I’ve been coaching nutrition for more than 10 years and teaching university nutrition courses for seven. I’ve seen thousands of people benefit tremendously from the health strategies I share with them. But no transformation has been as dramatic or as inspiring as my grandfather’s.
A few years ago, in his early 80s, my grandfather began to forget things. He missed appointments and misplaced objects like his keys or reading glasses. His appetite decreased, and he started losing weight.
One day, he suffered a bad fall. He required hospitalization, and his confusion and disorientation worsened during his stay. It was a low point for my family. A professional medical assessment determined that it was no longer safe for him to live independently at home. He got placed on a waiting list for a long-term care facility.
My grandpa’s diet had been poor for some time. I knew he was living mostly on canned soup, chocolate milk and the occasional banana—not nearly enough calories and not a lot of nutrient-dense whole foods. I wondered what effect that was having on him, so I did some detective work.
After running some blood tests, we discovered that my grandfather was very deficient in a range of B vitamins, particularly vitamin B1, or thiamine. The signs of thiamine deficiency? Low appetite, fatigue, memory loss and confusion.
I suspected that correcting these deficiencies might help my grandpa function better, so I put him on a high-quality senior multivitamin and recommended a few simple changes to his diet.
A week later, my grandfather was transformed. His appetite increased, and he became clear-thinking and lucid. He was released from the hospital, and his medical team approved his ability to keep living independently.
My grandpa’s experience is proof of something many people aren’t aware of: Simple nutrition and lifestyle changes can dramatically improve quality of life—even in older adults.
That’s why, in this article, we’ll explain what we know about optimal lifestyle and nutrition for seniors, how these habits affect aging, and how to implement healthy changes for yourself, clients or loved ones.
It’s not just the number of years you live; it’s how you live them.
Modern medicine can help us live longer, so what’s the point of eating the right foods and taking the right supplements?
Well, we don’t want to just live longer. We want to live longer and live well.
Life span: How long you live.
Health span: How well you live.
When we talk about longevity, most of us don’t dream of living for a thousand years in a cryo chamber hooked up to a bunch of wires that artificially maintain our basic functions.
In addition to a long life span, we also want a long health span—a high quality of life for as long as possible—a state that allows us to travel and enjoy our retirement, to run around with our grandchildren without aches and pains, and to generally enjoy life feeling good in our bodies, minds and hearts.
Good nutrition and lifestyle habits are our best tools to improve health span.
And while these habits can have a major effect on health span if you start them young, making nutrition and lifestyle changes can make a difference even after you’ve noticed signs of aging.
Now these changes aren’t going to turn you into an ageless bionic superhuman, but they can certainly help you age better and become more resilient.
Seven habits that can help you age well
Luckily, we now have research on the specific factors that can help you live a healthy, enjoyable, meaningful life, longer. In a variety of large-scale population studies, these seven lifestyle habits are consistently correlated with lower disease rates, better mood and well-being, and increased longevity.
The earlier you start, the better, but these habits can make a difference no matter your current age. Practice these habits consistently and transform the experience of aging.
- Keep moving
For relatively little cost or time (about 30 minutes a day), exercise is one of the most impactful things we can do for our health. As we age, our metabolism declines and our bodies don’t use nutrients as well.
Movement signals the body to:
- use nutrients and balance blood sugar
- build and repair bone and muscle tissue
- circulate blood, nutrients and oxygen, including to the brain
Regular exercise is correlated with lower rates of:
- Alzheimer’s and dementia
- diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity
- arthritis and bone fractures
- anxiety and depression
- overall mortality
Additionally, exercise improves mood and well-being. This is especially true if exercise is social, like walking with a friend or attending group classes.
Common challenges seniors face with exercising
- When muscles aren’t used, they atrophy:Moving around becomes harder, making it more likely that a person will continue being sedentary.
- Also, embarking on an exercise program might sound intimidating and inaccessible:Whether because of pain, injury, illness or just a history of being sedentary, it may be difficult or scary to begin an activity program.
Action steps that can help
- Start with gentle activities. This reduces the risk of injury or heart attack. Opt for low-impact activities, such as swimming, recumbent biking, or walking on grass or dirt rather than pavement. Even when mobility is reduced or compromised, exercise can be made accessible and can benefit health tremendously.
- Find an activity that feels fun. And one that can be done consistently. This can include gardening or yardwork, walking, swimming, climbing stairs, yoga, tai chi, cleaning the house or doing light weight circuits.
- Keep things in perspective. Remember that “moderate to vigorous” is a subjective measure. What a 25-year-old personal trainer defines as “moderate to vigorous” may be very different from how an 85-year-old beginner exerciser defines it. The right level of activity should leave the exerciser feeling out of breath but still able to hold a conversation.
- Ease into exercise. About 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per day is ideal, but benefits appear after only 10 minutes of movement per day! A good program will incorporate some endurance training (like walking fast), some weight-bearing activities (like doing biceps curls with soup cans) and some balance training (like practicing standing on one foot or doing yoga).
- Eat healthy meals
The foods we eat literally make up our bodies. If we are missing important nutrients, our bodies are more vulnerable to damage or illness.
Although all nutrients are important, two get are critical during the older years:
- Protein is especially crucial because it helps preserve valuable lean tissue (muscle and bone). Higher lean tissue reduces frailty, falls and fractures, all of which are associated with poorer quality of life and earlier death.
- Antioxidants are like the body’s defense team. Aging is partly because of an accumulation of daily attacks from free radicals from pollution, household chemicals and too much sun or lifestyle habits like smoking, eating lots of processed foods and excessive drinking.
Antioxidants protect our body from free-radical damage and slow down the aging process. With a regular supply of antioxidants through wholesome meals abundant in colorful plant foods, we’re less vulnerable to cataracts, arthritis, cardiovascular disease, cancer and more.
Aim for five servings of vegetables and fruits a day—and choose a variety of colors! Different colors (red, purple, green, orange, etc.) often relate to different nutrient compounds, so the more colorful the “rainbow” you’re consuming, the more nutrients you’re getting.
Common challenges seniors face with eating healthy
- Poor appetite can lower food intake andthe enjoyment of food: This may be caused by medication side effects, illness or nutrient deficiencies. If a person has frequent digestive upset, they may be (understandably) resistant to trying new foods or eating anything that has triggered them in the past.
- The individual may have dentures or weak teeth:If dentures are ill-fitting (this can happen after extreme weight gain or loss) or teeth are weak, it can be difficult and painful to chew.
- It might be harder to shop for or prepare food:Frequent obstacles include trouble walking, carrying groceries or holding a knife steady because of shaky hands.
- Energy or mood is low: Fatigue, anxiety or depression can make it challenging to find motivation to prepare meals. Elderly living alone and eating in isolation are especially vulnerable.
- Many older individuals no longer have an income:That means the highest quality foods may not be accessible to them.
- Certain generations may carry strong ideas about nutrition:For example, some may habitually avoid fats, feel they must “clean the plate” or believe in dessert after every meal because that’s how they grew up eating.
Action steps that can help
- Prioritize consumption of whole foods to increase nutrition. These include fruits and vegetables, legumes, meat, poultry, fish, dairy products, eggs, nuts, seeds and whole grains.
- Focus on soft, well-cooked or pureed/blended foods. Try scrambled eggs, poached fish, mashed vegetables, avocado, yogurt, smoothies and soups, which are easier to digest.
- Try food supplements. Protein powders, greens powders, fiber powders and fish oil can be useful for increasing nutrition.
- Aim to create balanced meals. These should have a protein source, a colorful fruit or veggie, a healthy fat and a quality carbohydrate at every meal.
- If budget allows, sign up for a grocery or meal delivery service. This can make food preparation much easier.
- Choose quick and easy-to-prepare foods when grocery shopping. Opt for pre-made high-quality soups, pre-cut fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, or precooked proteins.
- Don’t forget pleasure. Look for ways to increase enjoyment while eating: Choose foods that appeal; set the table with nice linens, silverware and flowers; eat slowly and savor food; and allow small treats, if desired. A small bowl of hazelnut gelato after dinner a couple of times a week makes life just a bit more delicious!
- Achieve or maintain a healthy weight
According to research, there is a body mass index “sweet spot” for the elderly. Seniors with a BMI between 25 and 32 have the lowest rates of mortality and recover better from illness and infection. Being overweight or underweight can pose a risk.
Too much body fat can be harmful. In particular, visceral fat around our internal organs is associated with higher inflammation, insulin resistance and high blood sugar, eye problems like cataracts or blindness, kidney damage and cancer.
However, some fat can be protective. Having enough body fat helps a person recover better from wasting diseases like pneumonia, cancer, influenza and digestive issues. Having some body fat is also correlated with a lowered risk of fracture during a fall.
Common challenges seniors face with finding a healthy weight
- Elderly who are underweight may struggle to gain weight:This can be because of low appetite, which can be caused by medication side effects, digestion problems or zinc deficiency (which reduces sense of taste and can make food taste metallic). Social isolation is also correlated with skipping meals and eating less nutritious meals.
- Those who are overweight may struggle to lose weight: Again, medication side effects can contribute to weight gain. Sometimes seniors are just eating like they did when they were younger—except now they’re moving less and may have lost metabolically active tissue, like muscle, to use those calories.
- The onset of retirement and the “empty nest” stage can change eating habits: More leisure time and less routine may mean eating frequently at restaurants, often accompanied by more alcoholic drinks.
Action steps that can help
If weight gain is needed:
- Ensure protein requirements are getting met first. This macronutrient offers the biggest “return on investment” in terms of staying healthy and resilient as a senior.
- Healthy fats are calorically dense and can easily increase calorie intake. Choose fats like extra-virgin olive oil, coconut oil, avocado, nut butters and full-fat dairy products like plain whole-milk yogurt or aged hard cheeses.
If weight loss is needed:
- Practice mindful, slow eating. And instead of counting calories (which can be annoying to do at any age), measure portions using your own hands! (See this article for more information on this portion-control strategy.)
- Prioritize whole foods. These include fresh vegetables, lean proteins and appropriate amounts of healthy fats and complex carbohydrates.
In all cases:
- Avoid “diet rules” or forcing certain foods. If kale is unpalatable, take it off the table. If you want to have a cookie every now and then, enjoy that double chocolate chunk!
- Get the right amount of sleep
As we age, it’s normal to need less sleep and to sleep less consistently. As a result, older people may have trouble falling or staying asleep and/or may wake early.
However, at any age, adequate sleep is essential and helps:
- brain regeneration, improving memory and focus
- hormone and neurotransmitter regulation, keeping mood and appetite stable
- inflammation regulation, keeping the immune system healthy and balanced
- recovery from stress, be it from emotional or physical sources
In the older years, getting anywhere from five to nine hours of sleep a day may be appropriate.
Sleeping enough helps keep us healthy, but sleeping too much can be a sign of illness.
If sleeping more than nine or 10 hours is becoming the norm, consult a physician. Excessive sleep can be a sign of nutrient deficiency (low iron and B12 can both cause fatigue), depression, infection or serious illness.
Common challenges seniors face with getting the right amount of sleep
- Changing sleep patterns throw people off:Although it’s normal to need less sleep in our older years, it may be difficult to adjust to a new sleep schedule.
- Side effects from medication interrupt natural rhythms:Some medications may cause fatigue or wakefulness.
- Worries about health, finances or loved ones also can keep us up:If tossing and turning is chronic, get a full assessment of what’s preventing rest, including what’s weighing on the heart and mind.
Action steps that can help
- Practice good sleep hygiene. Setting up a good night’s sleep doesn’t just happen at night. Turn down the lights and disengage from stimulating activities about an hour before bed. Make your bedroom as dark as possible, and keep it cool (around 67 degrees).
- Keep a regular sleep schedule. Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. Avoid napping for more than an hour a day or napping later in the day.
- Create a comforting sleep routine. For example, have a bath, read some calming literature or go for a slow walk outside.
- Avoid spending time in bed while awake. If you can’t fall asleep within 15 minutes, leave the bed and do some restful activities, like reading or making a cup of tea. Return to bed when you feel sleepy again.
- Reduce or quit smoking
To some it may be hard to believe, but many seniors grew up during a time when smoking was promoted as a healthy habit!
However, we now know smoking is undeniably linked to negative health outcomes—primarily lung diseases like asthma, emphysema and lung cancer and cardiovascular events like heart attack or stroke.
Smoking dramatically increases our exposure to free radicals, which increase inflammation, damage the arteries and advance physiological age.
The good news is: It’s never too late to quit and the body begins to regenerate immediately.
Common challenges seniors face with stopping smoking
- Cigarettes are addictive and smoking is hard to quit: If this habit has been maintained for decades, a person may find it hard to imagine their life without smoking.
- Older people may wonder, What’s the point of quitting now?:This is why it’s important to understand that no matter what age smoking is ceased, health benefits can occur almost immediately.
Action steps that can help
- Take it slow. Smoking is often used as a way to cope with stress. Therefore, rather than simply yanking out this behavior, you may have better luck gradually replacing it with more productive coping mechanisms. Incorporate supportive stress-management practices like massage, spending time with friends or engaging in a creative hobby, and use them to slowly phase cigarettes out.
- Avoid shaming. Whether you’re trying to quit yourself or helping a client quit, don’t resort to shaming or judgment. It‘s common knowledge that smoking is linked to poor health; a person who smokes needs a sense of hope, not a lecture. The body can regenerate at any age! That’s why there’s still value in quitting, and the benefits can be linked to meaningful goals. For example, being able to go on a long, vigorous walk with a beloved pet while able to breathe freely and clearly.
- Seek support. Individuals trying to quit also may find benefit in joining support groups, seeking counseling or trying other medical interventions under the care of their physician.
- Moderate or eliminate alcohol
Wait a second—isn’t red wine supposed to promote longevity?
The research on alcohol consumption—even moderate consumption—is mixed. Most experts suggest that if you don’t drink already, don’t start.
Excessive alcohol consumption is linked to health problems in almost every part of the body:
- Heart: Arrhythmias, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke
- Brain: Sleep disruption, depression, neurological damage, epilepsy, dementia, alcoholism (particularly if it runs in the family)
- Immune system: More prone to infection/illness/lowered immune response, cancer (mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, breast), increased inflammation/flare-ups of autoimmune disorders
- Liver and kidneys: Fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis, fibrosis/cirrhosis, liver cancer, kidney disease
- Metabolism: Osteoporosis and bone fractures, anemia, pancreatitis, changes to fat metabolism, muscle damage, interference with some medications
The body can’t store alcohol, so it must prioritize clearing it. As the liver metabolizes that scotch on the rocks, the side effect is that it may delay or neglect other tasks—like digesting, absorbing and storing other nutrients like proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals.
We want to be careful not to overburden the liver so it’s free to do all the other important jobs it needs to do.
Common challenges seniors face with alcohol moderation
- Not knowing what moderate drinking looks like: Many people may be in the “heavy drinking” category without even realizing it. According to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, “moderate drinking” means, on average, women can consume up to seven drinks per week, with no more than three drinks on any single day, and men up to 14 drinks per week, with no more than four drinks on any single day.
- Increased leisure time may mean increased drinking:Going out to restaurants more often may mean having a nice chardonnay more often—or maybe even the occasional nine-hole beer bash at the golf club!
- Alcohol may be used as a coping mechanism: People may drink to blunt chronic pain, loneliness or anxiety.
Action steps that can help
- Replace alcoholic beverages. Try water, sparkling water or vegetable juices instead.
- Experiment with other stress-reducing activities. If you’re having more than one to two drinks per night and you have trouble stopping, try reflecting on how you cope with life stress. Instead of judgment or lecturing, approach this habit with curiosity and compassion. Consider replacing drinking with spending time in nature, getting together with family or playing with a pet.
- Don’t go it alone. As with smoking, people trying to quit or reduce alcohol consumption also may find benefit in joining support groups, seeking additional counseling or trying other medical interventions under the care of their physician.
- Connect with others
When people are surveyed about the most meaningful aspects of their lives, they list good marriages, close family relationships, rich friendships and lively work relationships.
Often, it’s the presence of other people, to love and be loved by, that enhances our reason to live.
Elderly who live in isolation are also most at risk for physical and psychological problems. Living alone may mean that there is no one to help if you fall, no one to talk to about joys or sorrows, and no one to help prepare food. As a result, elderly living alone may be more prone to injury, loneliness and malnourishment.
All these factors reduce life span and, more important, quality of life.
Meaningful human interaction:
- gives a sense of purpose
- decreases subjective age
- improves mental health
- makes life more fun and joyful
Prioritize and enable regular connection with family, friends and community members.
Common challenges seniors face with social connection
- As age increases, individuals are more likely to experience loss:You lose a chance to connect when you lose friends, family members, beloved pets or a spouse (which is especially correlated with a sharp increase in mortality).
- Living in a long-term care facility can be isolating:This can be especially difficult if social connections are not nurtured and enabled.
- Eating in isolation is a red flag:When people eat alone, meals tend to be more repetitive, simple and less nutritious.
Action steps that can help
- Stay as independent as possible but still highly connected. This enables both autonomy and support, which means experiencing plenty of meaning, richness and joy in the later stages of life. Even if an individual has lost a loved one (or many), quality social connections are available and can be developed.
- Prioritize social activities. Options include family potlucks, group fitness classes, bird watching meet-ups, live theater field trips with friends, or taking a course in a creative or intellectual endeavor with other like-minded peers.
- Mix generations. Although the elderly may appreciate spending time with people of their own generation, younger generations can provide energy and newness to an elderly person’s life, and an elderly person can provide wisdom and perspective to a younger person’s life.
Reflect on your life, then take action.
There are lots of things we don’t have control over. But we do have control over many habits that have a tremendous impact on our health and how we age.
I don’t aim for perfection and don’t advocate anyone else does, but I do advocate for being proactive.
If you’re aging—and, ahem, that’s all of us—reflect on your family history and your current habits. Consult the above list and focus on one thing to promote your health span. Practice that habit and add more when and if you feel ready. All positive actions count, and no healthy step forward is too small.
A longer version of this article originally appeared on PrecisionNutrition.com.
Photo credit: Ljupco Smokovski, Adobe Stock