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The secrets to aging well from 3 sprightly seniors

When we think about living well, the first thing that comes to mind is eating better. What’s the one thing we can do — starting tomorrow — to make our eating habits better for healthy aging?

There is pretty good evidence that adhering to what is called a Mediterranean style (way of eating) has been associated with better cognition and lower dementia risk. So this includes getting most of your protein from lean white meats, fish and legumes, rather than red meats, and eating lots of whole grains and lots of fruits and vegetables.

We know that sleep is important for our daily health. Is that also true for aging well?

Sleep is incredibly important. We think we are laying down long-term memories during sleep and that disrupted sleep may lead to problems with memory. Also, there is evidence that we clear the main protein involved in Alzheimer’s disease — amyloid protein — from our brains during sleep. So getting good quality sleep might be reducing risk (for Alzheimer’s disease). However, I encourage people to avoid sleeping pills if they are benzodiazepines because there is a lot of evidence that our memory functioning is impaired when benzodiazepines are active in our system. So if you have trouble sleeping, try other efforts, such as avoiding screen time and lots of activity at night and avoiding caffeine after, say, noon, to try and get into a more natural and calming fall-to-sleep pattern.

How does exercise influence healthy aging?

The recommendation is we need about 30 minutes of exercise a day. But if doing 30 minutes of exercise every day is too much for people, then longer periods for some days and shorter periods on other days also works — as long as it totals 150 minutes of aerobic activity a week. A lot of people are quite daunted by that (recommendation). But aerobic activity just means doing whatever activity gets your heart pumping. That could be a brisk walk, that could be exercises in the pool. Weight lifting, too, is important for muscle tone. And, as we age, strength and balance activities, such as yoga, dancing or tai chi, are incredibly important because maintaining our balance does become more difficult. Having good balance is so important to prevent falls and hip fractures.

Each of us has to make individual choices every day to age well. But is there something we can all do together as a society for most of us to enjoy long healthy lives?

I think the key thing in our Western, more individualistic society, is to support seniors better — and support them all together. There are new models of senior communal living — so seniors buying a house or a condo and living together even though they are strangers initially to prevent that isolation that can happen. Another key thing is to have age-friendly cities — that’s adopting citywide strategies that make it easy for seniors to get out and stay active. I’d love to see reduced rates or free access to community centre activities . . . so there are no barriers for seniors going out and being social and getting involved in activities. And likewise for gyms — seniors having reduced rates or free access to gyms would be fantastic.

Do you have a New Year’s resolution?

I do. It is to add one more day of exercise to my week. I currently exercise three days a week and I feel like that’s not quite enough, so I want to include one more day.

My friend is talking to me about hot active yoga — so not calm yoga, it’s a serious work out. Currently, I train in the gym and play soccer, but I’d like something that engages my core more.

What do you say to people who think it’s too hard to make lifestyle changes?

The truth is that healthy lifestyle factors are only healthy if we sustain them. But for lots of us, thinking that we have to make a change in our habits forever is way too daunting and can prevent us from even acting. So for many of us, it’s more effective to make smaller goals, such as “I’m going to commit to exercising three times next week,” and then repeating those smaller goals to try and sustain them.

The secrets of aging well from those who’ve done it

While healthy aging researchers can offer up-to-the minute scientific advice, those who live well into their 70s, 80s and 90s are experts themselves.

On a recent December afternoon, the Star spent some time at Terraces of Baycrest Retirement Residence speaking with three residents about their lives, habits and hobbies and the kinds of New Year’s resolutions they will make for 2018.

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