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When we think about how we can put the brakes on aging, what’s usually top of mind is how well we take care of our bodies with food, movement, exercise, rest — the physical essentials. And that’s a good thing. But let’s not forget there is another extremely important element that’s often given short shrift, the emotional one. If you’re an emotional wreck or just lonely and disconnected from others, you’ll likely be in for a rough aging ride. In fact, numerous studies indicate that emotional well-being must be tended to as seriously as physical, so I advise you to start the process right away and start reaping the anti-aging benefits. Here’s where to start:
A sense of purpose can keep you youthful longer.
We all know that having a sense of purpose in life, of having a worthwhile mission, simply feels better. But did you know that it can give you a boost when it comes to living longer? A number of studies bear this out, most recently in 2019, when University of Michigan researchers analyzed 27 years worth of data from the National Institute of Health and Social Security Administration-sponsored Health and Retirement Study and found that those who had meaning and a sense of purpose lived longer lives than those who’d reported little to no sense of purpose and meaning. So, that’s a big wake-up call. Even if we don’t fully understand the biological “mechanism” here, we can appreciate that life purpose is a modifiable risk factor. The more you do now to cultivate it, the better your overall health and longevity is likely to be.
Give back and be of service.
Another age-defier? Being of service, finding some way of giving to others, or, at a minimum, of supporting organizations and individuals who are making a positive impact in the world. Give some aspect of yourself to a cause or movement that’s meaningful to you, be it your skills, time or money, and you’ll receive in return health-supportive feelings of increased connectedness to your community and humankind in general. Volunteer now! Think about what gifts you have to offer (cooking, reading, teaching, driving, you name it) and whom you’d like to help (animals, kids, seniors, fill in the blank). If you pick well and start with a small commitment, volunteering will feel more like a gift than a chore. Find out about drop-in days at an animal shelter, cleanup efforts at a local park, meal-prep groups for homebound folks, whatever. What you’ll get back is invaluable and becoming involved with like-minded people expands your sense of community, which, coming full circle, contributes to living a long and healthy life.
Your service and compassion are infectious, in a good way.
When you are kind to another person or give of yourself with no expectation of anything in return, you experience the “helper’s high”— the pleasure and reward centers of your brain light up, as if you were on the receiving end of the good deed. Your cortisol and blood pressure drop, protecting your cardiovascular system, while oxytocin and serotonin, the brain chemicals associated with love and bonding, go up. What’s more, your acts of kindness stimulate feel-good chemistry in the recipients and often inspire them to similar acts. So, when we ‘pay it forward,’ one act of kindness at a time, we help each other become more present and connected — and healthier, too. Pursuing compassion is an excellent way to age!
Take a tip from your long-lived elders.
In the areas around the world known as “blue zones” – such as Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Icaria, Greece – a considerably higher-than-average number of people live especially long and healthy lives, remaining vibrant and active well into their 80s, 90s and even beyond. So, what are they doing right? There are a number of commonalities, but across the board, a few big ones stand out: 1) they live with a sense of purpose; 2) they give to others; 3) they have strong social networks that enable them to engage frequently with their communities, families and friends. What does that mean for you on a day-to-day basis? Connect with finding meaningful things to do, and work on building and cultivating your own community or tribe.
Connecting with others is good for your longevity.
By some estimates, roughly 20 percent of people struggle with too much alone time, and a third of Americans over 40 say they’re lonely. Problem is, all that loneliness can have a considerable negative impact on health. The cure? Creating and maintaining social connection, which has been shown to boost optimism, buoy mood, and, in turn, help keep immunity up as well. So, find time to make, grow and maintain those connections!
Tend your relationship garden.
Cultivating connection and spending time with people you love is a huge factor in aging well, and in certain phases of life, it’s easy to do. We have a tribe at school and then at work, and for parents, there’s community involved in raising kids. But as life changes, kids grow up, you retire – or maybe a pandemic upsets the apple cart – you may need to work a little harder to tend to friendships and close relationships. But making the effort delivers a big health pay-off, so make socializing (in a safe and healthy way, of course) a priority. It’s one of the easiest wellness activities there is, and one of the most pleasurable. Make room on your calendar to try to schedule at least one social event a week. It doesn’t have to be anything elaborate – something as simple as a weekly check-in phone call, a video chat, a walk around the neighborhood with a friend, or an al fresco lunch on a park bench, will do the trick.
Expand the circle.
Making new friends as an adult can be a bit trickier –new friendships take some time, attention, and shared experiences, to develop. As you go about your business, however, do be aware when you meet folks you like. Be open to the idea of hanging out with new people, and be patient. Building a strong, loving social structure over time will help ensure that isolation doesn’t become an issue later, when life’s challenging transitions begin to add up. In other words, take the time now to start building up a community of people to share life’s ups and downs with, and then to lean on and support as the years go by. Stay away from complainers who will sap your energy, and spend time with can-do, positive people who inspire and motivate you. And in case you need one more reason to make the effort to grow your circle? Studies show that people age more rapidly and have a greater dementia risk when they don’t have some version of a family or a tribe that’s got their back.
Bottom line: to help yourself age more slowly, with health-enhancing positivity, be sure to keep connecting, giving and making your moments count.