Healthy eating, physical activity, and other steps may prevent heart disease and improve overall quality of life. These healthy lifestyle changes may also help you live longer.
And there’s more good news: It’s never too late in life to start on a healthier path. Taking just a few actions can have an impact.
“Even the small changes are better than no changes,” said Alvaro Alonso, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of epidemiology and an investigator in the Healthy Aging Study at Emory University. The study follows a large number of people over time to examine the effects of a healthy lifestyle, family history, and medical factors as they age.
“People worry about living longer,” he said. “But we also want to live well during the years we live.”
Living longer, living healthier
“Studies have shown a correlation between a healthy lifestyle and longevity and reduced risk for heart disease, certain cancers, and dementia,” Alonso said. Life expectancy varies depending on gender, race, and ethnicity, but average U.S. life expectancy at birth is 78.6 years old, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.1
If you reach 65, the chance of reaching your 80s increases. Men live an average of 18 years past 65 and women live an average of 20.6 more years. 1
“That’s important information when planning your life and finances in older age,” Alonso said.
Getting started: Get physical, eat healthy
“To help extend your life expectancy and quality of life as you age, get moving.2 Physical activity is important for overall health, including heart and brain health,” advised Alonso.
Heart disease is the nation’s No. 1 killer, costing more than $218 billion annually in 2014 and 2015.3 Brain health refers to cognitive decline, dementia, and Alzheimer’s, a form of dementia. Dementia is the largest contributor to disability among chronic diseases, and in 2013, direct payments for healthcare, long-term care, and hospice care for dementia totaled $203 billion.4
Physical activity is one of Life’s Simple 7, seven factors the American Heart Association identifies for achieving ideal cardiovascular health. The AHA recommends adults get at least 150 minutes per week of moderate activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity, or a combination of both, preferably spread throughout the week. Including muscle strengthening activities at least two days per week is also recommended.5
“Aging may change exercise ability, but physical activity always is beneficial. It can help older people maintain muscle mass and reduce the risk of falls,” Alonso pointed out.
A healthy diet is another of Life’s Simple 7. “Following a heart-healthy diet can improve blood pressure and cholesterol levels and reduce inflammatory levels in the blood in just a few weeks,” Alonso said. Weight loss is an additional potential benefit.
“Make an effort to eat vegetables, fruit, lean proteins, and whole grain foods,” said Kristen Smith, M.S., R.D., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Although all foods can fit into a balanced diet, it’s best to limit foods containing high amounts of sodium, sugar, refined carbohydrates, and trans fats, like fried foods,” she added.
“Try to include at least one serving of a fruit or vegetable at every meal and for most snacks. Aim to fill half of your plate with vegetables and fruit,” suggested Smith. “Planning ahead can help. Consider storing produce in a visible place in your kitchen to keep them top of mind or try cooking vegetables in advance for the whole week. Make gradual changes in your diet, and think about the reasons for doing it.”
“Don’t be afraid to take it one change at a time,” she added. “Don’t ever think it’s too late to start eating healthier.”
Smoking and alcohol
Not starting to smoke is best, but those who do smoke should quit to reduce the risk for heart disease, lung disease, and other life-threatening health problems. Smoking shortens your life. But quitting is likely to add years to your life, help you breathe more easily, give you more energy, and save you money.6 Quitting also can reduce your risk for stroke and dementia.7
Limiting alcohol consumption is important because excessive drinking can cause liver disease, some cancers, depression, and accidents. Alcohol adds calories and leads to a higher risk of obesity and diabetes. Reducing alcohol intake also can help prevent high blood pressure.8
However, some researchers have suggested there are cardiovascular health benefits from moderate alcohol consumption. Moderate drinking means an average of one to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women.8
“It has to be tailored to the individual,” Alonso said. He also noted that in many cultures, and as part of the Mediterranean diet, a glass of wine with dinner is common.
Sleep, socializing, and the big picture
Getting enough sleep — at least seven hours or so per night — is part of a healthy lifestyle. Lack of sleep is associated with health problems, including obesity and Alzheimer’s. Sleep disorders also have been recognized as factors that can increase the risk of heart attack and stroke.9
“Strive for social interaction with others and engage in mentally challenging activities to reduce the risk of dementia,” Alonso recommends. “The desire to avoid dementia,” he noted, “can be a strong motivator for trying to achieve optimum cardiovascular health.”
The bottom line: Cardiovascular health is a major component of health in general. People who adhere to an overall healthy lifestyle tend to fare better as they age.
Transamerica Resources, Inc. is an Aegon company and is affiliated with various companies which include, but are not limited to, insurance companies and broker dealers. Transamerica Resources, Inc. does not offer insurance products or securities. The information provided is for educational purposes only and should not be construed as insurance, securities, ERISA, tax, investment, legal, medical or financial advice or guidance. Please consult your personal independent professionals for answers to your specific questions.
This article was prepared by the American Heart Association (AHA). Transamerica is not affiliated with the AHA and does not control, guarantee, or endorse the information. This information does not constitute the practice of medical advice, diagnosis or treatment .
1 “ National Vital Statistics Reports,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, June 2019
2 “ To Live Longer, Exercise Daily,” AARP, January 2019
3 “ 2020 Heart Disease and Stroke Statistical Update Fact Sheet At-a-Glance,” American Heart Association, January 2020
4 “ FAQs about Brain Health,” American Heart Association, June 2019
5 “ American Heart Association Recommendations for Physical Activity in Adults and Kids,” American Heart Association, April 2018
6 “ Quitting Smoking for Older Adults,” National Institute on Aging, January 2019
7 “ What the Heart Has to Do With the Head,” American Heart Association, January 2020
8 “ Is Drinking Alcohol Part of a Healthy Lifestyle? ” American Heart Association, December 20199 " The Dangers of Sleep Deprivation,” American Heart Association, June 2020