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Lifestyle Changes Could Add 10-15 Years to Your Life

Image of A female Navy physical therapist works with a senior citizen lying on a table holding a ball. U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman Lyda Kuoch, with the U.S. Naval Hospital Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, works on upper body strength and mobility with a senior patient during a routine physical therapy session on Sept. 28. Small steps, such as changes in nutrition, avoiding risky behaviors, and exercising can prolong life and help you age healthily.

You can age healthily even with the clock ticking away. It just takes a little work. Even small steps to improving your health can mean a longer and better quality of life.

And defense health officials are working to dispel the negative concept of aging. "There is a common misperception that it is normal in the aging process to have poor health, heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, dementia, and other chronic diseases. This couldn't be further from the truth," said U.S. Air Force Col. (Dr.) Mary Anne Kiel, who chairs the Defense Health Agency Primary Care Clinical Community. "When lifestyle changes are adopted by our patients using an evidence-based approach, chronic disease can be prevented or delayed by 10-15 years compared to the average. This leads to extra health and years that our patients can enjoy," Kiel said.

Lifestyle Adjustments can Prolong Your Life

Kiel also serves as chair of Air Force Lifestyle & Performance Medicine and emphasizes how lifestyle choices impact health well into advanced years.

"Patients can make a personal choice at any age to optimize their health and extend their longevity by changing their nutrition to a predominantly plant-based diet, minimizing processed foods, doing physical activity daily, pursuing restorative sleep, avoiding risky substances, managing stress, and cultivating positive social connections," Kiel advised. In addition to avoiding risky behaviors, such as smoking and too much alcohol, lowering your stress levels and good sleep hygiene are crucial to staying healthy as you age.

"Improved sleep can produce almost instantaneous results for improved mental health, pain levels, and risk for infectious disease," in addition to reducing the risk of dementia and overall rates of death," Kiel said.

Similarly, "a revolutionized diet and physical activity regimen can produce rapid changes to the body's risk for cardiovascular events, cancer, and diabetes," she noted.

If you want to lower your risk of diseases and take fewer medications, you may be able to do that through changes to your lifestyle. "Studies show that individuals who make intensive lifestyle changes can actually reverse hypertension, atherosclerosis, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity, often with the ability to reduce or eliminate any medications they may have needed previously," Kiel said.

To live longer, we need to change how our DNA is affected. Chromosomes carry long pieces of DNA, which is the material that holds our genes. Telomeres, which are the ends of our chromosomes, typically get shorter as we age. "Changing what we eat, and other lifestyle factors can reduce the speed at which the telomeres shorten, effectively extending the number of years that we live," Kiel explained.

Health and Holistic Fitness Program

The U.S. Army's broad-ranging holistic approach, the Health and Holistic Fitness program, encourages service members and their families to engage in healthy behaviors and a lifestyle that promotes healthy aging, said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Holly Roberts, who holds a doctorate in geriatrics and is a neurologic-certified specialist and physical therapist.

Keep Moving and Keep Your Bones Strong

"Movement on a continuous basis is very important to keeping healthy as we age and to maintain our mobility," said U.S. Navy Lt. Alexa Werner, a physical therapist at the U.S. Navy Medicine Readiness and Training Command, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

"The largest impairments that we see are a lack of strength, balance, or endurance as well as limited mobility," she said.

"One of the constant sayings I heard while going through physical therapy training school was 'Motion is lotion,'" Werner said.

"Basically, the more you move, the more you can move. This is true in resolving pain in younger patients, as well as helping to ensure healthy aging and independence in aging populations," she added.

One of the biggest changes Werner said she has seen in treating the senior population is "the emphasis on strengthening and functional activities."

"Once the thought was that elderly patients are fragile, but we have seen in recent research that elderly individuals respond well to weight training and can increase their bone density resulting in decreased risk of fracture," Werner said.

Fall prevention is also important for older adults. "Falls are the leading cause of fatal accidents in older adults and the leading cause of trauma-related hospitalizations in older adults" Roberts said.

One of the best ways to improve balance is to start a walking program, she suggested, or work your balance through such evidence-based community-based exercise programs. This could include: 

  • Tai Chi, a series of gentle physical exercises and stretches that each flow into the next, ensuring constant motion.
  • Otago, a series of 17 strength and balance exercises delivered by a physical therapist in the home that reduces falls between 35% and 40%.
  • Stay Active, a series for endurance, strength, balance, and stretching.
  • Independent for Life, a series that includes warm-up, aerobics, balance, strength training, and stretching exercises that can be done in a seated or standing position. Fitness checks track general mobility, arm strength and leg strength.

"Studies have shown that no matter what our age, making nutrition and other lifestyle changes can have dramatic impacts by extending our lifespans and improving our quality of life," Kiel said, adding: "You're never too old to make a change."

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