Updated 22nd November 2023

Actionable tips for improving your healthspan

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If you’re looking to age well, doing more physical activity, improving your diet, and getting better sleep are just some of the many ways to increase your “healthspan.”

Your healthspan is the period when you’re without debilitating chronic diseases and well enough in mind and body to live an independent, enjoyable life.

Taking steps to increase your healthspan can reduce your risk of developing cancer and metabolic diseases, like heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

The strategies can also help lower your risk of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia.

It’s best to adopt these habits as early as possible, but you can enjoy the benefits at any time of life. Some strategies can make a noticeable difference in months, weeks, or even days.

1. Exercise regularly

Getting enough exercise can prevent and manage chronic diseases and help you live longer

As you get older, staying fit and strong makes day-to-day tasks easier and means you’re less likely to fall.

It can help you stay independent for longer, maintain social connections, and continue to enjoy life.

Exercise is also great for your brain health. It can reduce your risk of dementia and improve symptoms of anxiety and depression.

What you can do

Try to do different types of exercise each week, including cardio, resistance training, and balance work. 

Each week, aim for the recommended 150–300 minutes of moderate exercise or 75–150 minutes of vigorous exercise. You can build up to this gradually.

Our recent article on building muscle has an exercise plan for people 50 and older.

And if you’re interested in the science behind health recommendations, check out our newsletter. You can sign up for these fresh insights and research updates in the box below.

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2. Eat well

Healthy eating patterns like the Mediterranean diet are associated with better health as you age and a longer lifespan.

They can reduce your risk of metabolic illnesses, like heart disease, and may even help protect against neurodegenerative diseases, such as dementia, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s. 

Eating enough protein and doing strength training are also crucial for countering the muscle loss that naturally happens as we age. This issue is called sarcopenia.

What you can do

Follow an eating pattern similar to the Mediterranean diet. It’ll include a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and nuts, as well as sources of healthy protein, like fish and poultry.

On the ZOE Science & Nutrition podcast about aging, Dr. Peter Attia recommends learning more about your metabolism.

It can help you gain insight into the effects of what you eat — and may encourage you to make healthy changes to your diet and routine.

3. Improve your sleep

As you get older, you sleep less deeply. You spend less time asleep and tend to wake up more often.

Poor sleep is associated with worse overall health and mental health among older people, as well as more difficulty with concentration and problem solving. It may also reduce physical ability and increase the risk of falls.

Large-scale studies have suggested that people in their 50s and 60s who sleep for 6 hours or less have a greater risk of dementia.

Also, those over 65 who sleep badly have a higher mortality rate during the next 5 years.

What you can do

Improve your sleep habits with the following tips:

  • Go to sleep and wake up at the same times each day.

  • Go outside for more natural light.

  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol after lunch.

  • Don’t spend too long in bed when you’re not sleeping.

  • Make your bedroom quiet, dark, and a comfortable temperature.

4. Quit smoking

Whatever your age, quitting smoking can:

  • reduce your risk of dying early 

  • reduce your risk of cancer, heart attack, stroke, and lung diseases

  • improve your circulation

  • improve your senses of taste and smell

  • protect others from the effects of secondhand smoke

What you can do

Quitting smoking can be difficult, but help and motivation are available. 

Be aware of the situations that trigger cravings and develop a plan to cope. You might consider group or individual counseling.

Keeping track of how much money you save by not smoking can also help.

If you’re struggling with cravings, you might try over-the-counter nicotine replacement products. A doctor can also prescribe other medications.

5. Limit alcohol

Over time, excessive drinking can play a role in age-related illnesses, including:

  • heart disease

  • stroke

  • liver disease

  • several types of cancer

  • a weakened immune system

  • dementia

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) define excessive drinking as four or more drinks on one occasion for women and five or more for men.

What you can do

If you drink excessively on a regular basis, cutting back to a moderate amount could help reduce your risk of some of the diseases we mention above.

Steps that could help include tracking your intake, limiting drinking to specific days, and not having alcohol in the house. 

The CDC describes moderate drinking as no more than one drink a day for women and no more than two for men.

In general, drinking less is better for your health than drinking more.

6. Sun protection

Your skin uses sunlight to make vitamin D, which is essential for building healthy bones.

But overexposure to the ultraviolet rays in sunlight can damage your skin, reducing its elasticity and leading to liver spots and other signs of aging. 

Too much sun is also a major cause of skin cancer.

What you can do

It’s impossible — and unhealthy — to avoid the sun completely. But protecting your skin can slow the signs of aging.  

Use sunscreen, wear a hat, and try to stay out of the sun between noon and 2 p.m.

7. Stay connected with others

People who are isolated or feel lonely are more at risk of:

  • heart disease

  • obesity

  • having a weaker immune system

  • poor mental health

  • cognitive decline

  • Alzheimer’s disease

Looking at the global locations with the largest populations of people over 100 — what they have in common are support systems, including family and friends, for older people.

What you can do

Nurture the positive relationships in your life. It’s about the quality of those bonds, not the quantity.

Try to do the activities you enjoy with other people. Call someone you’ve not spoken to for a while.

If you don’t know where to start, consider joining a choir, an exercise or hobby-related group, or volunteering for a local charity. There’ll be others there in the same situation as you. 

8. Manage stress

Frequent stress can damage your cells and speed up processes of aging. 

Stress also plays a role in chronic inflammation and aging-related diseases associated with it.

What you can do

Exercising, improving your diet, and staying connected with others can help manage stress. So can avoiding unhealthy habits, like smoking.

You could also try breathing exercises or meditation, which may reduce anxiety.

Counseling can help you identify what triggers your anxiety and change your behavior and thought patterns. 

Practicing being assertive and setting boundaries can also make a difference.

9. Make time for leisure and hobbies

Some hobbies can help you stay social. As we’ve seen, this can impact your health as you age. 

Different hobbies can also give your brain a workout. Research suggests that having hobbies is great for cognitive function and may even reduce your risk of dementia. 

What you can do

Try taking up creative hobbies, like writing, singing in a choir, or learning an instrument. Active ones, like gardening, dancing, or golf, can also help.

Even reading more could have benefits for your brain. So could owning a pet or regularly spending time with other animals.

10. Keep your mind active

We’ve seen how staying mentally active by socializing or taking up a hobby can improve your brain health and reduce your risk of dementia.

But what about “brain training” apps on your phone or computer?

In fact, there’s very little evidence that these apps help you do anything but get better at their games.

And some scientists say they have no value at all for improving wider cognitive skills.

What you can do

Forget apps that keep you glued to your phone, and try spending more time with other people or work toward mastering a skill. 

In one study, learning digital photo editing or quilting led to significant improvements in longer-term memory for people over 60.

11. Follow your doctor’s advice

Around 125,000 deaths a year in the United States are due to people not taking their medication as directed. 

Meanwhile, many people leave it late to see a doctor when they’re sick.

Accessing healthcare can be extremely difficult. Physical distance and disability can play a role, as can social and economic factors.

What you can do

Talk with your doctor to make sure you’re taking your medications correctly. Setting alarms or having other reminders can help.

Whenever possible, attend the checkups your doctor schedules, and make an appointment if you may have a new health issue.

When to start making healthy changes

Whatever your age, the time to make healthy changes is now.

You’ll get the greatest benefits from starting early, but it’s never too late to adopt new habits that improve your health and how you age.

Many of the changes we recommend above can make a difference quickly, in a matter of weeks or even days.

For instance, in one study, adults aged 65–80 did two 5-minute, low-intensity exercise sessions at home every day. 

After just 28 days, the participants could do more than 30% more activity and had bigger, stronger leg muscles.

And though you’ll need to switch to the Mediterranean diet long-term to get the full benefits, studies suggest that it may improve your focus, energy, and mood in just a few days.

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Summary

There are many ways to increase your chances of living a healthy, enjoyable life for longer.

Exercise, diet, sleep, and avoiding smoking are key. And having a rich social life, taking up new hobbies, and managing stress can also make a big difference.

The earlier you make these changes, the better. But you can see the benefits, and increase your healthspan, at any age.

If you’re looking to improve your diet, ZOE might help. Our at-home test looks at your unique blood sugar and blood fat responses to different foods, as well as the health of your gut.

With this information, our personalized nutrition program can offer advice about the best foods to eat to achieve your health goals.

To learn more about how it works, take our free quiz.

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