One hour to share the most important information I had about positive aging.  That is how much time I had for a presentation to the Village Walk University, our community life-long learning program.  There is a wealth of information about positive aging, and I wanted to use my time to share what would make the biggest difference in how people age.  I decided to focus on what I call the “Big Four”, the areas where people get the best positive aging results for their efforts.

According to most researchers genetics account for only one-third of how we age; the other two-thirds are influenced by our expectations, choices and environment.    As public health and medicine have improved, we are living longer.  Life expectancy for someone born in the USA in 2010 was 78.2, and 70,000 Americans celebrated their 100th birthdays that year.  Without good physical and mental health, living longer may not be a blessing, so it is important to live better, not just longer.

Although we may not be surprised to see the focus areas on the “Big Four” list-physical activity, social engagement, diet and nutrition, and life purpose, we may be surprised to see how much we can improve our aging experience by focusing on just these four areas.

Physical activity benefits our bodies in many ways:  improving strength and fitness, helping balance, improving mood, managing weight, and preventing or treating certain diseases.  But the benefits of physical activity don’t stop with our bodies; they extend to our brain function.  Numerous studies have shown that physical activity is one of the strongest factors in preventing or delaying Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.  A new study in the journal Neurology suggests that working out is more effective at protecting the brain than cognitive challenges such as games and puzzles.  According to the Mayo Clinic, people who are physically active are less likely to experience a decline in their mental function and have a lowered risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Social connection could be the single most important factor in healthy aging.  One study of 7,000 men and women living in Alameda County, CA found that people who were not connected to others were three times as likely to die over the course of nine years as those who had strong social ties.  Those with social ties and unhealthful lifestyles actually lived longer than those with poor social ties but more health-promoting habits.  The Beta Blocker Heart Attack Trial of 2,300 men who had survived a heart attack found that those with strong social connections had only one-quarter the risk of death of those not socially connected, even when factors like smoking, diet, alcohol, exercise and weight were taken into account.

The Blue Zones study offers dramatic support for the importance of diet and nutrition to aging well.  The Blue Zones identified areas in the world that had the highest life expectancy or highest proportion of people living to 100 and looked at their common characteristics.  Of the nine shared characteristics, three dealt with diet and nutrition. Blue Zones’ inhabitants ate primarily plant-based diets with a heavy emphasis on beans.  They practiced the 80% rule of eating, stopping when they were no longer hungry and before they were full.  And, finally, all Blue Zones’ inhabitants except one drank alcohol moderately and regularly.

Living with purpose adds seven years to life expectancy according to the Blue Zones study.  Having a life purpose is what gets us out of bed in the morning and makes life worth living.  Richard Leider, life coach and author, defines the good life as “Living with the people you love, in the right place, doing good work on purpose.”  Purpose is where our talents and our passions intersect with a need.  It is meeting a need by doing what we love and do well, the intersection of our gifts, passions and values.

Paying attention to the “Big Four” helps us live better longer.  My next blog, “The Big Four-part 2”, will give strategies for implementing little changes that result in big rewards

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