Age-Proof Your Body
How do you see yourself in your 70s, 80s, and 90s? Our personal longevity heroes include Esther Williams, still swimming and a business owner at 85; Ileana Sonnabend, a formidable presence in the art world at 92; and Ruth Gruber, 95, who published her first book of photography last month after decades as a foreign correspondent. These women need not be exceptions to the rule. Researchers tracking the health and longevity of tens of thousands of people have accumulated powerful data that provides some clear advice for all of us. The bottom line: You have more control than you think, and the time to take action is now.
"It’s not what you do when you’re 75 but what you do when you’re 40 or 50 that makes a difference," says Lewis H. Kuller, MD, a public health professor at the University of Pittsburgh who has been involved in a dozen different aging studies. "Now we know — you can move the clock back."
Surprisingly, genes have little to do with longevity. Whether your parents lived to 58 or 98, that number is neither the death sentence nor the free pass that you might imagine. "Knowing the age at which your mother or father died reduces the uncertainty about when you will die by only about three percent," says James Vaupel, PhD, executive director of the Max Planck Institute in Germany. "How long you live is largely explained by your environment — are the cars safe? is good quality healthcare available? — and by your behavior." These practical do-it-now suggestions are gleaned from major aging studies.
Keep Tabs on Your Cardiac Health
Even if you haven’t been diagnosed with heart disease, a slow, silent buildup of plaque in your arteries can age you before your time. The Cardiovascular Health Study at the University of Pittsburgh tracked nearly 3,000 subjects age 65 and older, testing for their degree of subclinical cardiovascular disease (SCVD), which is marked by blockage in the arteries that supply blood to the brain, heart, and muscles. During the eight years of the study, women with little or no SCVD displayed the mental and physical health of women six-and-a-half years younger.
"The health of your circulatory system has a big impact on how long you live and the quality of your life as you age," says Kuller. "Cardiovascular disease has a long, slow incubation period, and there is a lot you can do in midlife to keep it from developing later on in life."
Beyond the well-known advice for reducing your risk — don’t smoke, stay active, maintain a healthy weight, and keep your cholesterol and blood pressure in check — Kuller recommends proactively managing and lowering any existing heart disease risk factors that you do have with these steps.
Schedule a Cardiac CT Scan
"If your blood pressure or cholesterol is a little elevated, but not so high that you need medication, or if you are overweight or have diabetes, get a coronary calcium study — a CT scan that reveals the amount of calcium in your coronary arteries — as a baseline when you are 55 or 60," he says. "That will let you know how aggressive you need to be with your risk factors." (Cardiac CT scans are widely available, and more insurers are covering them.)
Lower High Blood Pressure
If you’re hypertensive in midlife, the length of time you’ll live without heart disease shrinks by 7.2 years compared with women with normal pressure. Even high-normal readings cut two years off your heart-disease-free life expectancy, according to the Framingham Heart Study. "It’s not enough just to take your blood pressure medication. Get your pressure checked frequently and make sure that you reach adequate levels of blood pressure control with medication, physical activity, and a healthful diet," says Oscar H. Franco, MD, of the University Medical Center in Rotterdam.
Assess Your Hearing
A little-known sign of cardiovascular risk: high-frequency hearing loss as you age. It’s most likely the result of high insulin levels and stiff arteries, according to researchers with the Health, Aging, and Body Composition Study of the National Institute of Aging. These may damage or reduce blood flow to vessels in the inner ear.