Healthy Habits for Healthy Aging: Four Steps You Can Take

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There’s a saying here at Joslin Diabetes Center: “People with diabetes can live long, healthy lives.” And we know this to be true, based on data from Joslin’s Medalist Study. Diabetes aside, people are, in general, living longer lives. According to a government report, the baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, began turning 65 in 2011, and in 2010, there were 40 million people in the US over the age of 65, accounting for 13% of the population. And that population is growing.

Who doesn’t want to live to a ripe old age? Health and quality of life are, of course, important to most people as they get older. Having diabetes can be a challenge at any age, but dealing with possible diabetes complications on top of the normal occurrences of aging is not exactly what people have in mind when they enter their “golden years.” And diabetes is prevalent among older adults: Almost 11 million people age 65 and older have diabetes, which is about 27% of this age group.

While there’s no guarantee of good health (sometimes, it’s in your genes), researchers have pinpointed a few habits that can at least help you make the most of those golden years. There are probably no surprises here: what much of this boils down to is a healthy lifestyle, which includes good nutrition and exercise. Let’s take a closer look at these habits.

Four habits of successful aging
This past October, a study was published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal that looked at 5100 healthy British men and women, ages 42 to 63, for 16 years. Over the course of the study period, 549 subjects died, 953 subjects were said to have “successfully aged,” and the rest of the subjects aged “normally.”

What does “successful aging” mean? According to the researchers, this was defined as maintaining good mobility, lung function, mental health, and having no chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, stroke, cancer, or disability. The “normal” agers had chronic disease, and reduced mobility and/or mental health.

The researchers were able to identify four habits that were linked with successful aging:

• Not smoking
• Moderate alcohol intake
• Regular exercise
• Eating fruits and vegetables

These four behaviors, when practiced singly, or on their own, increased the chances of successful aging by 30–50%. When all of the behaviors were practiced at once, the odds of successful aging were 3.3 times higher.

What’s probably not surprising to you is the behaviors themselves. We heard these mantras so many times that we begin to tune them out. But what might be surprising, or at least perhaps encouraging, is that these relatively “simple” behaviors really can make a big difference in the quality of your life. How so?

Not smoking. Pretty much everyone knows that smoking is harmful in numerous ways. If you don’t smoke, great! If you do smoke, make a plan to quit. Here’s what quitting smoking can do:

• Lower your heart rate and blood pressure back to normal or safe levels
• Improve lung function
• Improve your sense of smell and taste
• Cause you to produce less phlegm
• Help you breathe better and wheeze less

Oh, and lower your risk of cancer, heart disease, and emphysema. By the way, quitting smoking at age 50 reduces your risk of dying early by 50%.

Smoking has an impact on diabetes, too. First, smoking increases the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. And second, smoking can increase the risk of developing diabetes complications, like heart attack, kidney disease, and nerve damage. There’s some research indicating that smoking may raise blood glucose and A1C levels, as well. There’s nothing good about smoking, and it’s never too late to quit.

Moderate alcohol intake. Alcohol has it benefits, which is why “moderation” is the key word here. Up to two drinks per day for men and no more than one drink per day for women is the recommendation. If you’re drinking more than that, consider what can happen if you cut back:

• Healthier organs, including your liver and pancreas
• A smaller waistline due to weight loss
• Clearer thinking
• More energy
• Fewer headaches
• A better mood

We know that a light to moderate amount of alcohol may help lower heart disease, stroke, and diabetes risk. It can also lessen the chances of dying from a heart attack. But if “moderating” your alcohol intake is too hard for you, it’s best to try and stop. Alcohol can make it harder to manage your blood glucose levels, as it may both raise and lower blood glucose, depending on the type of medicine you take. It can also raise blood pressure. Talk with your health-care provider if you’d like help stopping smoking and/or cutting back on alcohol intake.

More on those healthy habits next week!

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