Four Factors that Determine Successful Aging

A windsurfer in Antigua. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)
A windsurfer in Antigua. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)

“Everyone wants to age successfully; however, the definition and criteria of successful aging remain vague,” says an article in Gerontologist (Feb 2015).

American Journal of Preventive Medicine (April 2005) looked at eight studies published between 1985 and 2003 that reported statistical associations between baseline determinants and healthy aging outcome.

Six behavioral determinants were found to make a positive difference in a person’s life. These were: smoking status, physical activity level, body mass index, diet, alcohol use, and health practices.

In an article published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ December 11, 2012) by Séverine Sabia and associates looked at the influence of individual and combined healthy behaviours on successful aging.

They concluded that although individual healthy behaviours are moderately associated with successful aging, their combined impact is substantial. In fact they saw clear evidence of the importance of healthy behaviours for successful aging.

It is estimated by 2031, more than 20 per cent of Canadians will be senior citizens. These seniors will have chronic pain, serious age-related diseases and disability. This will cripple our health care system.

It is not too late to advise our patients to pursue healthy lifestyle. In the U.K. Sabia and colleagues carried out an observational study. Participants were 10,308 men and women aged 35 to 55 years.

Successful aging was defined as being alive at 60 years of age and beyond; having no history of coronary artery disease, cancer, stroke or diabetes. These individuals have good cognitive, physical, respiratory and cardiovascular function without disability, and good mental health.

Difficulty of doing a study like this is that there is no consensus definition for successful aging. Sabia and colleagues assessed whether engaging in four healthy behaviours during midlife influences a person’s ability to age successfully. These are:

  1. Regular physical activity
  2. Consuming fruits and vegetables daily
  3. Drinking alcohol moderately
  4. Never smoking

Moderate alcohol consumption and not smoking have well-known health benefits. But the apparent benefits of physical activity and healthy diets, which were not always evident in previous studies, were impressive, says the article.

There was a relatively large beneficial effect from physical activity (≥ 2.5 hours/week of moderate activity, or ≥ 1 hour/week of vigorous activity), which supports the notion that even small amounts of regular activity may have important health effects.

Similarly, although the number of fruits and vegetables to be eaten daily was not quantified, consumption of at least some amount each day appears to have an important association with successful aging. It would be interesting to know whether more servings of fruits and vegetables has a stronger effect and whether there is a dose–response relation, says the article.

To summarize: Sabia and colleagues found that four behaviours increase the odds of living in good health beyond 60 years of age: regular physical activity, eating fruits and vegetables daily, drinking alcohol moderately and never smoking.

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How can we stay healthy and live longer?

Valentine’s Day is over. Family Day is over. We are now into seventh week of 2010. February is also heart month. It is time to reflect on what we have done for our mental and physical health to survive the rest of the year. What have we done to keep our heart strong? What people in general think about their health? What are the things they do stay healthy?

I was looking at a survey the Newsweek magazine had done few years ago. The poll of Americans 45 to 65 years old says that people in this age group feel good about their health and their future. They are positive about their physical appearance, sex life, and even the way they manage stress. Seventy two percent believe they will live to be 80 years old, 11 percent believe they will make it to 100.

In 1900, only the lucky few made it to 50, says the Newsweek. Today there are more 50-year-olds than ever before in history, and they can anticipate a full 30 years more, and maybe even longer. To live longer, we have to do many things in life. Misfortune may spoil our plans but life is about planning and hoping for the best. Otherwise how can we live and have fun at the same time.

To some extent, we have control over our own health. Few simple measures like eating right, exercising moderately, quitting smoking and staying involved in our communities can yield enormous benefits.

In the Newsweek poll, 55 percent say they work at being fit at least three times a week; 20 percent say they have a daily fitness routine. Here is a list of what they do:

– 56 percent walk
– 16 percent workout with exercise machine
– 15 percent do strength training and weight lifting
– 15 percent go bike riding
– 10 percent go swimming
– 7 percent go running or jogging.

But we do not live in a perfect world. Many people have no will power or strength to work toward good health. And these people really struggle with some of the barriers. What are the common barriers to good health?

– 48 percent say getting enough exercise is the hardest thing
– 21 percent say giving up cigarettes or tobacco is difficult
– 38 percent have trouble limiting sweets
– 32 percent have trouble cutting down on red meat and other fatty foods
– 31 percent have trouble eating enough fruit and vegetables
– 22 percent have trouble restricting sodium.

What is the worst thing about aging?

Thirty three percent say the worst thing about aging is having more health problems; and 18 percent say it’s having less energy. Middle-aged Americans worry most about cancer, heart disease and stroke. And 35 percent feel more stress in their lives today than they did 10 or 20 years ago.

This poll was taken before we were hit by the severe recession. Some people may have changed their views
since then. But there is always hope. Hope for a better future. Hope for better health. And hope that our elected
leaders will make the right kind of decisions to take us where we can revive our fighting spirit.

But nothing can substitute what we can do for ourselves. So, let us think and work towards a strong mind, strong heart and strong body.

Start reading the preview of my book A Doctor's Journey for free on Amazon. Available on Kindle for $2.99!