Interviews with people celebrating their 100th birthday always include one question: What's the secret to your long life?
The answers aren't always in line with science. For example, in 2020 a Chinese centenarian responded with some dubious advice -- "smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol, and eat junk food."
From this, we can probably surmise that living a long life is sometimes just a matter of luck and good genes. The rest of us might need to work a little harder to live well into our older years. Are there certain things that can help?
To find out we reached out to Dr. Suzanne Salamon, associate chief for clinical geriatrics at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. We asked her for some advice on how to live longer -- and more importantly, how to live well.
Below are five of her tips.
1. Protect Your Brain
One of the conditions people fears the most as they get older is dementia. While your risk of Alzheimer's disease is largely out of your control, other types of dementia are preventable, says Dr. Salamon. The health of your brain, like your heart, is largely the product of your lifestyle habits.
"There are a whole lot of things we can do to prevent vascular dementia, which has the same risk factors as heart disease," she says. Preventive steps include, among others, eating a healthy diet, getting regular physical activity, not smoking, maintaining healthy body weight, and keeping cholesterol and blood pressure within the recommended range.
"It's important to start these practices early in your life, but it's never too late," says Dr. Salamon.
2. Walk More
A great way to stay healthy and active is to squeeze in more physical activity. An easy way to do that is by walking. You don't need to hit 10,000 steps a day to stay healthy; far less -- closer to 7,500 -- can do the trick, says Dr. Salamon. As it turns out, that 10,000-step goal may have been an arbitrary number created by a company marketing a Japanese pedometer. A 2019 JAMA Internal Medicine study found that half that number of steps was associated with better health. Even women taking as few as 4,400 steps per day had a 41% lower risk of dying during the study period when compared with women who walked 2,500 steps a day or fewer. And they didn't need to be power walking; just moving around the house was enough.
3. Put Technology to Use
Many older adults who didn't grow up with computers and other gadgets might be hesitant to embrace electronic tools. But learning to use them can bring health benefits, says Dr. Salamon. During the pandemic, telemedicine has become a valuable way for people to connect with their doctors and keep tabs on their health. Computers can also help people stay connected with friends and family."
For many older people, especially people in their 80s and 90s, the computer opens up the world for them," she says. They can use it to rapidly access information, read about anything and everything, and communicate by email and videoconference with their friends and family. Today, many senior centers offer assistance to people who want to learn more about how to use technology, which can give you an easy place to learn the ropes. Don't be afraid to give it a try!
4. Keep Tabs on Your Medication
As people get older, their pillbox often gets larger. Many people take multiple pills each day, some of them prescribed many years ago. This raises the risk of not only harmful drug interactions but also dangerous side effects. Prescriptions need to be updated regularly, because your body may react differently to drugs if your weight or your metabolism changes.
It's a good practice to review each of your medications with your doctor or pharmacist every six months to ensure that you still need to be taking them, that the dose is accurate, and that they aren't interacting with one another, says Dr. Salamon. Making needed adjustments can help you avoid side effects, such as dizziness, which may lead to a fall.
5. Use Tools to Help You Stay Mobile
A lot of people are reluctant to use a cane or a walker, even if they feel unstable when they walk. This may lead to a fall and a serious injury that affects their quality of life.
"A walker can really help keep you from falling and also gets you moving more. You won't be so afraid of moving and walking longer distances," says Dr. Salamon.
This article first appeared in Harvard Women's Health Watch