Q. I am 77 years old and would like to know what skills I will need to ensure I can handle what might be ahead of me in my later years. Is there any evidence that could point me in the right direction? I know there are no guarantees. I just want to be as prepared as possible. G.B.
A. Dear G.B.
We know there are no shortcuts to the fountain of youth. However, we do have some compelling information.
A research study from the University of London, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, looked at the impact of five life skills in over 8,000 men and women 52 years and older. They studied emotional stability, determination, control, optimism and conscientiousness.
The results are impressive. Those who had more of these life skills were in better physical health, had smaller waistlines and were able to walk significantly faster. Note walking speed is considered a measure that predicts mortality (yes, death) in older research populations. What is most interesting is that no single attribute was more important than another. It’s the accumulation of these life skills that counts. The more skills a person has, the more benefits in later life.
Another life skill considered a key to aging well is resilience — the ability to spring back or recover. Dr. Steven Southwick, professor of psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine and deputy director of the National Center for PTSD offers four suggestions to achieve resilience as reported in Next Avenue.
Be socially connected: Loneliness in older age has reached epidemic proportions. Baby boomers are aging alone more than any other generation in U.S. history, a looming public health threat according to the Wall Street Journal (December 12, 2018). Loneliness is a health risk comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day or consuming six alcoholic drinks a day. It is a bigger health risk than obesity or being physically inactive. That’s saying a lot.
Have a purpose: Those with purpose or mission in life tend to be stronger and more resilient than those with no purpose. Data from the Blue Zone project identified countries with the longest-lived people and described their lifestyles. A sense of purpose is a characteristic many shared. In Okinawa the term for purpose in life is “ikigia;” in Nicoya, Costa Rica “it’s plan de vide.”
Exercise: Regular exercise increases resilience both physically and emotionally. It reduces the risk of developing health problems and disabilities; it lowers blood pressure, increases balance and mobility, helps maintain weight and increases flexibility. Additionally, studies indicate that three hours of exercise a week increases a person’s life span by around five years.
Practice mindfulness and meditation: Part of resilience is knowing how to calm ourselves. To live in the moment decreases stress since being in the moment leaves no room to anticipate trouble. Some researchers have linked meditation to the lengthening or preserving the length of our telomeres. These are the caps at the ends of each strand of DNA that protects our chromosomes similar to the plastic cap at the end if a shoelace. Without this cap or coating, the shoelace would become frayed, just like our telomeres which means our cells would not be able to do their job which in turn affects our longevity. Longer telomeres are related to longer life.
Another life skill that impacts our longevity is having a positive outlook: How we feel about getting older matters. According to Yale’s Becca Levy, Professor of Public Health and Psychology, having negative stereotypes about getting older is a public-health issue. She writes that If we think about getting older only in terms of decline or disability, it is likely our health will suffer.
A final life skill is flexibility. Change will always be part of our lives. “If we don’t bend,” as the quote goes, “we break.”
G.B., thank you for your important question. As the new year approaches, it would be useful for each of us to take stock of our skills and lifestyle, knowing they play a large role in helping us age well not only today but for all of our tomorrows.