Health A-Z

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As you age, it is important to think about not only how long you will live, but how well you will live. The following strategies can help you maintain and perhaps even enhance your quality of life as you age.

  • Don't smoke. Smoking contributes to heart disease, osteoporosis, and stroke, and it increases the risk of many cancers. Smoking even appears to make a person's memory worse. The good news is that people who quit smoking can repair some, if not all, of the damage done.

  • Build physical and mental activities into every day. Physical activity is good for the body and the mind. Exercise (and even activity such as gardening or housekeeping that people don't think of as exercise) helps keep your bones and heart healthy, and your weight in check. Studies have also shown that physically active people lower their risk for developing dementia and are more likely to stay mentally active. And staying mentally active helps ward off memory loss.

  • Eat a healthy diet rich in whole grains, vegetables, and fruits, and substitute healthier monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats for unhealthy saturated fats and trans fats. Such a diet protects you against many diseases, including the biggest killers—heart disease, cancer and stroke.

  • Take a daily multivitamin, and be sure to get enough calcium and vitamin D. That means 1200 milligrams (mg) of calcium per day for men and women age 50 years and older. Daily vitamin D recommendations range from 600 International Units (IU) per day for adults under age 60 to 600-1,000 IU per day for people over age 60. A growing number of experts recommend up to 1,000 IU each day, although the value of this has not been proved by scientific studies.

  • Maintain a healthy weight and body shape. As we get older, our metabolism slows, making it harder to burn off calories. But excess body weight can increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and certain cancers. Body shape is important as well. Men and women who carry more weight around their abdomens have a higher risk of heart attack and stroke than those who carry extra weight around their hips.

  • Challenge your mind. Some evidence suggests that reading, doing crossword puzzles, playing a musical instrument, even engaging in thought-provoking conversations, can help keep your mind sharp.

  • Build a strong social network. As you get older, it's important to maintain close and rewarding ties with family and friends, and to create new connections when possible. Some studies suggest that social ties might help ward off dementia and keep you mentally sharp. Other studies suggest that strong social connections can help you live longer.

  • Protect your sight, hearing, and general health by following preventive care guidelines.

  • Floss, brush, and see a dentist regularly. Poor oral health may have many repercussions, including poor nutrition, unnecessary pain, and possibly even a higher risk of heart disease and stroke.

  • Discuss with your doctor whether you need any medication — perhaps to control high blood pressure, treat osteoporosis, or lower cholesterol — to help you stay healthy.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

You can find more great health information on the Harvard Health Publications website.