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Forever Young

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Essay title: Forever Young

The numbers are astonishing. More than 60,000 people in the United States are over the age of 100, and there are enough people over the age of 110 for them to have their own term: supercentenariums.

What's the secret of their long lives? And, more importantly, are they exceptions to the rule? Perhaps, but maybe not. The fact is that we are living longer thanks to a combination of factors. According to the US Census, the number of people age 85 and over alone will more than double over the next 25 years. Further, it's estimated that there will be more than 800,000 people 100 and over by 2050.

While all of us hope to live into our 80s or 90s or longer, our biggest concern is having a healthy long life. Preserving and even improving your health depends in large part on the choices and habits that you develop now and continue into the future.

A study of aging funded by the MacArthur Foundation bears this out. It found that environment and lifestyle contribute far more to a healthy old age than genetics, and that the importance of healthy habits only increases as you age. Taking care of your physical well-being, challenging your mind, reaching out to others, and feeling positive about life and aging all contribute greatly to remaining active and sharp.

Physical Health

One of the most important things you can do at any age is to eat right. A healthy, balanced diet has lots of benefits, including feeling better and looking better. But what does a healthy, balanced diet mean? Doctors recommend a diet heavy on fruits and vegetables, protein, complex carbohydrates (such as whole grain foods, legumes) and healthy fats (including olive oil).

As you consider your future health, this also might be a good time to try to lose any extra weight. Shedding pounds, along with eating the foods that are good for you, can help you to stave off some of the most serious age-related health problems, including osteoporosis, hypertension, diabetes and heart disease. Middle-aged weight gain, which tends to settle around our middle, is particularly dangerous because it increases the risk of stroke and heart disease.

But there's another reason to eat right. The vitamins and minerals found in healthy foods

boost our immune system and help our bodies to function better. Many fruits and vegetables, including berries, tomatoes and broccoli, contain phytochemicals, which improve cognitive functions and prevent disease. And Vitamin C, found in citrus fruits, helps us to handle stress better in addition to helping us fight off colds.

Many of us have busy lives with little or no time for exercise. But did you know that in addition to raising your metabolism, exercise can help to extend your life and improve the quality of your life for years to come? One study found that walking one hour a day can extend your life expectancy by two years.

Strength training is particularly beneficial to us as we age. At age 40, we begin to lose muscle mass each year, slowly becoming weaker. But strength training can rebuild lost muscle mass and make bones stronger, which is particularly important for post-menopausal women. It also improves your balance, helps you to sleep better and helps your heart.

One important finding of the MacArthur Foundation aging study is that it's never too late to stop such bad habits as smoking, eating fatty foods and not exercising. Within a year of quitting smoking, most people reduce their risk of heart disease.

Staying Sharp, Staying Connected

Perhaps one of the most worrisome signs of aging is diminished memory. But, contrary to popular opinion, we continue to grow brain cells throughout our lives and adults of any age can improve their memory and increase their capacity for learning. Researchers say the mental decline many older people experience is because they aren't taxing their brains enough. The nerve cells in their brains are atrophying due to largely routine behavior.

As with your body, the more you exercise your brain, the better it will function. While taking a class and developing new interests are among the many good options for challenging your brain, another thing you can do is to learn new skills. In an age of instant messaging, camera phones and continually faster and smarter computers, keeping up with new technological advances and mastering them will help preserve your mental acuity.

Taking steps to reduce stress also will help keep your brain functioning well as stress affects our memory and ability to learn new things, in addition to reducing the flow of blood to our brains.

As you consider your future, also look for activities

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