Aging Well:
Looking After Your Body as You Age

See also: The Importance of Exercise

Getting older is inevitable—or rather, it’s a lot better than the alternative. An increasing number of people around the world are now living longer. However, aging well is more than just spending more years alive. It’s also a matter of being healthy for longer, so that you can enjoy life and avoid some of the health problems that used to be thought inevitable for older people.

The real question is how you can achieve this. This page describes actions that you can take—and that will make a difference—to look after your health in three key areas: physical health, mental health, and cognitive health.

Looking After Your Physical Health

There are several ways in which you can look after your physical health. They include:

1. Eating well and healthily

We probably all know that diet has an impact on your health. However, it can be difficult to cut through the conflicting information to find out what you should eat.

Our pages on Food, Diet and Nutrition set out the latest thinking on these issues.

Fundamentally, it seems that the best advice is to eat a balanced diet without too many processed foods. This means:

  • Plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables;
  • Whole grains;
  • Meat and fish in moderation, but avoiding processed meats like sausages, salami and ham; and
  • As little ultra-processed food as possible.

It is a good idea to eat a wide variety of different plant-based foods, including spices: current thinking is to aim for around 30 different types each week. This sounds difficult, but remember that tea and coffee count—and our page on Coffee and Health explains that coffee is actually quite a good source of soluble fibre.

Weight, health and aging

The bad news is that being overweight or obese has a major impact on health. The good news is that losing just a small amount of excess weight can reduce your risk of diabetes or heart disease. It is very much NOT ‘all or nothing’ when it comes to losing weight and health: even just a small change is helpful.

There is more in our page on Dieting for Weight Loss.

2. Taking exercise

Exercise makes a huge difference to health.

One study found that people who took an average of 8000 steps per day had a 50% lower risk of premature death from any cause than those who took only 4000 steps per day.

Guidelines recommend that older adults do 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per week—the same levels as anyone else. This is any type of activity that raises your heart rate, and speeds up your breathing.

Our page on Types of Exercise explains that there are four main types of exercise: endurance, strength, balance and flexibility. All of these are important for older people. However, if you only focus on one, recent research suggests that strength is the key area.

It really is a case of ‘use it or lose it’ when it comes to your muscles.

If you don’t exercise, your body will decide that you don’t need to maintain your muscles and start to break them down to provide energy. In older people, this is what leads to frailty and physical decline.

Fortunately, it is possible to reverse frailty even once it has already started by taking exercise, especially strength or resistance training. This is any exercise that helps to build muscle (or stop decline in muscle bulk), which means weight-bearing exercise. This might involve using weights, or resistance bands. However, walking and jogging or running are also weight-bearing. Even just two sessions of 30 minutes each per week will quickly start to show benefits.

Activities like swimming or cycling are good for your cardiac health, and there is a lot of benefit in doing some of those activities too. However, you really need resistance training to maintain your bone density and muscle bulk.

Balance training—for example through yoga—can also help to reduce your risk of falling.

No such thing as ‘too late’

Research suggests that it is never too late to make changes to your diet and exercise levels to improve your health. Even if you are already becoming frail or overweight, changing your diet and taking more exercise can reverse the symptoms of ‘aging’.

3. Getting enough sleep

Getting enough good quality sleep is important for everyone, not just older adults (and our page on What is Sleep? explains more).

Not getting enough sleep can make you more prone to experiencing memory problems, or having a fall or other accident. It is also associated with mental health problems such as depression, and cognitive decline and even dementia.

However, it can sometimes be more challenging for older adults to get enough sleep. Declining levels of physical activity can mean that you are less likely to sleep. Some medications also affect sleep quality.

To ensure that you get enough good quality sleep, try:

  • Following a regular sleep schedule, meaning that you go to bed at the same time each day, and follow the same routine before going to bed;

  • Taking physical exercise, so that your body is tired; and

  • Avoiding falling asleep during the day, because this can affect the quality of your sleep at night.

There are more ideas in our page on The Importance of Sleep.

4. Stopping smoking and drinking less alcohol

There is no way round it: smoking is very bad for you. If you still smoke, it is a good idea to try to stop. Even if you are over 60 and have been smoking for many years, stopping is still better for your health than continuing.

Drinking alcohol is also not good for you.

There are some studies that show that red wine in small quantities may be beneficial to heart health. However, there is no ‘safe’ level when it comes to the link between drinking alcohol and various types of cancer. Alcohol has a range of unpleasant effects on your body, and these seem to get worse as you age. You may find it helpful to reduce your alcohol intake, or perhaps limit your drinking to just one or two nights per week.

Our page on Alcohol and Health contains more information.

5. Using healthcare services appropriately

Regular healthcare check-ups will ensure that you remain healthy, and that any warning signs are picked up early. This includes both medical and dental check-ups.

The importance of good oral health

You may think that your teeth and dental/oral health don’t matter to your overall health. However, there are now several studies that have linked oral health (the health of your mouth, including teeth and gums) to more than 50 systemic health problems, including:

  • Alzheimer’s;
  • Heart disease; and
  • Diabetes.

In other words, poor oral health is associated with a much higher risk of developing several chronic conditions. The link is thought to be through either microbes or inflammation, or both. It is therefore important to have regular dental check-ups to maintain your oral health.

Many diseases and conditions show early warning signs within the body that can be detected by tests or screening. However, they are often ‘silent’ in terms of symptoms.

This means that screening is the best way to detect problems early, enabling treatment to start sooner. It is therefore a good idea to attend yearly or two-yearly health check-ups where those are offered, to ensure that you remain healthy.

Looking After Your Mental Health

Interestingly, many of the actions that you can take to improve your physical health will also have a significant impact on your mental health.

Getting enough good quality sleep, eating well, and taking exercise are all associated with better mental health. They also help to reduce long-term stress, which is an important indicator of the chances of developing chronic health problems in older age.

However, there are also some actions and areas that will have a direct impact on mental health. In particular, being socially isolated (having few social contacts or people to talk to) and feeling lonely can both be associated with poorer mental and physical health. Several studies have shown that people who feel lonely or isolated have a higher risk of developing heart disease, depression, lung problems and cognitive decline or dementia.

To avoid becoming socially isolated, it is important to maintain your network of contacts. Take time to talk to family and friends, remotely if necessary. Some people find that taking a class, or joining a new activity, are good ways to meet more people.

There is more about loneliness, and how to overcome it, in our page on Loneliness. You may also find it helpful to read our page on Socialising Online to help you use technology to stay in touch.

The Missing Link? Mind–Body Unity and the Value of Mindfulness

It is not so long ago that doctors thought that mental health and physical health were completely separate: that what happened to your body did not affect your mind, and vice versa.

We now know that this is not true.

However, there is a growing body of evidence that takes this further. This work suggests that our minds and bodies are not just linked, but should be seen as the same thing.

This is thought to be the reason behind the placebo effect—the phenomenon in clinical trials where taking a sugar pill has a beneficial effect simply because participants believe that it will do so (and there is more about this in our page on Positive Thinking).

Researcher Ellen Langer suggests that practising mindfulness—that is, actively noticing fully what is going on within and around you, without any kind of judgement—can help to improve your health through this mind–body unity. This approach helps you to notice changes, and that sparks your mind, and from there, your body. It is essentially enabling you to be more ‘in tune’ with your body, and therefore better able to manage your health.

This may sound far-fetched, but Dr Langer’s research suggests that harnessing the power of your mind can affect chronic diseases that were thought to be incurable.

Looking After Your Cognitive Health

The third area of health that it is important to consider as you get older is cognitive health, or the ability to think and remember things.

This is associated with both mental and physical health, but particularly physical health. Research shows that the actions most likely be associated with a lower chance of developing Alzheimer's were:

  • Taking part in moderate to vigorous physical activity for at least 150 minutes per week, because this hugely increases blood flow around your body, including to your brain;

  • Not smoking;

  • Not drinking heavily;

  • Eating a Mediterranean-style diet with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables; and

  • Taking part in activities that stimulated the mind, such as reading or playing games.

Lower blood pressure was also associated with a lower chance of developing cognitive problems.

Brain-training: just a myth?

There are many ‘brain-training’ programmes available that claim to reduce or slow down cognitive decline. However, there is very little evidence to show any of these programmes have any effect.

On the other hand, there is some evidence that learning a new skill can improve memory function, and there is also evidence that physical activity can slow down cognitive decline, probably by improving blood flow. Rather than investing in a brain-training programme, you are probably better off learning a new skill, or just taking a bit more exercise.

A Final Thought

The evidence now available shows that there is really no need to age badly.

Growing older is inevitable, but living with poor health for many years is not. Making a few basic lifestyle changes can have a major effect on your chances of developing chronic diseases or declining physically—and you can make those changes at any time.