How to Thrive as You Age

We asked. You answered. Here are your secrets to healthy aging

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Peathegee Inc/Getty Images/Tetra images RF

Peathegee Inc/Getty Images/Tetra images RF

In the 1960s and ’70s, The 2,000 Year-Old Man, was popular a comedy routine performed by Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks. Brooks played a 2,000 year-old man – apparently in terrific health – and Reiner, a modern man, would ask him questions, including if he’d share the secrets to his longevity.

“The major thing is that I never ever touch fried food,” was Brooks’ response in one early recording. Also, “Never run for a bus; there will always be another,” and eat lots of nectarines.

Not bad! Whether you’re 2,000 or 20, we’re all aging and we all have wisdom and experiences to share.

That’s why NPR asked our listeners and readers to share their secrets to living a long and healthy life, as part of our new series, How to Thrive as You Age. To date we’ve received over 1,000 responses from readers and listeners ages 16 to 103.

Here are some of our favorites, edited for clarity and brevity.

To get updates on our special project on longevity, How to Thrive as You Age, subscribe to NPR Health, a newsletter covering the science of healthy living. Click here to subscribe.

Make friends across generations

“I surround myself with friends who are older than me; living youthful, full lives,” writes Emma Aulenback, 26, who lives in Massachusetts. “During my AmeriCorps year, I lived with a 75-year-old woman who continues to inspire me to get out and adventure … whether it be running a marathon, joining a dating app, or skydiving.” Aulenback says she also has friends a decade or so older than her who live outside of the prescribed boundaries of marriage, kids and career. “They help me realize that there is no such thing as ‘falling behind,’ ” Aulenback writes. “The only ‘milestones’ in life are the ones you, yourself, decide are worthwhile.”

Deborah Davis, 73, of Santa Fe, N.M. says she benefits from intergenerational relationships too. “Like my Uncle Donald always used to tell me, surround yourself with young people – their energy will keep you youthful. Boy, he wasn’t kidding!” she writes.

It’s never too late to set new goals

During the COVID lock-downs, Connie Morris, 71, of Somerset, Mass. set a goal to walk a 5K for the first time. She began walking daily and soon could walk 3 miles at a time. “Then I started trying to run,” Morris writes. “I made steady progress and did a St. Patrick’s Day 5k with my son.”

Morris is already working towards her next goal: paddleboarding. “I now realize that some of the limitations of aging are just from not moving,” she writes. “You can still get in shape and build muscle. About six months ago I decided I didn’t like my sagging rear. I’ve been doing squats and I’m happy to report: I have a bum again.”

Try these VR fitness apps and games to get in shape this year.

To stay active, keep adapting

While some of our listeners and readers are running marathons and climbing mountains into your 70s and 80s, a common trend emerged: a focus on modifying exercise to fit our changing bodies.

Swimming has long been the go-to exercise for Cody Brady, 73, of Austin, Texas, but after a heart attack 10 years ago, she cut out freestyle swimming and switched to gentler strokes. “I am very comfortable with making accommodations as I age. I do not expect to go faster, improve my time or push myself to my limit. I am very happy just to be able to move and enjoy what I do,” Brady says.

Jackie Buehring, age 78, of Naperville, Ill., says when it comes to fitness, listen to your body. “If you go to a class or shovel snow or anything else unusual and end up with muscle pain, you have found a muscle that needs to be worked regularly. Figure out how to do that,” Beuhring writes.

When it comes to staying active, Dennis Junt, 68, of Seattle, has this simple advice: “Try to do everything in moderation, except sex. Do more.”

Check out our tips for enjoying sex as you age.

Put your mental health first

“The biggest and most dramatic changes I have experienced in attaining a healthier life came the moment I started focusing on my mental health first and foremost,” writes Margarita Tavarez, 46, of Puerto Rico. “Once I started taking care of myself emotionally, I started seeing exercise, weight training, movement, and nutrition, as opportunities to ease anxiety, depression, and trauma, all of which are factors in accelerated aging.”

Tedecia Wint, 42, Brooklyn, NY, sees attending to her own mental health as an investment in her kids’ future. “I want to be an active part of my children’s life for as long as I can,” writes Wint. “I have spent the last year in therapy dealing with what I now know is chronic PTSD, from various traumas starting in childhood, and I have begun my journey into practicing Buddhism — chanting has been a revelation,” she says.

Start work-life balance early

Several millennial readers shared tips for achieving the elusive goal of work-life balance.

For Jules Overfelt, 31, of Lansing, Mich. that starts in the morning. “I get up two hours before I leave for work and it’s one of my most revered daily rituals. The process of making coffee, feeding my cats, and reading my book with music on is worth going to bed early…. I recommend that people try to find something small to do in the morning before starting their responsibilities for the day. Even taking joy in making coffee (the scent of the grounds, the warmth of the mug) can help remind you that you have more to experience than just working.”

Make your exercise social and your socializing active

Victoria Summers, 64, of El Dorado Hills, Ca., finds ways to combine two keys to longevity – exercise and friendship – and have a whole lot of fun doing it.

“I started a women’s bike club, The Bodacious biking Babes, 23 years ago, and we are still going strong,” Summers writes. “My husband and I square dance together weekly, ride our tandem bike together and are in a couple’s ‘Empty Nest’ club together. During COVID, I organized an informal group of neighborhood ladies to play pickleball that gets together weekly during the spring and summer for laughs and exercise. Although not every neighbor is physically able to play, they come for conversation and camaraderie,” she says.

Get creative about eating your veggies!

Lots of our readers had dietary advice, focused on eating less junk food and more fruits and vegetables.

Sarah M., 39, of Portland, Ore. writes that getting a regular delivery of fresh local produce from a CSA, or farm share membership, “pretty dramatically changed the way we eat in my household.”

“Now dinners in my household consist of what we’ve named “vegetabowls,” where basically I just preheat the oven to 425 F, toss whatever vegetables are best roasted with a bit of oil, salt and pepper, and roast until browned and delicious.” She serves it all over salad greens. “It gives you a ludicrous variety of veg all in one meal,” she adds.

Here’s advice for getting more fiber in your diet, and how to eat less meat.

Keep engaged with mental challenges and creative projects

A lot people wrote in about engaging in activities that keep their minds sharp and stave off cognitive decline.

“Find your passion!” writes Edith Edmunds, 98, of Halifax, Va. Hers is sewing. “Since childhood, I find joy in quilting and dressmaking. My mind figures out how I will make each project with my fabric,” Edmunds says.

Creativity is a driving force for Claire Russel, 83, of Shoreline, Wash. “What sustains me, gets me out of bed in the morning and keeps me up at night is the satisfaction in making things: There is the adrenaline rush of an idea for something to paint, draw, make, cook and garden. Motto: I never met a color I didn’t like,” Russel writes.

Karen Maslowski, 72, of Cincinnati, Oh., practices daily “brain stretchers” like word games and Sudoku. Her 94 year-old mother likes them too. “She is as sharp as a tack, working word games every day. It challenges her mind,” Maslowski says.

No matter your age, sleep and rest are essential

Throughout much of her teens and 20s, Bri Obied, 31, of Oxford, U.K. struggled to fall asleep and stay asleep. As a result she was sick constantly, and even got mononucleosis twice, Obied writes. When she finally found a way to get quality sleep, she says it made all the difference. “Sleep definitely makes me feel like a younger person. It’s bolstered my immune system and made me more resilient to stress,” she says.

For Jack Applewhite, 72, of Austin Tex., cutting down on coffee led to much better sleep. He writes that he and his wife also enjoy a comfy afternoon nap, with one or both of their dogs.

Stay engaged with what gives you purpose

Several readers wrote that they were still working or volunteering part time in their 70s. Some, like Susan Goldsmith, 74, of Pasadena, Calif. went back to school to learn a new skill. She studies music at her local community college and plays euphonium in the college wind band.

Stay busy,” advises Tom Sklebar, 71, of Wisconsin. He and his partner started volunteering at nonprofits when they retired. He also advises mentoring. “You have a lifetime of knowledge and skill and pass it along to the next generation.”

Flo Hunt, 71, of Queensbury, N.Y. also suggests working, if only for a few hours a week. “It engages you with people. Older people tend to self isolate. That leads to a cognitive decline.” Hobbies matter too, she says. She is a published author and is currently writing the second book in a Sherlock Holmes trilogy.

Mindset matters

“My biggest secret weapon about aging has been my belief/attitude,” says Mindy Coleman, age 48, of Ashville, N.C. ” I figure that it’s inevitable, so I might as well enjoy it as much as possible. Embrace it. Lean into it. Roll with it. Observe the changes and see it as a full cycle of life to live and experience,” Coleman writes.

“As a child, I would lament to my dad that I didn’t want to get old,” writes Kala Grove of Madison, Wis., age 36. Without fail, he would look me in the eye and respond simply ‘It’s better than the alternative.’ Grove says that outlook has stuck with her. “Anytime my bones feel old or I note a new grey hair, I immediately am grateful for the opportunity to experience it. Aging is truly a privilege not all get to experience,” she says.

“I’ve read that people, as they age, often feel they’re no longer seen in our youth-centric society,” writes Judith Henry, age 70, of Tampa, Fl. “My solution is to do something nice for someone, (it doesn’t have to be big,) and watch how your invisibility cloak begins to shrink.”

Acceptance is a way of life for Mandisa Hughes, 46, of New Orleans, La. “I love me….PERIOD. I am strong, I am invaluable, I am holy, I am protected, I am prosperous, I am powerful and most of all I AM GRATEFUL!” she writes.

This story also appears in the Feb. 11 issues of the NPR Health newsletter. It was edited by Carmel Wroth.