apt to challenge themselves intellectually and socially. They are also more likely to be interested and engaged. Curiosity helps to make us mentally agile and alert and helps to boost the immune system.
Follow a healthy lifestyle
Exercise is key to both physical and emotional health, but there is too much emphasis on aerobic exercise and lifting weights. Although going to the gym is helpful, being in nature is better. Taking walks in natural surroundings, going on hikes, or riding a bike keep our minds active. An extra 20 minutes on an elliptical machine is good for the heart, but it does not stimulate your mind.
I have learned that there is no one right diet for everyone. Maintaining a healthy weight is key to successful aging, but it’s fine to eat dessert occasionally.
A good night’s sleep is essential for health and cognitive function. Restorative sleep allows the body to engage in cellular repair processes and for the brain to digest all of the experiences of the previous day. Disruptions in sleep can lead to depression and anxiety and raises your risk of high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity. It also weakens your immune system. The National Sleep Foundation recommends seven to nine hours of sleep each night for adults ages 26 to 64 , and older adults (65+) should get seven to eight hours.
It’s not always easy to sleep, and it gets harder as we age. I recommend that you have a ritual before you go to bed. Take a bath, or read, or listen to relaxing music. Go to bed at the same time each night, and get up at the same time each day. Don’t drink alcohol before bedtime. Sleep in a darkened room, and use earplugs if necessary. I don’t recommend sleeping pills such as zolpidem (Ambien) or eszopiclone (Lunesta), especially in seniors, as they can cause confusion and double the risk of falls and hip fractures. Additionally, they disrupt the normal rhythms of sleep. I do not generally recommend natural sleep aids such as melatonin either. Supplements are not regulated by the U.S. Food & Drug Administation, so their quality is not guaranteed.
Working keeps your mind engaged. It gives you a routine and keeps you from being isolated. If you must retire, retire to something else: Volunteer, teach a class, tutor, or become a mentor.
The easiest way to be happy is to help others. Helping others gives our lives purpose. It even helps with the minor aches and pains we have, as they recede when we are focused on others.
Being grateful allows you to feel more positive emotions and to deal with adversity. There is also evidence that it can lower stress levels and give people an optimistic approach to life. Studies have shown that genes can make some people more grateful and others less so. To help boost your gratitude, try making a list of even simple things that you are thankful for, such as “I’m grateful I can still read,” or “I’m happy my friend called me today.”
High blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease often run in families, but genes are not destiny. Research has shown that diet, exercise, and sleep can lessen the risk or delay the onset of chronic illnesses.
Many studies show that (happily) married people live longer, but a bad relationship can actually shorten your life. Many single people live long, happy lives. The key is to connect with people in other ways.
We get happier as we age
Numerous studies have shown that after age 50 people tend to get happier. A study by the Office for National Statistics in England found that 65 to 79 is the happiest age group for adults. A different study found that happiness peaks in the 80s. Older people have fewer arguments and come up with better solutions to conflict. They are also better at controlling their emotions, accepting misfortune, and coping with the ups and downs of life.
While we tend to grow happier, depression can still strike at any age. If you lose interest in things you previously enjoyed or feel sad, hopeless, or empty over an extended period, talk to your doctor.
Busting brain myths
Your body and brain age. This is natural. We cannot run as fast as we could in our 20s at age 60. But when it comes to brain health, decline is not inevitable. Failing memory is one of the biggest misconceptions about aging. If you are over 60 and forgot where you put your keys or glasses, you might fear that it is the beginning of dementia, but teenagers forget their cell phones, and middle-aged people lose their car keys all the time. No one suggests that those lapses are a sign of Alzheimer’s disease. While people are quick to draw that conclusion for seniors, those little memory lapses are normal at every age.
The more we use our brain, the better we will succeed both mentally and physically. Being mentally engaged, whether it’s through work or play, keeps us interested, present and sharp. These habits are the foundation of successful aging.