Genetics play a huge role in the way we age. But lifestyle factors play an enormous role as well—and the way you live your life in your 30s, 40s and 50s can help to determine whether you’re dancing through your 70s and 80s, or merely hobbling through them. Here, I’ll explore four lifestyle changes you can make today to ensure many active tomorrows.
Heart disease and stroke are the number-one causes of premature death in Canadian women, and one’s risk increases after menopause. This is because estrogen has a cardio-protective effect. After menopause, estrogen levels decline rapidly. The cardiovascular system can suffer as a result, so it becomes far more important to fight heart disease with lifestyle improvement, especially before menopause.
The biggest risk factor for heart health is smoking. As well, regular exercise is essential. It’s hard to start exercising at age 65, so make it part of your daily routine before menopause and keep going. To benefit your heart the most, you need at least 150 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity activity per week. But any activity is better than nothing.
Make sure your blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol are under control. There’s no such thing as LDL cholesterol levels that are too low. (LDL is the bad cholesterol.) Speak to one of our excellent registered dietitians about eating a low-fat healthful diet.
Better bone health means minimizing the risk of osteoporosis—essentially, low bone mass and bone weakening, which can lead to increased risk of fracture. Shockingly, about a quarter of women who break a hip will die within the year.
For strong bones, ensure you’re getting enough calcium and vitamin D. For calcium, premenopausal women should get at least 1000 mg daily, and postmenopausal women should get at least 1200 mg daily. Almost all Canadians who do not winter in the sunny south require vitamin D, which is essential for the body to absorb calcium. At Medcan we routinely measure vitamin D, and can customize your dose.
To keep your bones strong, engage in weight-bearing exercise. Anything that involves gravity helps to build bone — things like walking, running, skipping rope and weight training. Swimming is great for the heart, but it doesn’t do much for your bones.
Muscle conditioning and balance training are key to preventing falls. One simple way to engage in some balance training is to balance on one foot while brushing your teeth in the morning, then balance on the other while you’re brushing your teeth in the evening. Chair squats are good for older people looking to build leg strength. You can also speak with a trainer about balance and muscle conditioning exercises.
Brain health is all about avoiding cognitive decline or dementia. The process of cognitive decline doesn’t start in your 60s or 70s. It begins decades earlier. Nobody knows the secret to preventing it, but there’s a lot of thought into what might help.
First, there’s a genetic component. With Medcan’s late-onset Alzheimer’s genetic testing, we test for the APOE gene to determine whether you have an increased risk. Everyone has two copies of the APOE gene. People who inherit one high-risk copy of the APOE gene (called E4) have a higher chance to develop the disease compared to a person in the general population. Having two copies of E4 increases the risk even more. Speak to one of our genetics counselors if you have a family history of dementia, and you are interested in this simple test.
Even if you don’t know your genetic risk, there are things you can do. Adequate sleep and regular aerobic exercise are important. The Mediterranean diet has been shown to be helpful. Basically anything that improves heart health has a positive impact on brain health.
Stay socially engaged and mentally active. Find new interests and passions. Learn new skills, something completely different than you’ve ever learned. If you like music, pick up a new instrument. If you like languages, learn one in a different language family. Make your brain work for it.
One final thing to mention: Drinking. I often see women who are astonished to find themselves with liver disease. How did that happen?
I feel part of the reason for the spike in liver disease involves the fact we live in a society that normalizes and even encourages drinking. According to this Canadian report, alcohol-related deaths in women are increasing at a faster rate than those in men. Between 2001 and 2017, women’s alcohol-related deaths increased by 26% compared to only a 5% increase for men.
The Canadian Medical Association recommends women limit their consumption to one or two drinks per day and no more than nine per week. Moderation works.
There you have it. Be kind to your body. Not only will you live a more healthful life now, you’ll have a better chance of living healthfully for years to come. Your future self will thank you.
Dr. Janice Weiss is a family physician at Medcan and an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Toronto.