Hit a certain age and the phrase "youth is wasted on the young" has a whole new meaning. And if there really were a fountain of youth — well, let's just say some of us would be lining up faster than you could say "age before beauty."
Truth is, it's OK that immortality is just for fairy tales, because health and vitality is something you can foster through your lifestyle habits.
The 6 Keys to Healthy Aging
There are six lifestyle components for healthy aging, says David Katz, MD, MPH, CEO of Diet ID, Inc., author and founder and former director of Yale University's Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center.
"There's massive global consensus among public health and preventive medicine experts about the importance of sleep, physical activity, managing stress, avoiding toxins, building social connections and diet," Dr. Katz tells LIVESTRONG.com.
And the scientific literature backs this up: Studies that look at so-called "all-cause mortality" (death, in other words) show that exercise, sleep, stress, socialization (or lack thereof), what you put into your body and what you don't all play a role in how long we might live. Put another way, being active, not isolating socially, reducing stress, and eating and sleeping well all may add years to your life. And they make those extra years good years.
"But they're not siloed," Dr. Katz says. In other words, they act collectively rather than independently.
With that said, does one habit trump the others?
Why Sleep May Be the Most Important Key to Aging Well
Dr. Katz explains it like this: If you sleep well, you have more energy. If you have more energy, you exercise. If you sleep well and exercise, you have better self-esteem and you care about what you put into your body. When you're feeling good about yourself, eating and sleeping well and exercising, you're much more interested in socializing.
Still, as a nation, even though we know sleep is important, we don't exactly do it well: Over the past few decades, research suggests that more and more people are sleeping seven or fewer hours a night, per a September 2017 study in the Journal of the American Heart Association.
"Sleep is typically the habit we're most dismissive of," Dr. Katz says.
Maybe it's because sleep feels like downtime, or time where we can't do anything productive. Yet sleep is so monumentally important.
As Dr. Katz explains, sleep is when we restore ourselves and a lot of body repair happens. Indeed, the microbiome is reconstituted when we sleep, and cells all around the body replenish themselves. "So much of what the body needs to do for the next day happens when we sleep," Dr. Katz says.
We've all had nights when we slept well and nights when we slept poorly. The difference is stunning. When you've had a good night's sleep, you confront the stresses of the day with a lot more strength and resilience, Dr. Katz says.
"If you sleep well, you do a better job of choosing the right foods and you have better self-restraint," he says.
Conversely, after a lousy night's sleep, daily stresses feel overwhelming and there's a snowball effect that's set in motion. Sleep is the proverbial snowball at the top of the hill.
So, if you're concerned about aging well, make it your first goal to get seven to nine hours of good quality shut-eye every night. Then tackle the rest of the longevity habits.
Not sure where to start? Follow this 7-Day Kickstart Plan to Get Better Sleep.
Is This an Emergency?
- BMJ: "Recommended physical activity and all cause and cause specific mortality in US adults: prospective cohort study"
- The American Journal of Cardiology: "Long-Term Effects of Stress Reduction on Mortality in Persons ≥55 Years of Age With Systemic Hypertension"
- PNAS: "Social isolation, loneliness, and all-cause mortality in older men and women"
- Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition: "Nutrition and longevity - From mechanisms to uncertainties"
- Journal of the American Heart Association: "Relationship of Sleep Duration With All‐Cause Mortality and Cardiovascular Events: A Systematic Review and Dose‐Response Meta‐Analysis of Prospective Cohort Studies"