Keys to a Long Life

women living a happier and healthier life with social support and physical activIn addition to staying active and maintaining strong muscles throughout your life, it's important to strengthen some of the hidden components of successful aging such as social relationships. Studies find that people who are lonely have much higher rates of heart disease and depression and are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer's disease as those who are more linked in with social networks.

Patricia Harris, MD, a geriatrician and associate professor at Georgetown University Medical Center who also directs Washington Hospital Center's House Call program, in which she and other doctors visit elderly patients in their home, sees it in her patients every day. Those who are doing best are those who interact with all age groups, not just their own.

"You also need to find something you're interested in, even after retirement." While golf is good, it's not enough. "The older people who are the healthiest are the ones who never retired," said Dr. Harris. "So they're interested in their own work, they look forward to going to work every day." Their work keeps them involved and interacting with others so they maintain that all-important socialization.

Even those who aren't working do best if they have something to look forward to, whether it's the birth of a grandchild or a trip, she said. "Something that makes them interested in life." It is also important to develop resiliency. Resilience is the ability to confront challenges—sometimes terrible challenges—and maintain some sense of equilibrium. Resiliency is why some people lose jobs and go out and start new businesses while others may sink into a depression and lose their homes.

Resiliency is important on the physical side because it prevents disease-triggering inflammation that occurs when you let stress get to you. It's important on the emotional side because it helps you remain happy and optimistic even as you age and experience age-related losses, enabling you to better cope with negative feelings such as sadness and anger. Studies find it is significantly linked to successful aging.

One of the best ways to build resiliency? By building a strong social support network. Another is embracing spirituality. We're not necessarily talking religion here, although that is certainly a form of spirituality. Instead, we're talking about the sense that there is something larger in life than yourself and your own problems.