Let’s begin with something I always begin with when I’m presenting on the topic of longevity and active-aging, the lyrics from Frank Sinatra’s well-known, “Young at Heart”

Don’t you know that it’s worth
Every treasure on earth to be young at heart
For as rich as you are
It’s much better by far to be young at heart

This is the 71st column I’ve written here in my “Emotional Education Through COVID19” series. Coincidentally, I’m 71. And this article is all about staying young in mind, young at heart.

Walter Bortz, II, M.D., gerontologist and author, observed, “Longevity is neither an accident nor an isolated phenomenon. It is a product of specific healthy behaviors, a direct consequence of health maintenance.” In other words it’s your thoughts, choices, decisions and commitments that add years to your life. Or as Frank said, 

Fairy tales can come true
It can happen to you if you’re young at heart
For it’s hard, you will find
To be narrow of mind if you’re young at heart

A 60 year-old woman in excellent health, according to Stanford’s Center on Longevity, has a 50% chance of living to age 90 and a 14% chance of living to age 100. A 60 year-old man in excellent health has a 42% chance of living to age 90 and an 8% chance of living to 100. The folks at Stanford found that among Boomers aged 55-64, 25% smoke, more than 39% are obese, more than 55% do not exercise enough, 37% don’t get enough sleep, and 75% don’t eat enough fruits and veggies.  And they expect longevity just because of their good fortune? 

Clearly, the greater the number of healthy lifestyle behaviors you maintain, the lower your risk of dying prematurely. In one study of 113,000 generally healthy men and women, that were followed for more than 30 years (!), the risk of early death fell with every additional lifestyle behavior, such as not smoking, doing more than 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous movement every day, eating healthy, drinking no more than one (for women) or two drinks (for men) per day. Those who had at least three healthy behaviors and were in a range of healthy weight had a 61% lower risk of dying from all causes compared with folks living with excess weight or obesity with no healthy lifestyle behaviors. This is only further evidence of your ability to control your longevity more than perhaps you’ve ever realized. 

But whether it’s thinking well, eating well, moving regularly, or other healthy lifestyle activities, one very recent finding has captured the attention of those of us in the active aging movement – the remarkable importance of social connections.  Your social life may well predict your longevity far more than you ever thought.  That’s right. It’s not just food and exercise. You would be wise to feed your psychological and mental wellbeing for longevity as well by spending time with friends, positive, upbeat folks who share your desire for health and longevity.

According to Robert Waldinger of Harvard’s Study of Adult Development covering 80 years of research, “The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80. The surprising finding is that our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health.” He also noted, “Loneliness kills. It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.” Indeed, loneliness has an equivalent risk factor to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, shortening one’s lifespan by eight years.

We’ve come to learn that loneliness affects 25% to 60% of older Americans, putting millions at risk of poor health from prolonged loneliness. One AARP Medicare Supplement Plan group reported that about 30% described themselves as lonely and about 10% described themselves as severely lonely. But of those in the top 5% with the most chronic health conditions impacting longevity, loneliness rose to 55% of that group.

Want to add years to your life beyond the obvious healthy lifestyle behaviors? Try these 14 powerful, often overlooked, steps for increasing positive, meaningful social engagements, and a mindset that’ll promote your longevity:

  • Deepen your interactions with your spouse or partner 
  • Increase your get-togethers with family and friends 
  • Find more group social support with family and friends
  • Don’t talk much with your neighbors? Time to change that!
  • Volunteer more – giving gratefully is good for the heart
  • Find opportunities to continue working and for that all-important social interaction
  • Increase your involvement in religious or community philanthropic organizations 
  • Work on creating a “future orientation” and the ability to plan 
  • Grow your capacity for both gratitude and forgiveness
  • Work on building the ability to see the world through the positive, optimistic eyes of another 
  • Strengthen your desire to do things with, and for, other people
  • It’s time to be sure your thinking focuses on what’s right, not on what’s wrong
  • Imagine that you have a strong immune system since studies show that you are able to stimulate your immunity just by thinking about it – stop thinking of yourself as a sick person
  • Be a whole lot easier on yourself

Wouldn’t it be so easy to have a step-by-step, toolkit that came with all of the supplies needed to live a healthy life? And wouldn’t it be grand if we didn’t have to be the responsible for our own health, wellness and lifestyle? 

Well, I’m going to help you unwrap that user-friendly toolkit right here. Only problem is that you are going to have to actually be responsible for using it.  Think of yourself as the pilot of your plane and your healthcare provider as ground control. It’s a change, I know but it’s the healthier way to begin thinking to create the type of lifestyle that promotes your healthy life. Ready to take off?

Let’s unpack my 7-step toolkit that’s needed to live healthy. Hmmm, maybe the mindset, the actual toolkit, is interwoven in the word we strive for in our lives – HEALTHY.

Healthy choices – It’s your most important asset, your health. It’s time to recognize that the way you organize your daily life, how you fill your time and spaces, what you have in the pantry, the refrigerator, on the bookshelves and in your medicine cabinet – all either promote your ability to make wise choices, or not. Do an inventory of your surroundings and simply ask yourself if the items help you make a wise choice to promote your health, or not.  Who owns your health? You do!

Eat wisely – It’s sort of difficult to put premium fuel in your car if the gas station only has low octane gas. How about your home and place of work? Are you ready to eat a healthy, balanced diet of foods that fit the categories of protein, dairy, veggies, grains and fruits? Unless you choose to surround yourself with these products, you’ll be running on the wrong fuel. Beans, 100% whole grains, fruits and veggies, and nuts are staples in our home.

Activity – When do you pack your gym bag? Those who pack it the night before they need it are more likely to use it the next day. It’s the same thing with filling your world with buddies who will keep you accountable.  Come to think of it, it’s the same with the music you have snaking out of your ears that’ll help pick the thump you need to increase your activity.

Life’s little goals – Ever try to leap tall buildings in a single bound? Unless you are Superman (and if you are, and you are reading this, PLEASE LET US KNOW!!!), you can’t do it. You need little, consistent, daily changes to arrive at your larger destiny, but with SMARTER goals. That means goals that are specific, measureable, attainable, realistic, time-bound, enthusiastically set and come with a reward at the end.  

True thinking – “The link is what you think” (of course it is) when it comes to taking care of yourself and living healthy—both physically and emotionally. Make sure the rules you are living by, your beliefs that create your right and left turns in life, are true, helpful, inspiring, necessary, and kind. Hey, that spells THINK

Health care – First of all its usually genuinely better to take a walk than a pill. But we can increase our longevity by recognizing we have to own our own healthcare, partnering with our physician and fitness trainer, mental coach, dietician, massage therapist and the like, along the way. Yearly routine exams, regular monitoring of blood pressure, cholesterol, lipids, age appropriate screenings and blood labs are a common part of normal health care and prevention.  With the right prevention, you won’t have to treat a disease…remember Walter Bortz, II, M.D.’s observation, “We live too short and die too long/”

Yes I can positivity – Did you know there are two forms of wellbeing that are associated with healthy physical and emotional living, reduced stress and depression? “Hedonic,” life’s simple pleasurable experiences and “eudaimonic,” those pleasures that come from meaning and larger purpose beyond self-gratification. The former are “empty calories” while eudaimonic pleasures are derived from seeing the positive in all of life, finding the meaning in daily interactions with others, being connected to others, living according to “EWOP” (everything works out perfectly). This has the bigger bang for the happiness buck, preventing and recovering from life’s ills.

When gyms were still open pre-COVID19, I was enjoying my workout one morning alongside a gentleman who was sweating much more than me.  He had just finished a one-hour “spin” class.  I commented on how positively drenched he was and he broadly smiled and told me, “Today is my 79rd birthday and I could not be any happier.” 

I congratulated him and he then said, “I figure if I can do this when I’m 85, I’ll be doing pretty well.”  Eighty-five? I’d say he’s doing pretty well right now, wouldn’t you?

The U.S. Census Bureau today released estimates showing the nation’s 65-and-older population has grown rapidly since 2010, driven by the aging of Baby Boomers born between 1946 and 1964. The 65-and-older population grew by over a third (34.2% or 13,787,044) during the past decade, and by 3.2% (1,688,924) from 2018 to 2019. The growth of this population contributed to an increase in the national median age from 37.2 years in 2010 to 38.4 in 2019, according to the Census Bureau’s 2019 Population Estimates.

The number of Americans ages 65 and older is projected to nearly double from 52 million in 2018 to 95 million by 2060, and the 65-and-older age group’s share of the total population will rise from 16 percent to 23 percent. Some other positive developments:

Education levels are increasing. Among people ages 65 and older in 1965, only 5 percent had completed a bachelor’s degree or more.

Average U.S. life expectancy increased from 68 years in 1950 to 78.93 years in 2019, in large part due to the reduction in mortality at older ages. 

George Valliant, M.D. wrote a book entitled, Aging Well in which he discussed the need for a long-term “big” approach for looking at the “good life” to increase well-being across your lifespan.  

We know from a well-documented study on adult development at Harvard that aging is NOT well predicted by the following:

  1. Your genes
  2. Your cholesterol level
  3. Your stress level
  4. Your parent’s social class, marriage success, IQ
  5. Your childhood temperament
  6. Your degree of positive affect and social ease

Want to know what predicts aging well according to the Valliant’s “bigger” picture?

  1. Never smoking or stopping while young
  2. The ability to “turn lemons into lemonade”
  3. No alcohol-abuse
  4. A stable marriage
  5. More than a high school education
  6. Not living with overweight/obese 
  7. Getting regular exercise (as I like to say, “Be active, not too much, everyday”)

The Harvard study found that in addition to education, the following personality characteristics also related to happiness in aging:

  1. A future orientation and the ability to plan positively (“I figure if I can do this when I’m 85, I’ll be doing pretty well.”)
  2. The capacity for both gratitude and forgiveness
  3. The ability to see the world through the eyes of another 
  4. The desire to do things with, and for, people

So, in the end, programs that promote “negligible senescence,” warding off normal biological changes caused by aging, including being functionally fit, agile, having good reaction time, maintaining cognitive fitness and mindfulness are important and matter.  Yes, getting to a gym, a park, a room in your home, and working out regularly will surely help.

In the end, perhaps Frank said it best,

And if you should survive to a hundred and five
Look at all you’ll derive out of bein’ alive
And here is the best part, you have a head start
If you are among the very young at heart

Here’s to staying young at heart…that sums it all up and fuels your drive forward.