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Ten Secrets of Healthy Aging

You don't need a fountain of youth. Make wise choices now about how you live, and you'll enjoy vibrant health well into your elder years -- naturally. The top integrative experts show you how.

Antonette Coco loved to travel. But she hadn't been anywhere in the four years since her husband -- and longtime vacation partner -- passed away. Tired of waiting around for things to happen, the 79-year-old began planning trips for herself, her children, and their spouses. They traveled to Hawaii, where she partied at a luau, bought her first pair of sneakers, and sported a "Life's a Beach" T-shirt. Ensuing vacations over the next decade took them to the beaches and casinos of Aruba, amusement parks in Florida, and the warm waters -- via a cruise ship -- of Bermuda. In each locale, she trekked as far as her feet would take her, enjoying the thrill of new discoveries, and happy to be surrounded by her family. 

Passing 65 doesn't have to mean the end of life as you know it. You can continue to enjoy a rich, full schedule well into your senior years. The key, say experts, is getting healthy and strong now -- no matter how many years you already have under your belt. "Our goal shouldn't be to prevent aging," says Andrew Weil, M.D., integrative-medicine physician and author of Healthy Aging, "but to age well so we can enjoy those years." 

Just how well you'll age depends on a number of factors. As you may suspect, genetics plays a part. Coco's mother had also lived a full, long life. But according to research estimates, genes account for only about one-third of longevity, leaving around two-thirds of the tools for healthy aging in your hands. So Coco's lifestyle choices and positive outlook most likely contributed to her vibrant elder years as well. More than ever before, science can show us which behaviors may extend and improve life. To guide you, we asked Weil and other integrative experts for the latest advice on healthy aging. Pay attention to your choices now, and you, too, can age not just gracefully, but with gusto.

1. Get Your Potassium
Stay strong as you age by eating potassium-rich vegetables -- potatoes, leafy greens -- and fruits, such as bananas and papayas. People 65 and older who loaded up on these foods kept as much as 3.6 percent more lean muscle tissue than those who consumed less, according to a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. That's important because most of us typically lose about 4.4 pounds of muscle mass a decade (starting at age 65). This muscle loss can lead to falls and their sometimes devastating health consequences. Strive for the recommended 4.7 grams daily of potassium; eating five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables should do it, notes Daphne Miller, M.D., a San Francisco-based physician and author of The Jungle Effect, which looks at the diets of some of the world's healthiest people. To hit that goal, make a conscious effort to include one or two servings at each meal. And monitor your intake of salt, which can deplete potassium levels.

2. Think Positively
A cheery outlook may actually extend your life. An analysis of 30 follow-up studies in the Journal of Happiness Studies found that being happy can protect you from becoming ill. Indeed, the effect of happiness on lifespan is about as strong as not smoking, say researchers. Another study showed that people who report being happy and satisfied with their lives are more likely to enjoy good health and fewer long-term, limiting health concerns. "It's true that being happy is easier said than done for some people," says Weil. "But you can learn optimism by practicing stress-management techniques, meditating, and surrounding yourself with upbeat people."

3. Lace Up
Are your sneakers buried in your closet? Go dig them out. According to a study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, if you stay aerobically fit, you can delay biological aging by 10 or more years and prolong your independence. A study in Circulation that tracked participants for an average of 7.5 years showed that exercise is inversely related to death: The more you work out, the longer you'll likely live. Numerous other studies link exercise to healthy aging. You don't need to run a marathon to get results. "Research shows that it's better to get moderate daily exercise than to do a huge workout a few days a week," says Miller.

4. Join the Culture Club
Probiotics, the so-called friendly bacteria, may play a role in the prevention of certain diseases. More research is needed, but they've been linked to improved immunity and decreased rates of colon cancer, says Miller. "Anecdotally, some of the zones where people live the longest also happen to be places where the diet has a variety of fermented foods, which contain probiotics," she adds. Include these foods -- yogurt with live cultures, for example, as well as unpasteurized kimchi -- in your diet, and consider taking a daily probiotic supplement (read the label for dosage), such as Lactobacillus GG or Bacillus coagulans 30, says Weil.

5. "B" Smart
Keep your brain healthy with vitamin B12, found in such foods as seafood and poultry. A recent study found that people with low blood levels of this nutrient experienced a faster decline in cognitive function than those with higher levels. On the flip side, people who consume plenty of B12-rich foods are six times less likely to experience brain shrinkage. Most of us can get enough B12 from our diet, but certain people need supplements, such as vegans (who don't eat animal products), notes Weil. The same goes for some people older than 65, because decreased levels of stomach acid can make it difficult to absorb B12 from food. Weil recommends these groups take B12 as part of a B-complex supplement.

6. Make Fish a Habit
Certain fatty fish contain high amounts of two omega-3s critical to healthy aging -- eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Numerous studies show that these healthy fats can help lower the risk of heart disease and heart attacks. In a 2008 Neurology study, researchers found that older people who ate omega-3-rich fish at least three times a week had a nearly 26 percent lower risk of brain lesions associated with stroke and dementia than those who didn't eat fish regularly. EPA and DHA also may protect your eyes; people who eat fatty fish just once a week are 50 percent less likely to develop age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in older adults. Aim for two servings of fatty fish a week, advises Miller. Good sources include herring, salmon, tuna, and trout. "I'm a big fan of fresh sardines and other small fish," adds Miller, "which are relatively free of mercury and a tasty source of omega-3s."

7. Pal Around
Don't let connections fall by the wayside. Research suggests that loneliness can increase the risk of high blood pressure, depression, and Alzheimer's disease, as well as lower immunity. On the other hand, "socializing appears to enhance health, and may even increase longevity," says Thomas Perls, M.D., an associate professor of medicine and geriatrics at Boston University's School of Medicine and the founder and director of the New England Centenarian Study. Friends and family don't live close by? Preliminary studies suggest that online social networking through services like facebook.com and eons.com may provide similar effects.

8. Get More D
"Vitamin D is one of our major defenses against many age-related diseases," says Weil. Indeed, a large study in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that people with the lowest blood levels of D had a higher risk of dying from all causes during the median 7.7-year study period. Other recent research reports similar results. Additional studies indicate vitamin D may help protect against cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, certain cancers, and some autoimmune disorders. Dietary sources of D include fish, eggs, and fortified milk; our bodies also make D in response to sunlight. But most of us don't get enough, says Weil, who recommends everyone take 1,000 IU of vitamin D3 a day.

9. Do Tai Chi
Often described as "meditation in motion," this ancient form of stretching and balance can help you age well. Numerous studies suggest that tai chi may improve everyday physical functioning, lower blood pressure, ease chronic pain, relieve anxiety, and slow bone loss after menopause. It also shows promise for alleviating insomnia, a common problem in the elderly: A study in the journal Sleep found that people age 59 to 86 who regularly practiced a form of tai chi got more z's and better sleep quality than those who didn't. "Tai chi is fairly simple to do once you learn how," says Weil. "Check adult education centers or health clubs for classes."

10. Reduce Red Meat
Make red meat an occasional indulgence -- no more than once a week, suggest our experts. Its saturated fat can clog arteries, raising the risk of cardiovascular disease. It may also boost cancer risk. A recent study found that people who consumed the highest amounts of red meat (equal to about a quarter pound of hamburger a day) had a 20 to 60 percent higher risk of developing certain cancers than those who ate less. Red meat also contains high levels of iron, too much of which has been linked to a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer's disease, says Perls. Replace red meat with fish, poultry, or whole, organic soy foods such as tempeh.

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