ATLANTA - There is plenty of good news for those of us who hope to grow old gracefully, says Dr. Sharon Bergquist, an internal medicine physician at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta.
"I think what we're learning is that you can be vibrant, into your 70's, 80's and even you 90's,” says Dr. Bergquist.
Attitude is huge.
"Part of that attitude is what you expect out of yourself, how you see yourself aging,” says Bergquist. “Part of that attitude is how much you feel a sense of control."
Dr. Bergquist argues you should feel in-control because about 80 percent of chronic diseases are preventable.
And, she says, studies of identical twins show about 75 percent of longevity comes down to lifestyle. Only 25% comes down to our genes, or family history.
"One of the biggest learnings about how we age is that your genes are not your destiny, even down to the point where your lifestyle choices can turn on or off your “good” or you “bad” genes.” Bergquist says. “We call that epigenetics.
So, even if you have a gene for cancer, by eating lots of fruits and vegetables, you may be able to turn off that gene."
We do go through some changes as we age: we eat less; we don’t sleep as solidly as we did when we were younger, and we have memory slips, often referred to as “senior moments.”
Bergquist says those are normal and common.
"Arthritis is not normal. Erectile dysfunction is not normal. Heart disease is not normal. Alzheimer's (disease) is not normal,” she says. “They are all diseases."
From the age of 65 on, make sure you're getting enough calcium, vitamin D and vitamins B6 and B12.
And, Dr. Bergquist says, double the amount of protein you’re consuming.
"Without it, people start to feel weak; they lose muscle mass,” she says.
It is the same thing with regular exercise.
"Exercise is the best way to not only live longer, but to live longer better,” Bergquist says.
There is another key part of growing older gracefully that doesn’t get as much attention as eating and exercise: staying connected.
Bergquist says maintaining a sense of connection, to our family, to our friends and to the world around us is critical to healthy aging.
Research shows people who volunteer or stay active in their community after they retire live longer than those who don’t volunteer or get involved outside their homes.
"So don't underestimate the power of the mind and the spirit in how you age,” says Dr. Bergquist. “It's not just the physical."