As you age, your risk of becoming disabled due to a chronic health problem or an injury like a fall can increase. But studies have found that there are four proactive steps you can take at any age to help decrease your risk of disability and improve your overall health, wellbeing, and longevity.
Step 1: Exercise
A 2016 study conducted by researchers at Yale University School of Medicine found that it’s never too late to gain the benefits of exercise. The study included 1,600 people between the ages of 70 and 89. Most were sedentary and had some limitations on their ability to move, but they were able to walk approximately ¼ mile in 15 minutes with no assistance.1
Half the group took part in a walking, strength training, and balance building regimen, with the goal of walking at a moderate pace for 2.5 hours a week. The other half attended health education classes, but did not take part in the exercise program. The result? People in the exercise group spent 25% less time with what researchers defined as a ‘major movement disability’ that prevented them from walking ¼ mile in 15 minutes. Not only did the exercise regimen help lower the risk of disability, it also helped study participants who eventually did become disabled to recover better. Those in the exercise group who developed a movement-based disability were ⅓ more likely to recover than those who didn’t exercise.
Other studies have shown that exercise also has a positive effect on mental health as you age. People who were less active had a higher risk of developing depression as they got older. In contrast, those who walked, swam, or took part in a sport were less likely to be depressed.
Step 2: Diet
Eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables has been associated with a lower risk of developing a range of chronic conditions including heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. In a large study that included more than 100,000 female nurses and male health professionals, men who most closely followed the USDA’s Healthy Eating Index, choosing fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and healthy fats, were 20% less likely to develop a major chronic disease and had a 40% lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Women whose diets most closely adhered to the Healthy Eating Index had an 11% lower risk of developing a major chronic disease and a 30% lower risk of heart disease.
Step 3: Sleep
Another study looked at healthy behaviors that were associated with a lower risk of becoming disabled as you age. In addition to exercise, not smoking, and light or moderate alcohol consumption (a maximum of one drink every other day), sleeping less than 5 or more than 9 hours a night was associated with an increased risk of becoming disabled. Other researchers found a possible link between the length and quality of sleep and prostate cancer risk. Men who slept longer and had fewer interruptions of their sleep had higher levels of melatonin in their urine and a 75% lower risk of advanced prostate cancer compared to those with lower melatonin levels. More study is needed, however, to determine if sleep does in fact impact cancer risk. Getting 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night has also been associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes for middle-aged and older women.
Step 4: Build a personalized strategy for healthy aging
Based on your personal health issues and your family health history, you can build a plan to help lower your health risks now and as you get older. A health advisor can help you develop a personalized strategy to lower your risk of chronic disease and improve your overall health and longevity.