When it comes to getting older, there are many factors that help you live a fulfilled, healthy life — ones that go beyond working out and eating your vegetables (although that’s part of it, too).
“Aging well, in my opinion, consists of three different components,” said Dr. Parul Goyal, a geriatrician at Vanderbilt Health in Nashville. These categories are physical health, emotional connection and mental support, Goyal said.
These elements come together to help you live a life that’s rewarding, lively and healthful. Doctors say there are lots of behaviors that contribute to your physical, emotional and mental health as you grow older, and some clear signs that you’re taking care of yourself in these ways.
Below, geriatricians share the indicators that someone is aging well, along with a little advice if you feel like you’re not hitting the mark.
You take time to learn new things.
The older we get, the less chances we have to absorb new information; many of us are far out of school or work. The opportunities to learn are limited if those opportunities aren’t sought out.
“We also look at their cognitive health in this … making sure that they are staying mentally strong, they are using their mind, they are engaging in exercises to stimulate their mind, which means they are learning like a new skill,” Goyal said.
She encourages her patients to learn something new, whether it’s a new game, exercise, language or musical instrument.
“That will help form new pathways in the brain so that they can continue to stay cognitively strong,” she said.
You’re honest about your needs.
“So often, people don’t age well because they’re not upfront about what their needs are,” said Robyn Golden, the associate vice president of social work and community health at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. “How do we make it OK for people to say, ‘This is what I need, I’m feeling lonely, I need someone to go out with on a Tuesday night.’”
Rampant ageism makes it easy for people to feel like a burden or invisible, Golden said, which can encourage silent suffering. But it’s important to push against that and let folks know when you’re having a tough time. So if you’re someone who can share your thoughts and needs with your family and friends, that’s a good sign.
What’s more, if you’re struggling with depression and anxiety, it’s important to let your doctor know. There’s often a false belief that anxiety or depression after a certain age is more “normal,” but Golden said this is not true.
“Depression can be treated at any age, and not just with medication, with counseling, with group interventions, you name it. So, I think that’s part of how you age well, being open to being able to say, ‘This is who I am, this is what I need,’” she explained.
You have a community.
Loneliness and isolation are a big problem, so much so that the surgeon general of the United States declared an epidemic of isolation and loneliness throughout the country.
“As you know, with the COVID pandemic, this has become really important. There was a lot of social isolation among our geriatric patients because they were confined to their homes,” Goyal said.
To combat feelings of loneliness and isolation, it’s important to bolster your social connections, whether that’s with friends, family, your church group or your community, she said.
There isn’t one right way to connect with your community, either. Golden said this could look like anything from volunteering at a local food bank to helping a neighborhood child learn to read.
Socializing can help your brain health, too, said Dr. Lee Lindquist, the chief of geriatrics at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago.
“We think of the brain as a muscle, so if you sit in a room with four walls all day and not talk to anybody, you’re almost living in a nursing home … your brain is going to go to sludge because it’s not getting any stimulation,” Lindquist said.
Socializing, whether that’s talking to people in person or on the phone, interacting with folks on Zoom or joining a book club, is a way to exercise your brain and make it stronger, said Lindquist.
You prioritize your physical health.
Eating nutritious foods and exercising are important all throughout your life, including when you reach an older age.
Goyal said she talks with her patients about eating a healthy diet that is rich in fruits and vegetables, and one that aligns with a combination of a Mediterranean diet and a DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet. According to Goyal, the DASH diet is “a low sodium diet that is recommended for people that have high blood pressure.” The Mediterranean diet is a well-studied meal plan that is full of whole grains, healthy fats, lean meat and plant-based foods.
Drinking enough water is also part of this, Goyal said. And, beyond what you eat and drink, it’s important to keep yourself physically fit, too.
“I want people to keep moving, exercising. If you haven’t moved in a long time, or you’ve been sitting down for a long time, it’s sometimes useful to ask your doctors for a physical therapy order to help you with your gait and balance,” said Lindquist.
She noted that many of us may be afraid to move around as we get older because of a fear of falling, but exercising — whether you’re walking or joining a tai chi class — can help with your fall risk.
“Because what happens is if we choose not to walk or choose not to move, then it puts you at a higher risk for falling. So it’s almost like a catch-22,” added Lindquist.
When exercising, Goyal said it’s also important to work on your muscle strength, since muscle mass is lost as you age. Lifting weights, pilates, yoga and tai chi can all be a part of a good muscle-building exercise routine, Goyal said. Additionally, cardio fitness — like walking, biking, swimming and running — are important for your heart health.
You do things you enjoy.
“I love people who are doing activities and enjoying life, and doing it in a way that brings them enjoyment,” Lindquist said.
It’s not realistic to think that you’ll never deal with an illness or an injury, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do the things you love to do, whether that’s traveling, learning new recipes or playing games with your family.
“From my end, people get chronic illnesses throughout their life, but it’s all about managing their care and doing the best they can,” Lindquist added.
And if you’re doing things you enjoy, you likely won’t find yourself bored, and boredom can be a red flag as you age, Golden explained. “Feeling like the day is very, very long is not a good sign.”
Hobbies, volunteer work and spending time with loved ones are all good ways to combat boredom.
You talk to your doctor about the medications you take.
Just because you were prescribed one medication in your 50s doesn’t mean it’s still serving you 20, 30 or 40 years later.
“Many times, we end up taking too many medicines for what we actually need,” Lindquist said. “Your body is always changing, it may not need [certain] meds.”
She said it’s important to talk to your doctor about de-prescribing any unnecessary medications. For example, if you were prescribed medication for stress when you were working in your 50s, you may not need it after you retire.
“And so it may be that they don’t need these medicines, or that these medicines might actually be bad for them as they get older. So, it’s imperative that you talk to your physician [or] a geriatrician … specifically looking at what drugs are unnecessary or can be dangerous as you get older,” Lindquist noted.
You plan for the future.
“The other thing I always tell people is to plan ahead because as much as we all want to age well into our hundreds, healthy and happily, there is a very good chance that something might happen that you need to be hospitalized, or that you might need more support in your home,” Lindquist said.
It’s important to talk to your family and friends about what you want to happen if you are hospitalized, if you fall or if you experience memory loss. This way, your loved ones will be prepared if any unplanned, stressful situations occur.
“It’s not planning for end of life, which is like hospice, or [planning] you’re going to die in six months ― this is planning for the 20 years before you need help,” Lindquist explained. This is a way to ensure your voice is heard as you get older, and that those around you don’t make decisions for you.
This could look like having a conversation with your kids about what kind of support you want if you get to a point where you can’t care for yourself. Or it could look like talking with your partner about downsizing to a one-story house that won’t require frequent stair use.
Lindquist said it’s good to start this kind of planning when you retire, but it’s also important to know that these plans may change as your life progresses, and that is OK. As plans change, it’s crucial that you keep the conversation going and inform your loved ones.
If you need future-planning advice or tips on how to talk to loved ones about these potentially stressful conversations, Lindquist and her colleagues created Plan Your Lifespan, a free future-planning resource for older adults that’s backed by research, studies and funding from the National Institutes of Health.
If you haven’t done any of these things yet — or you haven’t prioritized them like you should — don’t panic. Now is always a good time to begin; the sooner you start focusing on these things the better. And even if you still think you have time, Goyal stressed that you still should make these behaviors a priority.
“The important thing I want to really communicate with this topic is that oftentimes people will ask me this question: ‘How do I age well?’ when they’re well in their 60s or their 70s,” Goyal said. “I really want people to start thinking about aging well from the time they’re in their 30s and their 40s.”
If you start focusing on healthy habits earlier in your life, you can carry them along into your golden years, Goyal said. Additionally, as you age, don’t focus so much on the number. That has nothing to do with aging well.
“Chronological age doesn’t mean a whole lot — so, 65, 75, 85, it’s how you’re feeling that makes that difference, not that number,” Golden said.
If you prioritize your relationships, your physical health, your mental health and your future plans, you’ll be set up to feel good no matter what year you were born.