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It's Never Too Late: Five Healthy Steps at Any Age

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Whatever healthy change you want to make, it’s not too late to see big benefits. Here are five places to start (and the rewards that could be yours), with inspiration from a Johns Hopkins expert.

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What the Experts Do
Never Stop Seeking Good Health

“I’m a vegetarian and I run at least five miles every day, but I don’t get enough sleep,” says Hillis. “Recently I’ve taken up horseback riding, which is a good challenge for my brain. I can meditate on long rides and find I’m happier, calmer and have less back pain.” 

Have you ever decided to make a healthy lifestyle change but quickly given up, telling yourself that it’s too late to learn new habits? It’s time to take charge and not let your age stop you, because there’s surprisingly not that much difference between an 18-year-old brain and a 100-year-old brain, says Argye Hillis, M.D., director of the cerebrovascular division at Johns Hopkins Medicine.  

Take that as inspiration that you’re never too old to adopt new healthful habits. The rewards: In the Johns Hopkins-led Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis, which tracked more than 6,000 people ages 44 to 84 for over seven years, those who made good-for-you changes like quitting smoking, following a Mediterranean-style diet, getting regular exercise and maintaining a healthy weight decreased their risk of death in the time period by 80 percent. The following changes not only keep you healthy, they can help slow down the aging process, inside and out.

Be active more often.

Exercise lowers your risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and some cancers, and that powerful effect leads to something experts call “compression of morbidity.” It essentially means you stay healthy longer in your late years, as compared with someone who spends the final five or 10 years of life battling chronic illness.

“Exercise is also one of the best things you can do to help prevent dementia and other cognitive changes,” says Hillis. Once you’re cleared by your doctor, aim for at least 30 minutes of physical activity most days of the week.

Improve your diet.

There are all sorts of plans out there to help you lose weight, but it’s not only about dropping pounds. Hillis recommends a Mediterranean-style diet for anyone hoping to avoid dementia as well as minimize other health risks. It’s high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, and fish, and low in meat, sugar and processed foods—all to help your cells function better.

Get quality sleep.

Lack of sleep impacts your memory, emotions, weight and even your appearance. The older you get, the harder it can be to fall and stay asleep, but you still need the same amount of hours.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, most sleep problems are a result of snoring, medication side effects and underlying medical conditions, such as acid reflux, depression and prostate problems. Addressing those issues with your doctor is a good start. You can also enjoy more satisfying sleep by creating a calming space, dedicating enough time for sleep and practicing relaxation techniques.

Stop smoking.

In as little as 24 hours of stopping smoking, there is a decrease in risk of a heart attack. As for longer-term benefits, Johns Hopkins researchers, in conjunction with scientists from other centers, have found that quitting decreased middle-aged smokers’ risk of dying early by almost half.

Exercise can help you combat smoking cravings and withdrawal symptoms. Schedule fitness for the time of day you’re most likely to want a cigarette and soon you may be craving a walk or bike ride instead of a smoke. Still struggling on your own? Ask your doctor about smoking-cessation programs and aids.

Challenge your brain.

Whether it’s learning a language or driving a new route to work, your brain loves tackling fresh tasks. Make it a goal to keep learning as you age.

Definitions

Whole grains: Unlike refined grains, grains—such as whole wheat, brown rice and barley—that still have their fiber-rich outer shell, called the bran, and inner germ. It provides vitamins, minerals and good fats. Choosing whole grain side dishes, cereals, breads and more may lower the risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer and improve digestion, too.
Mediterranean diet: Traditional cuisine of countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, shown to reduce the risk for heart disease, diabetes, some cancers and dementia. On the menu: Plenty of fruits, vegetables and legumes, along with olive oil, nuts, whole grains, seafood; moderate amounts of yogurt, cheese, poultry and eggs; small amounts of red meat and sweets; and wine, in moderation, with meals.
Dementia (di-men-sha): A loss of brain function that can be caused by a variety of disorders affecting the brain. Symptoms include forgetfulness, impaired thinking and judgment, personality changes, agitation and loss of emotional control. Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease and inadequate blood flow to the brain can all cause dementia. Most types of dementia are irreversible.

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