Lifestyle Factors Affecting Quality of Life in Late Adulthood
by Eleanor Kurtus PhD (22 June 2002)
Studies have shown that the way a person lives his or her life in the later years can make those years exciting for the person.
These lifestyle factors have more influence on the quality of life than genetics. There are numerous benefits from living a healthy lifestyle in the later years.
Questions you may have include:
- How can late adulthood be an exciting time?
- What lifestyle factors impact longevity?
- What are some benefits?
This lesson will answer those questions. Health Disclaimer
Late adulthood can be exciting
Mid- and late-adulthood can be an exciting and active time of life, a renaissance. Somewhere around the age of fifty, a rebirth occurs followed by a coalescence of all that has been lived and learned and a period of grace and generosity (Sheehy, 1995, p.139).
Life radically altered
In her book New Passages, author Gail Sheehy writes that life after 45 is a stage of life radically altered from what previous generations have experienced. She calls it Second Adulthood, a time to open to new and more meaningful ways to be alive (Sheehy, 1995). Sheehy says
"An American woman who today reaches age 50 free of cancer and heart disease can expect to see her 92nd birthday. The average man who is 65 today - an age now reached by more than 70 percent of the U.S. population - can expect to live until 81. This amounts to a second adult lifetime (pp. 5-6)."
Quality of life improved
Not only is the health and longevity of the U.S. population continuously increasing, but the quality of life in these later years has also greatly improved over the last century (U.S. Census Bureau, 1996). Although there are many factors that affect quality of life, health, both mental and physical, is the cornerstone of a long, quality life.
Gains related to lifestyle
The National Institute on Aging (NIA) attributes the gains in health among older adults to health-related behavioral changes or lifestyle factors. The NIA found that disability among older Americans is decreasing at an accelerating pace:
"Overall, from 1982 through 1999, the prevalence of disability among older Americans declined from 26.2 percent to 19.7 percent. A major feature of the decline was its acceleration from 1994 through 1999. (National Institute on Aging, 2001, para. 7)"
Lifestyle factors have impact
Multiple research studies show that lifestyle factors have a profound impact on health during mid- and late-adulthood. Additionally, robust health cannot be taken for granted, but usually must be achieved with deliberate actions.
Greater than genetics
Lifestyle factors have a greater impact than genetics, which account for about one third of the problems associated with aging (Johns Hopkins, 1998). According to the Johns Hopkins Medical Letter Health After 50, there are significant factors, which increase longevity, prevent or delay disabling illness, and improve the quality of life. They are:
- Exercise. This by itself is the most important factor. Physical activity aids cardiovascular and respiratory functions, slows the loss of muscular strength, increases bone mass, aids digestion and bowel functions, promotes sound sleep, and prevents depression.
- Nutrition. This area encompasses a healthy diet, use of supplements, and drinking plenty of water. The experts advocate a low fat diet with a minimum of 5 servings of fruits and vegetables, and 2 to 4 servings of low-fat dairy products each day. A multivitamin is recommended to fill in gaps from the diet, as well as 6 to 8 glasses of water or clear fluids to promote optimal organ function.
- Not smoking. Cessation of smoking reduces the risk of heart disease, stroke, some cancers, bronchitis, and emphysema.
- Avoidance of excessive alcohol. Limiting alcohol to one glass of wine or spirits per day reduces the risk of liver disease and certain cancers. However, the older you get, the more cautious you should be, even about drinking small amounts.
- Stress reduction. Reduction of stress and anxiety helps to strengthen the immune system and decreases susceptibility to disease.
- Cultivating satisfying relationships. Social interaction and support have been found to reduce stress, help cognitive functioning, and prevent depression.
- Challenging the mind. Learning new skills and regular mental activity promote healthy mental functioning.
Avoid the effect of aging
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) also states that healthy lifestyles are more influential than genetics to avoid the deterioration associated with aging (CDC, 2002). The CDC recommends that people be physically active, eat a healthy diet, do not use tobacco, and practice other healthy behaviors to reduce the risk of chronic diseases. They emphasize that physical activity is the key to healthy aging.
Since the benefits of a physically active lifestyle are so well documented and so important, a number of highly regarded health and aging organizations* have collaborated on a report entitled the National Blueprint: Increasing Physical Activity Among Adults Aged 50 and Older (CDC, 2001).
* Association for Advancement of Retired Persons (AARP), American College of Sports Medicine, American Geriatrics Society, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Nation Institute on Aging, and The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Mobilize older adults
The drive of the National Blueprint is to mobilize mid-life and older adults. It contains recommendations spanning the areas of Research, Home and Community, Workplace, Health Care Systems, and Policy Arena. It is a multi-pronged effort to make physical activity an integral and vital part of life.
Brain cells keep growing
From a psychological perspective, studies are showing that cognitive capacity most often determines whether people can attain extreme old age while remaining active (Volz, 2000). The good news is that research by psychologists at Princeton University demonstrated that new brain cells, which enable learning and memory, grow continuously throughout a persons lifetime.
Memory enhancement and mental functioning are supported by good diet, mental activity, and connectedness with other people. Again, these are all part of the Johns Hopkins recommendations and emphasize the importance of a healthy lifestyle.
How well are older Americans doing in regards to exercise? Two-thirds of Americans aged 50-79 are aware that it is the best thing they can do for their health and sixty percent say they are physically active on a regular basis (AARP, 2001, para. 1,7).
Being active, eating healthy foods and handling stress have been shown to greatly improve the quality of life for senior citizens.
Live healthy your whole life
Resources and references
Successful Aging: THE SECOND 50 - Monitor on Psychology, 31; Volz, E. (2000)
Theories of development: Concepts and applications by William Crain; Prentice Hall (2004)
The Johns Hopkins prescription for longevity: Health After 50; Johns Hopkins Medical Letter (Dec, 4-6, 1998).
New passages: Mapping your life across time by G. Sheehy; Random House (1995)
Questions and comments
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Lifestyle Factors Affecting Quality of Life in Late Adulthood