The biggest factor in healthy aging is simply eating less. After about age 45, your body just doesn’t need as many calories as it once did—it’s not building anymore; it’s protecting and preserving. This requires less fuel.
A recent study showed that subjects who reduced calories by 30 percent lived longer and even avoided some age-related diseases. This research didn’t even take into account what the subjects were eating, only the amount. So this single change—eating less now, and cutting back a little more every five years or so—can have a serious impact.
Consuming less food is also easier on your system. Less food means less for your body to process, less garbage for it to dispose of. It lightens the workload, and that translates into better overall function.
It may sound like a big ask. We get that. Some of the happiest times in life are centered around food. Time around the table with family and friends is precious and, in fact, also an important part of aging well—community, love, sharing, connection. Just be smart about what’s on that table and be conscious of habits that need tweaking.
Start with the simple idea of eating till you’re only 80 percent full. It’s the difference between satisfying your hunger and feeling the need to unbutton your pants. This alone can be life-altering.
16-hour overnight fasting
Short fasts benefit you in a few ways. One is simple calorie reduction: When you don’t eat for an extended period of time, you naturally (and effortlessly) eat less overall. Another is that your digestive system works better when it has a chance to rest and recover—and in fact, your body can repair itself better when it isn’t constantly diverting energy to digestion. Third, fasting causes major changes in several crucial hormones that impact aging and weight, including insulin and growth hormone. Fourth, fasting is one of those hormetic “small stresses” that stimulate the longevity gene pathways. Fifth—and this is big—fasting kicks in autophagy, the cellular detox process critical to strong immunity and aging well.
So here’s the plan: A couple of times a week, have dinner on the early side, and the first meal the next day a little later, leaving a good 16 hours in between. This simple practice is incredibly powerful. And it’s not that difficult. You make it a point to finish dinner by 7 or 8 p.m.
seven or eight hours, we hope (see sleep more and sleep better). In the morning, you get up and have a big glass of water. And then you eat a nice nutritious meal at 11 or 12.
The gut–immunity connection
Your gut wall is the primary barrier between your body and the outside world (where food, bugs, toxins can be threats). Protecting that barrier—which determines what’s allowed into your system and what’s not—is the key to health.
When the microbiome is not healthy and balanced, your fragile woven gut wall loosens, leaving tiny spaces where bacteria, toxins, and pieces of partially digested food can leak into the bloodstream. This is called “leaky gut,” and it’s as bad as it sounds. The particles can set off inflammation almost anywhere in your system. This is all internal, but the effects are not subtle. Leaky gut can trigger joint pain, skin rashes, moodiness, anxiety, depression, brain fog, and hormonal issues. It can weaken immunity and exacerbate autoimmune problems.
It begins with your diet. But there’s more. Almost all the advice in this book contributes to the strength and wellness of the gut microbiome. The short version is: Eat fresh, organic, unprocessed food; stay away from antibiotic-treated and hormone-riddled animal products—and produce that’s been sprayed with toxic herbicides like glyphosate (certified organic growers do not spray with glyphosate). Feed your body prebiotics (garlic, onions, leeks, asparagus) and probiotics (fermented foods) every day. Sleep, hydrate, meditate, use antibiotics only when you absolutely need them, and don’t take stomach medications like Nexium for long periods. In other words, many of the lifestyle habits that are good for general wellness are also key for gut health and immunity as you age.
Get serious about cutting sugar
Sugar is extra harmful as you age. It weakens the immune system and feeds diseases we all fear: diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s, to name a few.
In combination with certain proteins, sugar creates deposits that get into the bloodstream. They become lodged in various places and sit like rust on your organs (on the skin, which is your largest organ, this manifests as wrinkles). These deposits also damage cell membranes and can bore tiny holes in the walls of blood vessels. If you make only one change, it should be cutting refined sugar from your diet (and honey and agave too—it’s essentially all the same to your system). Sugar is hiding in a lot of processed foods, but start with the obvious stuff: cereal, cookies, candy, soda, fruit juice (which, incidentally, is just as bad for you as soda). Delete, delete, delete.
When you really need something sweet, eat some berries or a green apple (lower in sugar than most apples). The fiber in fruit slows the absorption of sugar somewhat, which minimizes the sudden rush and subsequent plummet of your blood sugar caused by standard sweets.
Sleep more and sleep better
Much of what people think of as signs of aging are just signs that the body needs more (and better) regular rest. If falling asleep or staying asleep has become a challenge, don’t give up. Instead, pay attention to the problem and consciously set yourself up for a good night’s sleep. This is not just about how you orchestrate your evening; it’s also about daytime habits. Step outside into the sunshine first thing in the morning to keep your circadian rhythms in sync with nature (lively in the day, waning as the sun sets, sleepy at night). Meditate in the morning; this has a positive impact on p.m. sleep—as does exercise: Cardio workouts during the day make it easier to fall asleep at night.
It’s important to get enough REM sleep—when dreaming happens—and also deep sleep, which is a type of non-REM sleep when there’s very little brain activity. This is when recovery is happening in the body, and when the brain’s cleansing system (known as the glymphatic system) kicks in to clear protein and other toxins. If you don’t sleep well and miss out on deep sleep, the glymphatic system is not able to do its job. As a result, all this stuff builds up in the brain, leaving you feeling foggy and off.
Lots of everyday physical activity
Besides keeping the body and mind vital and sharp, physical activity fends off stress and depression, improves circulation, promotes higher-quality sleep, builds immune resilience, and reduces the risk of chronic diseases.
As you age, it’s important to take extra care with exercise—it should be less about heavy exertion and more about frequency. Don’t take this the wrong way, but your body is breaking down. All our bodies are. After 40 or so (or even the late 30s), muscles shift from a state of growth to one of preservation. The focus at this point? Conserving, maintaining, and, most important, preventing injury. The mantra is “do no harm,” because as you get older, your capacity to heal lessens.
The key is to adapt your fitness routine as your body changes, be open to gentler workouts, and if something hurts, don’t do it. Sounds obvious, but a lot of us ignore pain and push through. That mentality is not great for aging well. It’s much better to adjust, pull back, change it up
And for all of us: Welcome opportunities to move, all day long. Take an earlier train so you can get off a stop or two sooner and walk to the office, or get off the bus early to add some footwork to your trip home. Skip the elevator for the stairs on the way up (not the way down—going down stairs or hills can be tough on the knees). Make your lunch break a movement break (and when possible, an outdoor fresh-air break). It’s not necessarily about exerting yourself a lot; it’s about constant, consistent, dependable activity. Be a mover.
Watch the alcohol and other toxins
As you age, your capacity to break down alcohol decreases. You may have noticed this if you’ve found yourself tossing and turning in bed after a second glass of wine with dinner. You used to be fine having two glasses, and now you’re not. That’s a normal consequence of aging, and one you can address. Alcohol is not good for your body for a few reasons (among them, it weakens the immune system and ups your sugar intake), but the fact that it interferes with sleep is especially problematic, because of the domino effect: If you’re not rested, your body craves sugar and carbs (for quick energy); you might be too tired to exercise; you overdo it on caffeine and throw off your internal clock, which messes up your next night’s sleep. Not to mention feeling crummy and being snappish. One bad night leads to another, and you become more exhausted (and more prone to reach for carbs), and the cycle continues. Isn’t it easier just to skip that second glass?
Look, alcohol is a toxin, but context matters. Sharing a drink with friends or family can be nourishing in an emotional way. So we’re not saying never. If you have a glass of wine a couple of times a week and it’s not having negative effects, it’s not a problem. But you shouldn’t be drinking every day. And obviously, if you have to have alcohol, that’s an issue, and something to deal with.
Four big glasses of water a day
As you age, the thirst signal can fade. This is not the case for everyone, but some people just don’t get the memo; although the body wants water, it doesn’t convey that to the mouth as clearly as it once did. Lack of fluids might express itself in other ways: loss of energy, irritability, fuzziness. So any feeling you have, start with water: if you can’t concentrate, if your partner’s voice is irking you, if you feel unable to cope, if you have a headache. Water it. Brain function can be affected by dehydration. Every day, drink at least four big glasses of water—ideally filtered water
Tea counts toward hydration, by the way, but coffee doesn’t (it’s a diuretic). Seltzer made from filtered water (SodaStream at home, say) is fine. Regular seltzer may not be made with filtered water, so that’s not great. Don’t drink flavored seltzers; chemicals are used to achieve those “natural” flavors. We’re not against bubbles, per se. The important part is where the water comes from, and what’s been added to it.
Grow your tribe
Cultivating connection and spending time with people you love is a huge factor in aging well. In certain phases of life, there’s no shortage of community: We have a built-in tribe at school and then at work; for parents, there’s community involved in raising kids. But as circumstances change—you switch jobs, the kids go off to college, you retire—you might need to make some effort. And this effort—seeing friends, tending important relationships, cultivating new connections—is very important to your health. Don’t wait for life transitions; prioritize socializing right now.
Think how good it feels to sit with a friend and talk and laugh. That should be the rule, not the exception. Make it happen one way or another at least weekly. Consider socializing a wellness activity, and figure out what you can change in order to weave in more time with dear friends.
Have a sense of humor about aging
Your attitude has a big impact on your health. Aging well involves cutting back on some classic pleasures—sweets, alcohol, fries, food in general—but if you can find a way to cultivate a positive approach, and stay cheerful about changes, it’s much easier. Try to view dietary sacrifices as an opportunity to figure out what else you like and develop an appetite for learning or nature or meditation.
You’ll appreciate life more if you can stay light and positive. Embrace the changes, nurture your body and mind, and smile at the more humbling aspects that come with piling up the years. It’s all a gift and, as they say, better than the alternative. Go with the flow, and you’ll likely age better.