Having a happy, active, and healthy life after 60 depends on healthspan as much as lifespan. While many factors are beyond control (for example genetics), simple lifestyle changes and habits can positively impact health at any age, but particularly for seniors. "In the past, once you became very sick, you were likely to die. But with today's therapies, we can keep sick people alive for decades," says paleoanthropologist Daniel E. Lieberman, professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University. The average lifespan in the US is 77 years, while the average healthspan is 63. "We should stop focusing so much on life span and focus more on health span."
So what exactly does that mean? "We lose our years of health based on the prevalence of disability," says Linda G.P. Schneider, MD. "For those between the ages of 65 and 74, around 18 percent have at least one disability. Nearly 25 percent of people ages 75 years or older live with some type of disability." Focusing on healthy habits and eliminating damaging ones is key to enjoying years of good health, "free from chronic diseases and the disability of aging". "It might seem like common sense, but maintaining a healthy balanced diet with moderate, regular exercise and without smoking and drinking alcohol is the surest way to promote one's healthspan and limit the onset of most diseases," says Tim Peterson, PhD. "The Mediterranean diet has fairly broad support in the literature."
"Lifestyle changes are difficult for everyone," says Sabra Lewsey, MD, a cardiologist and assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins Medicine, "but they are profoundly important and can make lifesaving gains in your health." Here are five habits to avoid after 60, according to experts. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.
Becoming Increasingly Sedentary
Allowing yourself to slip into an increasingly sedentary lifestyle with age is terrible for your health—some experts even say sitting is the new smoking. Not moving enough is even linked to premature aging on a cellular level. "A large review of studies published in 2015 in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that even after adjusting for physical activity, sitting for long periods was associated with worse health outcomes including heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and cancer," says Erin Donnelly Michos, MD, MHS. "Sedentary behavior can also increase your risk of dying, either from heart disease or other medical problems."
That isn't to say that exercise isn't important—making small changes and sticking to them can lead to more movement overall. "You don't have to go from doing nothing to running marathons," says Quentin Youmans, MD, a cardiology fellow at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. "In fact, the biggest leap in benefit comes from doing nothing to doing something. Just start by dedicating yourself to doing some activity every day to get your body moving." Even 30 minutes a day can make a difference. "We found that women who sat longer did not have shorter telomere length if they exercised for at least 30 minutes a day, the national recommended guideline," says Aladdin Shadyab, PhD. "Discussions about the benefits of exercise should start when we are young, and physical activity should continue to be part of our daily lives as we get older, even at 80 years old."
Letting Weight Gain Creep Up
"Middle-aged spread" is not inevitable with age—keeping an eye on your waistline can significantly impact health after 60. "Ever wonder why we tend to gain weight as we get older?" says Diana Licalzi, MS, RD, CDCES. "Or why it becomes harder to lose any pounds we put on over the holidays or while on vacation? As we get older, we gain an average of one to two pounds per year. This may not seem like a lot, but over time, it can accumulate and lead to weight gain or even obesity.
Weight-bearing exercises, eating more protein, and staying active are key to supporting muscle and bone health at any age. "Numerous studies have shown that strength training can play a role in slowing bone loss, and several show it can even build bone," says Harvard Health. "This is tremendously useful to help offset age-related declines in bone mass. Activities that put stress on bones can nudge bone-forming cells into action. That stress comes from the tugging and pushing on bone that occur during strength training (as well as weight-bearing aerobic exercises like walking or running). The result is stronger, denser bones."
Ignoring a Healthy Diet
Whatever your age, a healthy, nutritious diet can extend your life. Research shows the Mediterranean diet can help with lower rates of heart disease and longer lifespans. "The combination of beans, lentils, whole grains, and omega-3 fatty acids from fish have been shown to have a positive impact on inflammation, which may be the driving factor in reducing disease risk and improving longevity," says Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE.
Another study published Monday in the BMJ journal Gut found that the Mediterranean diet alters the microbiome of older people (aged 65-79), which helps improve brain function and longevity. "Our findings support the feasibility of changing the habitual diet to modulate the gut microbiota which in turn has the potential to promote healthier aging," the study authors said.
Letting Brain Function Decline
Many 60 year olds are either retired or looking forward to slowing down. While this can offer many benefits (such as more time to spend with friends and loved ones) it's crucial not to allow brain health to decline during this period. Studies show retirement can turn the brain into "mush"—one UK study tracking 3400 civil servants found their short term memory declined 40% faster after retirement.
In order to keep the brain young, it is crucial to keep learning new things. "Learning is the mechanism for development no matter how old you are," says Rachel Wu, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of California Riverside. "As we age, our brain becomes different, but it doesn't stop. The brain is still working," says Dr. Laurie Archbald-Pannone, an associate professor of geriatric medicine at the University of Virginia and medical director of the geriatric clinic at the Jefferson Area Board for Aging in Charlottesville, Virginia. "Aging is not a disease. It's part of the normal process of life. The brain may work differently, but still engaging the brain is really important."
Isolating From Friends and Family
Maintaining healthy relationships with friends and family as we age is important for health and happiness. Study after study confirms what we instinctively know—that being part of a community is crucial for mental and physical wellbeing. "Positive relationships can be just as important as nutrition and physical activity to our health and well-being," says Bonnie Betts, Psy.D. "And, even though relationships with others may evolve over time, maintaining a strong social network as we age can contribute to a longer, healthier life.
"In addition to helping provide necessary support, establishing and maintaining relationships is also good for your health. Positive relationships can boost your happiness and reduce stress, improve your confidence and help you cope with traumatic life events. Adults with a strong social network have reduced risk of depression, lower blood pressure and tend to maintain a more healthy body mass index (BMI). Building new friendships and investing time in maintaining relationships can help on the highway of life and the path to better health."