One of our favorite seniors was Lucille Fleming, a spunky retired nurse who honestly had better cognitive skills and memory than some of our patients 50 years younger. At 101, Ms. Fleming still lived independently and entertained regularly in her lovely apartment.
The lifestyle habits Ms. Fleming shared with us for our book, Age to Perfection, align to an amazing extent with the medical research, training, and experience it’s taken us decades practicing medicine to gain.
When we asked Ms. Fleming what she thought it took to live to 100, she encouraged:
- positive attitude
- fresh fruit and vegetables
- time having fun with friends
- cognitive stimulation through hobbies, discussions and games
- engagement in interests
- cultivation of healthy family relationships
- careful dressing
You’ve probably heard these 11 tips throughout your life, and even attempt to acquire them here and there. Like most of our patients, however, committing to them can be a struggle.
Here, we provide the science behind them. We aim to convince you of what we know is true: you can enjoy an active, engaged, and sharp life into your 80s, 90s and even 100+ years!
Science (and Centenarians) Back These Powerful Longevity Lifestyle Habits
Spirituality, Prayer, and Meditation
Today, meditation is all the rage.
You can use the guided or musical meditations apps like Calm.com or HeadSpace.com to reduce your anxiety, understand your life’s purpose, feel more confident, get clarity on an issue, get to sleep and so much more.
But what about meditation and prayer’s impact on cognitive or brain health?
Where generations of our praying forbearers have promoted the benefits of prayer and/or deep reflection (meditation), today modern medical technology actually measures brain volume, brain waves and more before and after prayer and meditation.
Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist at The University of Pennsylvania, used brain scans people affiliated with all types of organizations, including Tibetan Buddhists and Franciscan nuns. His work confirms, during meditation, blood flow increases to particular parts of the brain and decreases in other parts. The brain actually shuts down the area open to the bombardment of sensory information from the outside.This sensory shutdown has restorative and relaxation effects.
In another respected study, Richard Davidson, PhD, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin believes that the brain can be sculpted and changed much like the muscles. His work shows that prayer and mediation can actually increase attention and compassion, lessening communication breakdowns and reducing temper flares. By regularly changing the brain’s activity, as evidenced by brain scans, the body begins to recognize and adapt to new neural pathways, a term now coined “neuroplasticity.” Davidson claims that not only can the brain change, but recent studies show that the immune system can be boosted as well when one meditates or prays.
The precursor to meditation has always been prayer. Most religions involve some sort of prayer. It’s been around since the beginning of humanity as a way to connect with a wiser, gentler protector.
If you’re curious, an avalanche of studies have conclusively demonstrated the benefits prayer and meditation have on physical health. (Review a good compilation of the best studies here.)
Act on It!
In our practice, we’ve found meditation is most beneficial when done on a regular basis and for long enough to allow the brain function to change. Try to meditate for 20-30 minutes per day to get the best benefit.
Sexuality and Long-Term Brain Function
Exercise is a great way to increase memory power, and sex is a great way to exercise. Dr. Brian Christie, a neuroscientist at the University of Victoria in Canada, reports that exercise (like sex) can actually increase your brain size and improve intelligence. Other studies show that sex can decrease the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Sex not only increases blood flow to the brain, it gives the brain a much needed boost of glucose, which is used as energy. Need a boost in creativity? Sex has long been known to be the inspirational muse to some of the greatest writers and artists.
Act on It!
It’s well-documented that many of those in their 70s and 80s enjoy active sex lives. Pharmaceutical help in the form of Estradiol for women, Viagra for men, and others exist to support this worthy goal.
It’s only during healthy sleep that critical neurobiological processes can occur to make the structural and physiological changes necessary to consolidate memory, optimize attention, creativity and problem solving. The brain needs to rest in order for it to absorb new information. While the body is resting, memories are consolidated, making room for new information. REM sleep stimulates the part of the brain that is used for learning and REM plays a significant role in memory and cognitive functions, as well as other physiological functions of the body. Healthy sleep underlies mood, energy level and cognitive fitness.
And yet, today’s work schedules and constant connectivity do not create an ideal environment for healthy sleep. It’s a shame that so many have to raid their sleep time in order to get everything done in their day. People are getting less sleep than they did in the past. It is not just the amount of sleep that you get, but the quality. Sleep is imperative to healthy brain function and a healthy immune system.
Act on It!
You should be sleeping in a cool, dark room for 7-8 hours a night. If you have trouble falling asleep, try journaling at night. This will help you reduce the number of things that run through your head while you try to doze off. If you snore, you may have sleep apnea, a dangerous condition that can lead to other health problems. Visit your doctor and request a sleep study. When you have the results and recommendations, take steps to increase your sleep quality.
The Healthy Brain Diet
Every one of our cells, organs, and systems are fueled and influenced by the 3,000 pounds of food we consume each year. Due to several factors--namely, the Standard American Diet (aptly named SAD), current depleted soil conditions, and marketing pressure from profit-driven food producers--many Americans do not get the nutrients we need from food alone.
The most recent United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) report on dietary guidelines reveals that 43% of Americans are deficient in vitamin A, 94% are deficient in vitamin D, and 88% are deficient in vitamin E.
After analyzing this data along with 62 other studies, experts from Oregon State's The Linus Pauling Institute Micronutrient Information Center, conclude:
- "micronutrient inadequacies are common in the United States and other developed countries . . . and may cause covert symptoms only that are difficult to detect clinically. For example, micronutrient inadequacies could elicit symptoms of general fatigue, reduced ability to fight infections or impaired cognitive function. Micronutrient inadequacies may also have important implications for long-term health and increase one’s risk for chronic diseases like cancer, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes mellitus, osteoporosis, and age-related eye disease."
Act on It!
When it comes to fruits and vegetables, choose ones that are rich in color. They will also contain higher levels of vitamins and minerals. Below is a list of fruits and vegetables that you should consume on a regular basis.
- Avocado: This Omega 3 fatty acid-packed vegetable is great alone or with a burger. It is proven to give added brainpower.
- Blueberries: A focus pill in the form of a sweet berry. Blueberries are perfect for those with ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) and those without.
- Dark Chocolate: Tasty and full of antioxidants, dark chocolate leaves both the brain and sweet tooth satisfied. The added caffeine also helps with alertness.
- Fish: The omega 3 fatty acids found in fish help with mental clarity and fight off dementia.
- Kale and Spinach: Both these leafy green vegetables have been shown to fight off Alzheimer’s disease.
- Nuts: With their antioxidant and protein properties, a handful of nuts will help you get and stay focused.
- Popcorn: Filled with Vitamins B6, B12, and E, this fun food will help boost memory and alertness. The healthiest popcorn is air-popped and without butter or salt.
When we exercise, our brains release serotonin, a chemical that regulates mood. A number of studies have found that exercise is a major factor in reducing stress, anxiety, and depression.
But an improved mood is just one perk of regular exercise. One Neuroscientist at the University of Victoria, Brian Christie Phd, has found that exercise can actually increase your brain size and make you smarter. Exercise activates neurotransmitter acetylcholine and increases neutrophils, both of which fuel brain cells production. The brains of people that walk three times a week have an increase in brain size in as short as three months.
More, exercise can help reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. New studies show that thirty minutes of moderate exercise, five times a week, can reduce your risk for Alzheimer’s by 35 percent. Even more impressive is that those that add weight and strengthening exercises to their aerobic workout can cut their risk in half. During Alzheimer’s and dementia progression, the brain actually shrinks, but exercise can counteract that process. Other studies have shown that patients that do develop Alzheimer’s have a slower rate of progression if they have had a life of physical activity. Those that have lived a more sedentary lifestyle in the past tend to deteriorate at a much faster rate.
Act on It!
Exercise can create more positive effects on your body and mind than medication or a combination of medications. Make sure you’re exercising for at least 30 minutes, three times a week. Five times a week, and an hour each time is better, but don’t let an inability to achieve that goal stop you from walking for even 20 minutes if that’s all you have, however. Weight loss of just 5 to 10 pounds has also proven to have positive health benefits. You don’t have to be Simone Biles or Michael Phelps to be healthy.
Your 90 year-old brain will thank you for committing to these healthy habits now!
Lucille Fleming mentioned above is no longer with us, BUT she was a poster child for living WELL into old age, and enjoying friends, family, exercise, hobbies, and more right up to the end.
In our work with Stay Young and as physicians, we know that, with healthy habits, almost anyone can enjoy a senior lifestyle like Ms. Fleming’s. You can avoid dementia, Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular disease, and many of the plagues of unhealthy old age...if you start now!
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