Modern medicine has created advances that allow for longer lifespans. But, extended life expectancy does not necessarily mean a higher quality of life: the last decade of life for many is associated with poor health, including limits on mobility and a decline in mental function.

The World Health Organization defines healthy ageing as the ability to maintain a level of mobility and cognitive function that allows people to enjoy multiple aspects of life, rather than just a longer lifespan.

With increasingly older populations, how can people continue to extend their lifespan while sustaining a high quality of life? Researchers have yet to uncover the ever-elusive fountain of life that would make these dreams an easy reality for everyone, but they have already provided us with some important strategies to lengthen AND improve life.

Include strength-training in your exercise routine

The strengths of exercise as an anti-ageing therapy are its diverse impact – improving mobility, cognitive function, and mental health – along with its wide accessibility: exercise includes everything from formal programs at fitness centres, to a casual stroll around the block. Exercise can both reduce the risk of disease and be used as a treatment for a range of conditions, from cardiovascular disease to mental health challenges.

Physical training helps to maintain mobility and decrease the increased risk of falls with aging, a significant health threat for older populations. Multiple studies in communities, nursing homes, and long-term care facilities show that exercise programs involving strength building exercises can also improve mobility, decrease comorbidities, and prolong the active life of participants.

Exercise can also help to slow the physical decline in older populations, even after health concerns have developed. For example, hospitalized older individuals often experience a decline in physical function and are at higher risk of being injured or dying from a fall. In-hospital exercise programs using a combination of walking, balance, and strength training activities slow or even prevent the physical decline of older individuals.

Another advantage of exercise is its ability to improve the mind as well as the body. Exercise programs have significant benefits on mental and cognitive health, slowing or preventing the development of dementia, reducing social isolation, and preserving neurological function.

Overall, studies show that the physical and mental challenges that arise with aging are slowed or decreased in older participants who regularly exercise. And it doesn’t take much to experience the benefits. Studies have reported that strength training programs of moderate intensity have significant health benefits for older adults. Moderate intensity strength training is defined as activities using ~60% of the maximum weight load, with 2-3 sets of 8-12 repetitions.

In general, researchers recommend that people of all ages follow regular exercise routines consisting of 3 or more days of activity a week in order to extend and improve life. These programs should include a variety of activities that balance strength training and aerobic activity.

The good news about exercise is that it is never too late to start. A study by researchers from the University of Cambridge followed almost 15,000 middle aged and older adults over 12.5 years. The study reported that those who became physically active later in life still reaped the benefits of physical activity. Specifically, they found that going from being inactive to meeting the minimal recommendations of 150-300 minutes of moderate activity a week over a 5-year period decreased the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease by 29%.

A group of senior men and women are outdoors in a park. They are doing exercise with lights dumbbells.
Strength building can prevent falls, improve mobility and decrease comorbidities.

Get enough sleep

Older adults don’t need more sleep than younger people. But because it can take longer to fall asleep and sleep disruptions are more common with aging, older people may spend more time in bed to get the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep.

The US National Institute on Aging offers tips to help people of all ages get a better night’s sleep, including following a regular sleep schedule, avoiding electronic devices with LED screens just prior to sleep, and exercising at regular times that aren’t within 3 hours of bedtime.

Disruptions in sleep can impact quality of life by causing daytime drowsiness, moodiness, and headaches. Insufficient sleep duration in older people can also increase the risk of developing health conditions including type 2 diabetes and coronary artery disease, leading to a decrease in life expectancy. Following the recommendations on sleep behaviours offered by healthcare professionals will help to decrease the risk of developing chronic conditions that lower the quality of life.

Consume enough protein

Good nutrition is an important part of a healthy lifestyle at any age, but changes in the body’s metabolism and chronic health conditions that increase with age mean older adults should adjust their eating habits to maintain good health.

Older adults often fail to consume enough protein in their diet, leading to a loss of muscle which can impact mobility and increase the chances of falls. Increasing the consumption of lean meats helps address this problem, as would eating more beans, peas, and soy products, which are rich in protein as well as essential nutrients like calcium and vitamin D.

But eating more is not the solution as older adults typically have lower calorie needs compared to younger people. Balancing caloric intake to decrease the risk of weight gain and the need for more nutrients can be a challenge. Fortunately, organizations like the US National Institute on Aging have some great resources that provide advice for healthy meal planning and recipes for older adults, to help address their unique nutritional needs.

Stay Connected

The lack of a social network has been recognized as a major risk factor that rivals cigarette smoking, obesity, and high blood pressure. Several studies have found that social relationships positively influence not only mental health, but physical health as well. A review of 148 studies showed social relationships decreased mortality and improved quality of life, regardless of age, sex, and health status.

Fingerman and colleagues reported that people over 65 who had more social ties had an increased level of physical activity and reported a better mood. Interestingly, earlier studies noted that even weak social ties created opportunities for novel activities and a greater sense of belonging to the community. These social connections improved physical health by promoting an active lifestyle, and helped to maintain good mental health through social interactions, as well as physical activity.

A multiethnic group of friends embrace and smile at the camera. They're lined up loosely and desert vegetation and sagebrush are in the background.
Social relationships decrease mortality and improve quality of life, regardless of age, sex, or health status.

Non-modifiable factors

Ageing is a significant risk factor for a number of health conditions including dementia, cancer, and cardiovascular disease. Behavioural strategies like regular exercise, good nutrition, and social interactions help to reduce the increased risks that come with ageing, but there are some factors that impact life expectancy and quality of life that are not easily modifiable. Income, education, and even ethnicity affect healthy ageing. These factors that are difficult or impossible to change can influence where people live, healthcare availability, and even the ability to exercise by limiting or opening access to facilities, spaces, or opportunities.

Path to Longevity

Over 2,500 years after Herodotus first wrote about a mythical spring that gave eternal life, the search for the fountain of youth goes on. While we may not yet know the secret of endless life, medical research has uncovered a number of strategies that prolong life. Making these healthy habits a part of your life, no matter your age, can lead to a long and healthy life.