The worst thing you can do for your health is to smoke. Smoking greatly increases the risk of heart attacks, strokes, respiratory diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and many types of cancer, including cancer of the lung, throat, mouth, colon, and bladder. No amount of smoking is safe—not even one cigarette a day. Breathing secondhand smoke also increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer. It’s never too late to quit smoking!
High blood pressure increases the risk of many diseases, notably heart attacks and strokes. Lifestyle modifications can help you keep prehypertension from developing into full-blown hypertension. Eat a heart-healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, along with nuts, lean meats, fish, and dairy foods. Limit sodium to less than 2,300 milligrams (one teaspoon of salt) a day. Get plenty of exercise. Lose weight if you’re overweight, and drink alcohol in moderation or not at all.
Discuss cancer screening with your health care provider, based on your personal and family history as well as your personal preferences. Everyone over 50 should be screened for colorectal cancer; those at high risk should start earlier. Women should be screened for breast and cervical cancer. Men should discuss screening for prostate cancer. Smokers and many former smokers should get special CT scans for lung cancer.
It’s important to stay on track with your immunizations—check with your healthcare provider to see if you are up to date. Everyone over 6 months old should get an annual flu vaccine. People 65 and older should get the pneumococcal (pneumonia) vaccine, as should younger people with certain chronic diseases. Other important vaccines are for tetanus and diphtheria, shingles, HPV, rubella, and hepatitis A and B.
Type 2 diabetes increases the risk of heart disease, kidney failure, and other complications. The American Diabetes Association recommends that everyone over 45 get tested for diabetes every three years. Those with a family history of diabetes, or who are overweight or have high blood pressure, should be tested earlier. Healthy lifestyle and dietary changes can help control blood sugar and reduce the risk of diabetes. These include losing weight if you’re overweight, exercising most days of the week, cutting back on calories and saturated fat, and eating a heart-healthy diet.
Moderately active adult women should, on average, consume about 2,000 calories a day; men, about 2,600 calories. Check this calorie table see how many you should consume. Being overweight or obese increases the risk of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, hypertension, osteoarthritis, and some cancers. Measure your waist: More than 35 inches for a woman or 40 inches for a man indicates increased risk. To help control weight, eat lots of fruits and vegetables, which are high water and fiber and low in calories. Be mindful of portion control, eat slowly, and stop eating before you are full.
Know your blood cholesterol levels and, if they are undesirable, take steps to improve them. Elevated LDL (“bad”) cholesterol increases coronary risk. Low HDL (“good”) cholesterol and high triglyceride levels are also risk factors. If you have very high LDL (above 190), diabetes, or a high 10-year risk of cardiovascular disease—based on this risk calculator—you should talk to your health care provider about lifestyle changes and, if necessary, statin drugs.
Keep your bones strong to prevent fractures. Women over 65 should be screened for osteoporosis via a bone density test, as should women age 50 to 64 if they have risk factors such as smoking or a family history of the disease. To keep bones healthy, quit smoking; do weight-bearing exercise such as strength training with weights, jumping rope, running, or playing tennis. Get adequate amounts of vitamin D and calcium. By age 65, about 6 percent of men also have osteoporosis, so older men should discuss their risk factors with their doctors, and get a bone density test if their doctors recommend one.
Having strong muscles impacts your daily life, allowing you to carry groceries, get up from chairs easily, and lift your luggage. But muscle strength also plays a role in reducing the risk of cognitive decline, diabetes, and osteoporosis. People with weak muscles, especially as they get older, are more likely to lose their balance and fall. To tone your muscles, try strength training with weights. Or use your own body weight for resistance as you do push-ups, planks, or pull-ups. You should train all the major muscle groups in your upper and lower body at least two or three days a week.
Aerobic or "cardio" exercise is one the most important components of fitness in terms of improving overall health. The link between aerobic fitness and both cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes is well known. Other benefits include reducing the risk of some types of cancer, reducing belly fat, and slowing stiffness in the body’s main artery, the aorta, as we age. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that everyone participate in aerobic activities such as brisk walking, jogging, cycling, dancing, hiking, or swimming. Aim for at least 30 minutes most days of the week.
Fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole grains are packed with vitamins, minerals, and fiber as well as a wide array of other beneficial compounds. The CDC recently published a paper ranking “powerhouse” fruits and vegetables—those highly associated with a reduced risk of chronic disease. Cruciferous and dark green leafy vegetables, including watercress and kale, came up on top. Your goal: a plate with a rainbow of colors, plus those dark leafy greens, along with a variety of whole grains, legumes (beans), another plant foods.
A low-fiber diet increases the risk of constipation and other bowel problems. A high-fiber diet may help reduce the risk of diabetes, stroke, systemic inflammation, and perhaps colon cancer, as well as an improvement in cholesterol and blood pressure. A good goal: 14 grams of fiber for every 1,000 calories you eat. Soluble (found in oat bran, barley, nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, peas, and some fruits and vegetables) slows digestion and may help lower your risk of heart disease. Insoluble fiber (found in wheat bran, vegetables, and whole grains) helps keep your bowel movements regular.
Excessive drinking causes a wide range of health problems. These include hypertension, many different types of cancer (including cancer of the esophagus, throat, mouth, colon, breast, and liver), cirrhosis of the liver, as well as car crashes, falls, and many psychological ills. Women should drink no more than one drink a day, which is 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor. Men should drink no more than two drinks a day. People over age 65 should drink even less.
To get the most from your medications and to minimize adverse effects, it’s important to store drugs properly, not miss a dose, and be aware of possible side effects and interactions with food or other medications. The FDA has a web page that can help you manage your medications. Keep a list prescription and over-the-counter medications with the name (both brand and generic), dose, and time to take it. Bring this list to your doctor whenever you have an appointment. A multi-day dispenser can be helpful. Consult with your doctor or pharmacist if you have any questions.
The immune system suffers with poor sleep, as does mental health, concentration, and memory. Many chronic diseases such as stroke, heart attack, hypertension, obesity, depression, and diabetes have been linked with chronic poor sleep. The CDC recommends adults get seven to eight hours of sleep a night. If you’ve not been sleeping well for several weeks and practical solutions have not worked, talk with your doctor before turning to sleeping pills. You may be referred to a sleep clinic or a therapist specializing in cognitive behavioral therapy.
Having poor balance is common, especially among older people. Each year, more than one-third of people age 65 or older fall, often resulting in serious injuries such as hip fractures that can severely limit your life. Ask your doctor if any of your medications can affect your balance. And regularly do balance exercises to protect yourself.
Hearing loss can impair your quality of life in many ways. It’s been linked with cognitive decline and dementia, balance problems, and is even associated with a decrease in walking speed. Hearing problems also make it difficult to socialize. Some degree of hearing loss comes with aging, but hearing loss can also be caused by medications or chronic diseases, such as diabetes or high blood pressure. If you notice difficulty hearing—or if family or friends have pointed it out to you—talk with your doctor, who may recommend you see a specialist and consider a hearing aid.
Glaucoma, a buildup of pressure in the eye, is a silent disease with few symptoms in the beginning. But, over time, this pressure leads to blindness. That’s why regular eye exams are so important. The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends that adults under age 40 have a comprehensive eye exam every 5 to 10 years; those ages 40 to 64, every 1 to 3 years; and those over 64, every 6 to 12 months.
Healthy gums and teeth are essential for overall well-being. Tooth loss makes it difficult to eat and can impair social interactions and self-esteem. Periodontal (gum) disease is associated with heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. And research has shown that treating periodontal disease could play a role in preventing or slowing atherosclerosis, as well as possibly improve blood sugar control in people with diabetes. Aside from brushing and flossing every day, you should see your dentist twice a year for an evaluation and cleaning to maintain good oral health.
Research indicates that engaging in new, challenging activities may help maintain or improve cognitive functioning as we age. A study published in 2014 in Psychological Science indicates that simply reading a book or doing crossword puzzles may not be challenging enough to improve memory and provide other cognitive benefits. Go beyond the familiar activities that keep you in your comfort zone. Choose a new, challenging endeavor, such as digital photography, model making, or quilting.
Researchers define productive activity as something that makes a contribution to the community. People who participate in meaningful work may have an improvement in their physical and mental health, feel happier, and have better cognition. They are also less likely to be depressed when suffering a loss. Volunteer work has also been linked with a reduced risk of hypertension. Consider being more active in your community, whether it’s organizing a cleanup of a beach or neighborhood park or serving meals at a homeless shelter.
Having friends, family, and other social relations not only adds immensely to your quality of life, it can also add years to your life. One theory is that social support “buffers” against stress; it provides emotional and tangible resources to help us deal with adverse events and illness. Family and friends may also encourage us, directly or indirectly, to take better care of ourselves. And being part of a social network often gives us meaningful roles that boost self-esteem and purpose in life, which in turn can improve health.
Depression affects your entire body and can seriously compromise your well-being. People who are depressed may not sleep well. They are less likely to exercise, take their medications, or quit smoking. Researchers have found that major depression is linked to heart disease and stroke, as well as an increased risk of heart failure. Depression can be successfully treated with psychotherapy or medication. Lifestyle changes, such as getting regular exercise, can also help.
An active sex life can go hand in hand with a healthy life. It’s known that any sort of intimacy can help modify stress, and people who have sex regularly may have less of a rise in blood pressure that accompanies stressful events. No surprise, since feel-good hormones (like endorphins and oxytocin) that can act against anxiety are released during sex. Clearly, being in a good intimate relationship comes with an array of physical and emotional benefits.