Aging is a fact of life. Each year, a person finds themselves hitting new age milestones, decades and life seasons, all of which bring about physical, emotional and cognitive changes. In looking at aging, overwhelming evidence shows healthy lifestyle habits can improve a person’s well-being, ultimately making a difference in their quality of life throughout their lifespan.
Three University of Alabama at Birmingham experts weigh in and share tips for maximizing healthy substitutions and additions that can in turn increase one’s quality of life.
A long life versus a life lived fully
It has long been said that eating healthy and exercising can affect a person’s overall health and well-being. But data shows that the tried-and-true phrase can mean a person lives a healthier life in the time they are allocated versus living a longer life.
“There is an abundance of research showing that healthy lifestyle habits — which include regular physical activity and a diet light on red meat and heavy on fruits and vegetables — leads to healthier longevity,” says Steven Austad, Ph.D., Protective Life Endowed Chair in Healthy Aging Research in the UAB Department of Biology. “By that, I mean living life with the physical and mental abilities to do the things you like to do, not necessarily a longer life.”
While we do not have the keys to stop time and aging alone, Austad’s comments are echoed by James Hill, Ph.D., chair of the UAB Department of Nutrition Sciences, and Thomas Buford, Ph.D., director of the UAB Center for Exercise Medicine and professor in the UAB Division of Gerontology, Geriatrics and Palliative Care.
“A healthy lifestyle will positively contribute to quality of life, while effects on lifespan are smaller,” Hill says.
Buford explains that “older adults we’ve talked with over the years say that better quality of life or the ‘life in your years’ is more important to them than the number of years of their life.”
Small changes = big impacts
All three experts agree that incorporating healthy eating and regular physical activity will make for a fuller life. However, Hill notes a key reason to embrace a healthy lifestyle is avoiding or managing chronic diseases.
Adapting consistent and healthy eating habits and moderate physical activity relative to a person’s needs and existing lifestyle can help to ward off chronic diseases and lower the chances of significant health events as one ages, including heart attacks, high blood pressure — even dementia.
“A real surprise that has come out in recent years is that sustained physical activity helps prevent Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias,” Austad says. “A muscle-brain connection can truly make the difference in a person’s overall health as they mature.”
Austad also notes that a key to healthy aging lies in staying socially connected to others.
“Remaining socially engaged is important for both mental health and life satisfaction," he says. "Sitting alone at home is a health-compromising habit, but a habit that we can all break with a little effort.”
Incorporating changes for life
The notion of adopting small or large changes to routines or lifestyles can be the reason people never start making adaptations. In relation to aging, both Buford and Hill agree that finding enjoyable physical activity or nutritional habits that one can incorporate consistently and without pressure is key.
“Many people tend to get discouraged when they can’t meet guidelines for physical activity or aren’t perfect in their diet,” Buford says. “Research says that even lower levels of physical activity can have health benefits if you are consistent, and diet quality is all about balance and consistency. Also, finding a group of people to support one another is frequently cited as one of the best ways to maintain healthy lifestyle habits.”
In making any plans to modify lifestyle habits, the key is to start small and steadily make incremental changes that can be sustained over time.
“It’s never too late to adopt a healthy lifestyle,” Hill says. “Often people who have not had healthy habits can start by making a few small changes in how much they move and what they eat. This will often lead to more changes. No matter how old you are or how bad your lifestyle habits are, you can benefit from making better lifestyle choices.”
In 2021, Protective announced a $1.5 million investment to create the Protective Life Endowed Chair in Healthy Aging Research at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and formally named Steven N. Austad, Ph.D. as the inaugural endowed chair.
Additionally, Protective’s total $2 million investment toward advancing the science of healthy aging also funds the Protective Life Healthy Aging and Research Acceleration and Innovation Fund. This fund will drive further research efforts, while also expanding awareness about the findings and applications to advance the field and improve quality of life in aging individuals.