Feel Great at Any Age

What you do now has a huge effect on how you'll feel later. Here, our decade-by-decade guide for a healthy, happy future—no matter how many birthday candles you just blew out
"Everything you do affects your body and has implications on your health," says Philomena Salvemini, an OB/GYN at Southeast OB/GYN in Matthews. "Though age-proofing the body isn’t really possible, you can set yourself up for success down the road." Check out the latest research and expert advice below to find out how to improve your health now … and in the future. "Just remember that it’s cumulative," says Salvemini. "Anything you should be doing in the early years you need to continue with for the rest of your life."

In Your … 20s

Make friends with happy people. Researchers at Harvard have discovered that surrounding yourself with happy people ups the chance that you’ll be happy, too—which also means you could live longer. Research shows upbeat people see more birthdays, most likely because their good spirits and positive outlook helps protect them from disease.

Find an activity you like. Thanks to a still-roaring metabolism you might not need to drop pounds yet, but scoring a few sweat sessions each week means it’s more likely you’ll be out walking than needing a walker when you hit sixty. "The best thing you can do in your twenties is weight-bearing exercise," says Salvemini. "Thirty minutes of walking, jogging, or aerobics five times a week will really help increase your bone strength and help prevent osteoporosis and fractures later on."

Kick the cancer sticks (or, even better: never start). "It’s the things we do in our twenties that impact the rest of our lives and that lead to the development of other diseases," says Stacy Haponik, internal medicine doctor, of Presbyterian Internal Medicine-North. Even a few social puffs can wreak havoc on your health down the road. "Not only does it increase your risk for cancer, but it’s also detrimental to your overall health," says Salvemini. "It increases aging and decreases bone density and fertility."

Be smart about sex. "Syphilis rates in North Carolina are twice as high as they were last year," says Salvemini. "Appropriate condom use can really protect you from diseases that can be truly devastating, and women should seriously consider getting the Gardasil vaccine to help protect them from HPV." If you’re sexually active, you should get screened for STDs at least once a year or before beginning a new sexual relationship, and women should schedule their yearly Pap smear up until age thirty.

Monitor your moles. "Melanoma is the leading case of cancer-related death in young people," says Salvemini. "It’s good to start having annual skin checks in your twenties." Have a dermatologist — not a family physician — look over your skin. According to a 2009 study in the Archives of Dermatology, too few resident physicians (i.e., family doctors, OB/GYNs, etc.) have been trained in skin examinations with 75.8 percent having never trained in a skin cancer examination.

In Your … 30s

Tie the knot. Saying "I do" may add years to your life. People who never marry are 58 percent more likely to die prematurely than hitched individuals, reports a 2007 study from UCLA. And it’s not just love that keeps the heart beating—nudges from your spouse to see the doctor and fewer sexual partners also contribute.

Buy a house in an old neighborhood. Homes in older areas tend to be pedestrian friendly, because they were built for walkers, not cars — a simple fact that’ll help you fight fat. A 2007 study from Stanford University found that people trying to up their activity level were more than twice as likely to succeed when they moved to a neighborhood built before 1950.

Keep weight in check. "Your metabolism starts to slow down in your thirties," says Stacy G. Haponik, an internist at Presbyterian Internal Medicine North, who stresses the importance of staying at a healthy weight to ward off obesity-related complications like type 2 diabetes. To see where you stand, figure out your body mass index (BMI) rather than step on the scale. "It’s a much more accurate assessment of whether or not you’re obese than looking at just weight alone," says Haponik. Go to cdc.gov/healthyweight/assessing/bmi to find your BMI.

Think of meat and dairy as a side dish. "The Mediterranean diet is probably the closest thing to a true antiaging diet," says Barbara K. Bapst, owner of Carolina Nutrition & Wellness. "Eat less red meat and processed foods and more fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, whole grains, and fish."

Check your cholesterol. Though it might be the last thing from your mind, it’s time to make sure all of those burgers and fries you’ve consumed over the years haven’t clogged your arteries. "Getting a routine cholesterol test every year once you hit thirty-five is really important, if it hasn’t been done sooner," says Haponik, who stresses that keeping your HDL and LDL (good and bad cholesterol, respectively) at good levels will cut your risk of heart attack and stroke.

Slather on sun block. "By the time you hit thirty, you’ve lived in your skin for quite some time," says Salvemini. "The ozone isn’t getting any better, and even a little bit of sun can make you look older than you are. UV rays come through regardless of the weather." To ward off wrinkles, use at least an SPF thirty on your face and an SPF fifteen on exposed areas of your body daily.

In Your … 40s

Love the skin you’re in. Feeling good about your age can add years to your life. A 2009 study from the Yale School of Public Health found that seniors who started out two decades earlier with positive thoughts about aging ended up living an average of seven and a half years longer than their birthday-fearing counterparts.

Get back on track. If you’ve never been able to stick with a workout program and healthy diet, now’s the time to finally commit. "The forties are when complications from weight really start to hit people," says Haponik. "Losing even 5 or 10 percent of your body weight can make a huge difference in health outcomes. I’ve had patients that were able to stop taking blood-pressure medications after losing only a few pounds."

Check your breasts. "When women turn forty, it’s time for a baseline mammogram and, at a minimum, another one every one to two years thereafter," says Salvemini.

Baby your heart. By age forty-five, most men can benefit by taking a baby aspirin (81 mg) daily, says Haponik. "It decreases the risk of dying from a heart attack. People with a family history of heart attacks or heart disease should talk to their doctor about starting earlier."

Give your bones a boost. "Women can go through perimenopause changes in their forties, which can affect bone health," says Salvemini. To keep bones strong, aim for 1,500 mg of calcium and 800 IU of vitamin D daily. "They work together to keep bones strong. They’re really important for osteoporosis prevention."

Stock your spice cabinet. Leaving salt on the shelf helps keep blood pressure in check, and replacing sodium with spices can lower your risk of developing diseases later. A recent study from the Journal of Medicinal Food found that cinnamon, thyme, Italian seasoning, and cloves contain active compounds that reduce inflammatory damage caused by elevated blood sugar levels.

Talk to your MD. "Even though forty is so young, women can be really miserable with hot flashes, vaginal dryness, and other perimenopause issues," says Salvemini. "Be vocal about what’s going on with your doctor, because we can help. You don’t need to be a silent soldier and deal with it on your own."

In Your … 50s

Drink coffee. Your morning addiction is good for you. A 2009 study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease found that java lovers who sipped three to five cups per day starting in midlife had a 65 percent lower risk of developing dementia in their senior years than those who drank no or little coffee. Why the boost? Caffeine lowers plaque formations in the brain. Bonus: researchers at Tel Aviv University in Israel found that coffee promotes good breath.

Factor in face time with your MD. The more candles on the cake, the more often you need to check in with your doc. "When they hit fifty, all men need to have a conversation with their doctor about prostate cancer and everyone, both men and women, need to have a colon cancer screening every five to ten years," says Haponik. Ladies: the big 5-0 is also when you need to begin yearly mammograms, so make sure to get checked.

Fight the flu. Even if you skipped the seasonal shot in the past, warding off the flu becomes more vital as you age. "Getting your flu vaccine every year once you hit fifty is important," says Haponik. "As people get older, they start to develop more chronic diseases and their immune system isn’t as strong. The flu itself can also lead to complications."

Get the right amount of sleep. Sleeping too much or too little can take years from your life. Finnish researchers found that sleeping less than seven hours a night increases mortality risk (likelihood you’ll die sooner than statistically expected) by 26 percent in men and 21 percent in women; conversely, sleeping more than eight hours ups the risk by 24 percent and 17 percent, respectively.

In Your … 60s

Believe in a higher power. Healthy adults who attend church, temple, or pray privately are likely to live longer than nonbelievers, reports a 2009 study in Health Psychology. The reason? "Religious commitment was linked with healthy behaviors, such as less smoking and more exercise, and social support," says Kathleen A. Lawler Row, study author and chair of the Department of Psychology at East Carolina University. "Spirituality made an additional contribution to the prediction of health and well-being. For many people, their religious beliefs help to provide a sense of meaning in the world, especially when events are unpredictable or harmful."

Mind your manners. It pays to be polite. A 2007 study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry found that conscientiousness protects against the development of Alzheimer’s disease after the age of sixty-five. "Highly conscientious people tend to have strong organizational and attentional skills," says Robert S. Wilson, who conducted the study. "In old age, as the pathology of Alzheimer’s disease accumulates, these skills allow people to continue to function well despite the pathologic changes."

Scan your spine. "Women need a bone scan when they hit sixty to assess their risk for hip and spine fractures," says Salvemini. "Fractures can be devastating and affect your overall health because you can’t get out and move around, and it puts you at risk for things like blood clots."

Play games. Flexing your brainpower can boost clarity. "Staying mentally active is really important to help prevent dementia," says Salvemini. Reading, talking with others, and playing mind games like crossword puzzles count.

Jenna Bergen is the author of Your Big Fat Boyfriend: How to Stay Thin When Dating a Diet Disaster (Quirk). She is also the health and fitness editor for Philadelphia magazine, and her work has appeared in Self, Fitness, Women’s Health, and Men’s Health. She writes regularly about relationships, health, and fitness on her blog, yourbigfatboyfriend.com.

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