What Do We Know About Healthy Aging?

Woman doing Yoga

Many factors influence healthy aging. Some of these, such as genetics are not in our control. Others like exercise, a healthy diet, going to the doctor regularly, and taking care of our mental health are within our reach. Research supported by NIA and others has identified actions you can take to help manage your health, live as independently as possible, and maintain your quality of life as you age. Read on to learn more about the research and the steps you can take to promote healthy aging.

Taking Care of Your Physical Health

While scientists continue to actively research how to slow or prevent age-related declines in physical health, they’ve already discovered multiple ways to improve the chances of maintaining optimal health later in life. Taking care of your physical health involves staying active, making healthy food choices, getting enough sleep, limiting your alcohol intake, and proactively managing your health care. Small changes in each of these areas can go a long way to support healthy aging.

Get moving: Exercise and Physical activity

Whether you love it, physical activity is a cornerstone of healthy aging. Scientific evidence suggests that people who exercise regularly not only live longer but also may live better. Meaning they enjoy more years of life without pain or disability.

A study of adults 40 and older found that taking 8,000 steps or more per day, compared to only taking 4,000 steps, was associated with a 51% lower risk of death from all causes. You can increase the number of steps you get each day by doing activities that keep your body moving, such as gardening, walking the dog, and taking the stairs instead of the elevator.

Although it has many other benefits, exercise is an essential tool for maintaining a healthy weight. Adults with obesity have an increased risk of death, disability, and many diseases such as type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure. However, thinner is not always healthier either. Being or becoming too thin as an older adult can weaken your immune system, increase the risk of bone fracture, and in some cases may be a symptom of a disease. Both obesity and underweight conditions can lead to loss of muscle mass, which may cause a person to feel weak and easily worn out.

As people age, muscle function often declines. Older adults may not have the energy to do everyday activities and can lose their independence. However, exercise can help older adults to maintain muscle mass as they age.

In addition to helping older adults live better, maintaining muscle mass can help them live longer. Researchers found that in adults older than 55, muscle mass was a better predictor of longevity than weight or body mass index (BMI).

What Can you Do?

Although many studies focus on the effects of physical activity on weight and BMI, research has found that even if you’re not losing weight, exercise can still help you live longer and better. There are many ways to get started. Try being physically active in short spurts throughout the day or sitting aside specific times each week to exercise. Many activities such as brisk walking or yoga, are free or low cost and do not require special equipment. As you become more active, you will start feeling energized and refreshed after exercising instead of exhausted. The key is to find ways to get motivated and get moving.

Healthy Eating: Make Smart Food Choices

Making smart food choices can help protect you from certain health problems as you age and may even help improve brain function. As with exercise, eating well is not just about weight. With so many different diets out there, choosing what to eat can be confusing. The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans provide healthy eating recommendations for each stage of life. The Dietary Guidelines suggest an eating pattern with lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and lean proteins.


Healthy Food


Much of the research shows that the Mediterranean-Style eating pattern which includes fresh produce, whole grains, and healthy fats, but less dairy and more fish than a traditional American diet may have a positive impact on health.

A low-salt diet called Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) has also been shown to deliver significant health benefits. Studies found that DASH diet lowers blood pressure, helps people lose weight, and reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

What Can you Do?

Try starting with small changes by adopting one or two aspects of the Mediterranean-Style eating pattern or MIND diet. Incorporating even a part of these eating patterns, such as more fish or more leafy greens into your daily eating habits can improve health outcomes.

Getting a Good Night Sleep

Getting a good night’s sleep helps you stay healthy and alert. Even though older adults need the same seven to nine hours of sleep as all adults, they often don’t get enough. Feeling sick or being in pain makes it harder to sleep, and some medicines can keep you awake.
Not getting enough quality sleep can make a person irritable, depressed, forgetful, and more likely to have falls or other accidents.
Sleep quality matters for memory and mood. Older adults who were diagnosed with depression in the past, and do not get quality sleep, may be more likely to experience their depression symptoms again.


Woman Sleeping


A 2021 study found that older adults who did not sleep well and napped often were at great risk of dying within the next five years. Conversely, getting good sleep is associated with lower rates of insulin resistance, heart disease, and people affected by obesity. Sleep can also improve your creativity and decision-making skills and even your blood sugar levels.

What Can You Do?

There are many things you can do to help you sleep better such as following a regular sleep schedule. Try to fall asleep and get up at the same time each day. Avoid napping late in the day, as this may keep you awake at night. Exercise can help you sleep better too if it isn’t too close to bedtime. Mindfulness meditation can also improve sleep quality.