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6 Things I’d Tell My Younger Self About Aging

Hindsight is 20/20. Here’s what I wish I knew then that would have been helpful now.

Close Up portrait of the faces of two women who resemble each other. One female on the left, has an aged look to her face with wrinkles around her eyes, the female to her right is young with very smooth skin. They both have the same brown eyes and brown air.
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A young woman with dark curly hair is using mobile phone. Female is smiling while holding smart phone. She is lying on sofa at home.

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When I was in my 20s and early 30s, I felt indestructible and invincible, as most of us do at that age—a side effect of youth, I suppose. My doctor visits were infrequent, my physical power enormous, my skin and body in great shape. (Only I didn’t really know it, or treasure it, back then.) My life was neatly falling into place—I was married and thrilled to be the mother of two boys born in quick succession. With the exception of a brief bout with infertility, my knowledge of the medical system was extremely limited.

But then, in my mid-30s, everything changed, seemingly overnight as I was hit with the stark realization that good health and growing older was not a given but instead a privilege. An unexpected health crisis: I was diagnosed with breast cancer. What followed physically was rough (surgery, chemotherapy, reconstruction); but the emotional impact was equal in intensity. Would I survive and get to see my children grow up? I quit working, so I could be home with them for as long as I could so I could get to know every inch of them … just in case.

“I was hit with the stark realization that good health and growing older was not a given.”

Now 30 years later (and grateful for each one), I reflect back on those carefree years of feeling invincible with a mixture of longing and Monday-morning quarterbacking. I’m not saying that if I’d done things differently I wouldn’t have gotten breast cancer. But I do believe that there are things we can all do in our 20s, 30s and beyond to improve our chances of aging as gracefully and healthfully as we can.

Even though it might seem far in the future, aging hits all of us—if we’re lucky. “Your health is your most important asset—and attention to self-care beginning in your teens and early 20s can be instrumental in preventing many life-threatening diseases,” says Dr. Jennifer Mieres, professor of cardiology and senior vice president of Northwell’s Center for Diversity, Inclusion and Health Equity.

Some of the biggest health threats as we age are within our control, and good choices while we’re young can even help combat things that might otherwise seem genetically destined. You can’t stop the aging process, but you can make little choices to safeguard your mind and body.

Here are the 6 things I’d tell my younger self about aging:

1. Get out and exercise

  • A fact of aging:
    Bones (and muscles) weaken and/or become more rigid through the years, leading to osteoporosis later on. With osteoporosis, bones become porous and fragile, allowing them to bend and break easier. According to the National Institutes of Health, your bone mass (a measure of the minerals calcium and phosphorus that give your bones strength) reaches its peak at around age 30. Exercising as a youth and young adult does pay off; there’s evidence that people who exercise reach greater bone mass earlier on than those who don’t.
     
  • What you can do today:
    But even well into your adult years, exercise is still one of the best ways to slow or prevent bone and muscle changes, as well as improve your balance and protect you from falling (another risk that comes with aging).

    Working out helps more than just strengthen your bones. It can decrease your chances of getting many common chronic diseases, including diabetes and heart disease; yet shockingly, nearly 80 percent of adults today aren’t meeting the key guidelines for activity, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which should include both aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities.

    The government’s latest recommendations for adults: two and a half to five hours of moderate to vigorous aerobic activity each week, preferably spread throughout the week. In addition, experts say that strengthening your muscles two or more days each week will not only help maintain good health, but will also decrease the incidence and symptoms of many chronic conditions like arthritis, back pain, obesity, heart disease, depression, and diabetes, and help maintain and improve your cognitive abilities, too.

2. Know the importance of sleep

  • A fact of aging:
    Changes in sleep patterns are a normal part of the aging process, according to the National Sleep Foundation.

    Set yourself up now with good habits that will help you later on, since clinical research confirms the link between lack of sleep and an increase in the risk of heart disease among other problems, says Dr. Mieres. While you’re sleeping, your cells are repairing and your brain is forming pathways to learn and remember. “Your body needs to rest to recharge and keep your immune system in peak condition,” she says.
     
  • What you can do today:
    While it might be tempting to stay up late to party or binge watch the latest Netflix series, sleep deprivation can hurt your health. Get too little and your risk of injuries, obesity, depression, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke and heart disease rises. The National Sleep Foundation and other experts advise people 18 and over to log between seven and eight hours of shut-eye each night.

3. Harness the power of good nutrition

  • A fact of aging:
    Healthy eating habits and good nutrition are key in helping to prevent or manage health conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, notes Dr. Mieres. A balanced mix of healthy foods can keep your energy levels up, your weight down, and fight against a slowing metabolism and digestion. Eating well can also help fight against the gradual loss of age-related healthy bone and muscle mass.
     
  • What you can do today:
    Choose whole grains, lean meats, fat-free or low-fat dairy products, fruits and veggies, limit red meat and avoid foods that don’t provide any nutrients, like trans fats and sugar-laden drinks. Calcium (found in food like leafy greens, salmon, almonds, and beans, in addition to dairy products) and vitamin D (which helps your body absorb calcium) will keep bones strong.

4. Don’t forget about your brain

  • A fact of aging:
    There are changes that develop in your brain over the years that can have minor effects on your memory and cognition skills, like the ability to multitask or learn new skills.
     
  • What you can do today :
    Stay physically active—this gets blood flowing throughout your entire body, including your brain. Lots of research, including an April 2018 study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, shows a positive effect of exercise on brain function (including memory), plus reduction in both stress and depression.

    Staying mentally active, having a robust social life, eating well, avoiding tobacco, and limiting your alcohol consumption to no more than one drink per day for women (and two for men) also have big brain-boosting benefit, according to the experts at Harvard Medical School.

    Don’t ignore conditions like high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes—these may all contribute to your risk of future cognitive decline according to a 2011 article from Current Cardiovascular Risk Reports. And foods that are good for your heart health are good for your brain, too, so eat lots of fruits and veggies, whole grains and low-fat protein sources (like fish, lean meat and skinless poultry).
“Some of the biggest health threats as we age are within our control, and good choices while we’re young can even help combat things that might otherwise seem genetically destined.”

5. Look and listen to your eyes and ears

  • A fact of aging:
    Focusing on objects close up becomes more difficult as you age, and you might develop sensitivity to glare and have problems adjusting to changes in levels of light. Conditions like cataracts and macular degeneration become more common with age, too.

    You might also hear yourself saying, “What did you say?” more often, especially when it comes to high frequencies or listening to a conversation in a crowded room.
     
  • What you can do today:
    Don’t ignore your eye health—schedule regular checkups, since it is possible to have a problem and not even know it. The American Optometric Association recommends an eye exam at least once every two years for most adults to protect vision and help prevent vision loss. Another bit of advice: Shun the sun. It’s not only harmful to your skin, but long-term exposure to UV rays can lead to macular degeneration, cataracts and skin cancer around the eyelids. Always protect your eyes with sunglasses or a wide-brimmed hat when you’re outdoors.

    And remember to protect your hearing with earplugs when you’re around loud noises (like concerts or machinery). Extended exposure to these noises can permanently damage the hair cells in your inner ear, leading to hearing loss.

6. Love your heart

  • A fact of aging:
    Your heart and blood vessels stiffen over time, which can lead to things like heart failure, coronary artery disease and atrial fibrillation.
     
  • What you can do today:
    It’s never too early to get smart about your heart with nutrition, exercise, and screenings. Knowing your family history can also help you understand and know your risks.

    Eat healthy foods like those low in saturated and trans fats and sodium. Your diet should include plenty of fruits and veggies, whole grains, fish, nuts, legumes and seeds, and low-fat or fat-free dairy products, advises Dr. Mieres, also the author of the book Heart Smart for Women. She suggests taking stock of your refrigerator. “Any fat that is high in refined carbohydrates, unhealthy fats or sugar should be purged,” she says. Same goes for processed foods (like soft drinks, many cereals and instant soups). “These are generally high in calories and low in nutrients—and have no place in a heart-healthy kitchen.”

    Likewise, physical activity has a beneficial effect on your heart (see recommendations in item No. 1).

    The American Heart Association (AHA) advises that you have regular checkups that include heart-health screenings. It’s important to speak with your doctor about your diet and lifestyle as well as getting your blood pressure, cholesterol, heart rate, blood sugar, and body mass index checked.

    If you snore, don’t ignore it. Sleep apnea, which causes pauses in breathing during sleep, can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke.

    And lastly, don’t ignore your stress. There is strong evidence of the link between exposure to chronic stress and heart disease, says Dr. Mieres. “Women who live with chronic stress are at increased risk for high blood pressure, unhealthy cholesterol levels, being overweight and diabetes—all placing them at risk for heart disease,” she notes.

The bottom line?

Simple lifestyle changes can keep you on the road to healthy living. Dr. Mieres reminds everyone: “A partnership with your doctor can be lifesaving at every stage of life.”
 

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Published January 8th, 2019
A young woman with dark curly hair is using mobile phone. Female is smiling while holding smart phone. She is lying on sofa at home.

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