January 3, 2022

Have you resolved to keep your mind sharp in the new year? Though a sound mind is important for everyone, it’s increasingly vital as we age, and the dawn of another year is a wonderful opportunity to focus on goals and behaviors to keep your brain in shape. Cognitive health has become an increasingly prevalent topic as longer life expectancies have led to a greater aging population. In recognition of this change, the United Nations and World Health Organization launched the “Decade of Healthy Ageing” in 2021 to focus on helping people age well.

But keeping your noggin nimble is only one component of healthy aging. It also includes aspects like physical and mental health, said Marcia Ory, Ph.D., MPH, a Regents and Distinguished Professor in Texas A&M University’s School of Public Health and an affiliate faculty member of the Center for Population Health and Aging. “The key is to think about healthy aging broadly and not just as one domain or one solution to the problem,” she said. “Healthy aging is not the absence of disease or disability; rather, it’s someone’s functional ability and capacity to do what one wants and values.”

So how can you practice healthy aging? Explore these expert tips from Ory on ways to benefit your mind and body in the new year and beyond.

1. Take care of your physical health

Everyone’s heard of the importance of eating right, staying active, not smoking and engaging in similar beneficial behaviors. While these actions all contribute to better physical health, they are equally important to improving cognitive health.

“The factors that relate to poor brain health are the same factors that are probably related to every disease,” Ory explained. “So, the one thing you can do for your cognitive health is to engage in all of those important healthy lifestyles.”

Pre-existing conditions, such as diabetes or cardiovascular disease, can cause additional health complications, so managing such diseases with the recommended physical activity and diet is another essential step to promoting a healthy mind and body as the years go by.

2. Make meaningful connections

Activities like reading a book or developing a new hobby boost your brain through mental stimulation, as can connecting with others.

It’s never too early to start engaging in healthy lifestyles. But it’s never too late to start. You can become more physically active or more socially connected in your community at 65 or at 85.
Marcia Ory, Ph.D., MPH

Whether interacting with family and friends or participating in community activities, engaging with those around you is indispensable to healthy aging, Ory said. The National Academy of Science has found that lonely and socially isolated people tend to have poorer mental, physical and cognitive health.

“An older person shouldn’t have to age alone,” Ory added. “They’re part of a family, community and health care system. If you want people to age well, everyone must be involved and the environment supportive.”

Many social activities, such as volunteering and finding ways to give back to your community, can add a greater sense of meaning and lead to a healthier, more fulfilled life. “A lack of purpose is often associated with feelings of loneliness, depression and poor mental health,” Ory said. “Engaging in meaningful activities helps you toward a path of healthy aging and keeps your brain stimulated.”

3. Shift your mindset

Another big influence on healthy aging? Your thoughts. Studies show that people who adopt negative stereotypes about aging tend not to age as well as those with a more proactive perspective. “If you think you’re going to be old, frail and forgetful as you age, you are more likely to be old, frail and forgetful because it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Ory explained.

But maybe you’re worried that you’ll still experience physical or mental decline no matter what you do. It’s true that some health factors, like genetics, are beyond your control and cause everyone to age differently. “However, healthy behaviors and supportive environments play a vital role in your health during your later years and can have a major impact on both longevity and overall quality of life,” Ory said.

“It’s always unfortunate if you don’t engage in these beneficial activities. Even if a risk factor you engage in doesn’t play out in one condition like a heart attack, it might play out in another like respiratory problems.”

But what if you haven’t focused on your health as much as you’d like over the years? Is it too late to do anything about it now? Absolutely not, said Ory. “Aging is not just at 65,” she explained. “You age from the minute you’re conceived, so it’s never too early to start engaging in healthy lifestyles. But it’s never too late to start. You can become more physically active or more socially connected in your community at 65 or at 85.”

No matter where you are on your health journey, behaviors like these can help you take the next step toward your destination of healthy aging. “Poor health in old age is not inevitable or irreversible,” Ory assured. “Healthy aging is possible.”

Want to support the Center for Population Health and Aging? Creating a chair or professorship will promote faculty excellence and additional health and aging research. For more information, contact Karen Slater ’88, assistant vice president for development, at the bottom of this page. To learn how to use a planned gift to support the center’s efforts, contact Angela Throne ’03 at plannedgiving@txamfoundation.com.

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