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Habits that affecct your health

“Not only do persons with better health habits survive longer, but in such persons, disability is postponed and compressed into fewer years at the end of life,” reports The New England Journal of Medicine. Indeed, the first hurdle can be lowered by changing such habits as eating, drinking, sleeping, smoking, and exercise. Consider, for example, exercise habits.

 
 
Moderate physical exercise goes a long way. Studies show that simple exercises in and around the home help the elderly, including the ‘oldest old,’ to regain strength and vitality. For instance, one group of older people ranging from 72 to 98 years of age found that they could walk faster and climb stairs more easily after doing some weight-lifting exercises for just ten weeks. And no wonder! Tests taken after the exercise program showed that the participants’ muscle strength had more than doubled. Another group, made up of mostly sedentary women up to 70 years of age, exercised twice a week. After a year, they had gained in muscle mass, as well as in strength, balance, and bone density. “When we started, we were afraid we’d rip ligaments, pop tendons, tear muscles,” said physiologist Miriam Nelson, who conducted the studies. “But all we got was stronger, healthier people.”
 
Summarizing the results of several scientific studies on aging and exercise, one textbook states: “Exercise slows the process of aging, prolongs life, and reduces the period of dependency that most often precedes death.”
 
 
Mental-exercise habits. 
 
The adage “Use it or lose it” seems to apply not merely to the muscles but also to the mind. Although aging is accompanied by some forgetfulness, studies conducted by the U.S. National Institute on Aging show that an older brain remains flexible enough to handle the effects of aging. Hence, professor of neurology Dr. Antonio R. Damasio concludes: “Older people can continue to have extremely rich and healthy mental lives.” What accounts for the continuing flexibility of older brains?
 
The brain consists of 100 billion brain cells, or neurons, and trillions of connections between them. These connections act like telephone lines enabling neurons to “talk” to one another to create, among other things, memory. As the brain ages, neurons die. (See the box “A New Look at Brain Cells.”) Yet, older brains are able to compensate for neuron losses. Whenever a neuron falls silent, its neighbors respond by making new connections to other neurons and taking on the work load of the lost neuron. That way, the brain actually shifts responsibility for a given task from one region to another. Therefore, many older people accomplish the same mental tasks as younger people, but they may use different parts of the brain to do so. In some respects, an older brain acts a bit like an older tennis player who compensates for his dwindling speed by resorting to skills that younger players may lack. Yet, despite using techniques different from those of his juniors, the older player still scores.
 
What can older persons do to keep up the score? After studying more than 1,000 people between 70 and 80 years of age, gerontology researcher Dr. Marilyn Albert found that mental exercise is one of the factors that determines which older people hang on to their intellectual prowess. (See the box “Keeping the Mind Flexible.”) Mental exercise keeps the brain’s ‘telephone lines’ alive. On the other hand, say experts, mental decline starts “when people retire, decide to take things easy, and say they don’t have to keep up with the world anymore.”—Inside the Brain.
 
So the good news is, explains gerontologist Dr. Jack Rowe, that “factors under our control or which we can modify should enhance our capacity to have a successful old age.” Moreover, it is never too late to start forming good habits. “Even if you have had bad health habits most of your life and you change in the later years,” says a researcher, “you should still reap at least some of the rewards of a healthy lifestyle.”