This Is How To Have A Long Awesome Life: 4 Secrets From Research


There’s no specific moment when you know you’re getting older. No ceremony where they hand you a cardigan and a book of crossword puzzles and say, “Welcome. You’re one of us now. The Wi-Fi password is getoffmylawn.”

But the wrinkles and gray hairs start accumulating. Your brain’s default setting has gone from “efficient” to “making that dial-up internet sound.” And you wake up with injuries from sleeping wrong. SLEEPING. You know, that passive activity where you’re unconscious and immobile. It’s either laugh at the absurdity of it all or cry into your fiber supplement.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. You know what the secret to happiness is as you age?

Just stay healthy. That’s it. Seriously. As long as people in older demographics stay healthy, their happiness, on average, increases. Research shows with age we become more agreeable and more conscientious. Folks in their 60’s score 69% higher on emotional stability assessments than people in their twenties.

But it’s gonna take a little effort. Aging is like finding out your free trial of youth has expired, and now all the premium features are locked behind a paywall of proactively doing things to stay healthy. So where can we get some guidance?

John Medina is a developmental molecular biologist and a professor of bioengineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine. His book is “Brain Rules for Aging Well: 10 Principles for Staying Vital, Happy, and Sharp.”

You’re of the generation that says, “You won’t believe what happened” rather than “You won’t believe what I saw on YouTube.” Well, we’re boldly going where no senior discount has gone before. Ready? Let’s get to it…



Remember when you were a kid and could just run into your friend’s houses like it was no big deal? Now seeing friends is a logistical nightmare that requires a planning committee, a Gallup poll, and the alignment of at least three celestial bodies.

But it’s worth it. Loneliness is the single greatest risk factor for clinical depression. It decreases immune function, increases stress hormones and ups your blood pressure. It impairs cognition and is even a risk factor for dementia.

But the research says you don’t just want to spend time with everybody. Overall interaction levels didn’t benefit health – it was the net quality of those interactions. In other words, ditch the jerks and hang out with the people who care about you. (For more tips on making friends as an adult, click here.)

And spend time with younger people. You’re now Yoda, but with a better skincare routine. Up your mentor game. You’re essentially telling younger folks, “Here, take my mistakes. I don’t need them anymore; I’m making new ones.” In return, you stay “with it” — a term I am sure immediately disqualifies me from being considered as such. But it’s true. When seniors spend more time with children it reduces stress, anxiety, depression – and even mortality rates.

Okay, we got the socializing down. Want the closest thing to a magic bullet when it comes to staying healthy?


Exercise And Sleep

If you want to stay healthy, exercise isn’t just important; it’s as crucial as oxygen is to breathing, or as those little packets of silica gel are to…whatever it is they actually do.

Harvard’s Frank Hu says: “The single thing that comes close to a magic bullet, in terms of its strong and universal benefits, is exercise.” Yup, the gym is what allows us to age as gracefully as a fine wine or George Clooney.

And it doesn’t take a lot to see benefits. One study put people on a pretty skimpy three-month walking regimen and still saw a 30% boost in executive function scores. Yeah, just walking for ninety days made older folks smarter. (For more on effective exercise programs, click here.)

And the flip side of working out is rest. Commit to getting 7-8 hours a night. This is what the Global Council on Brain health recommends as optimal for your gray matter. (My nightly dreams are a cross between a Wes Anderson film and a Salvador Dali painting, featuring a cameo by a confused but cooperative Bill Murray.) Cool it with the caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine. Keep that bedroom dark and chilly. Dim the lights long before you’re ready to hit the sack.

Neuroscientist Matt Walker says a consistent sleep schedule is the single most important thing. Go to bed at the same time every night. Wake up at the same time every day. Yes, weekends too. (For more tips on better sleep, click here.)

And now it’s time to talk about food…



People love reading about ways to eat right, almost as much as they love not eating right. If you could sell irony, you’d get rich quick. If you want to be healthy, how you eat matters. It’s an idea so obvious it’s almost insulting, like being told that the key to not getting wet in the rain is to stay indoors. But here we are, in a world where people buy high-tech watches that remind them to breathe.

So how should you be eating for optimum health? Well, in a world where diets come and go with the frequency of questionable fashion trends—looking at you, shoulder pads and neon leg warmers—the Mediterranean diet has stood the test of time.

What’s the secret sauce in this diet? Fruits, vegetables and legumes. Whole grains and fish. Nuts and olive oil. Studies show people who follow this pattern of eating are less likely to suffer from cardiovascular disease or have strokes. It also has cognitive benefits like increased executive function and working memory. (For more tips on healthy eating, click here.)

Alright, if the above advice didn’t irritate you, the following definitely will…


Cognitive Challenge

Don’t retire. The thing you’ve been looking forward to after decades of working? Yeah. Don’t do it. According to the mountain of research I pretend to understand while scrolling through my phone at 2 a.m., retiring is basically the equivalent of giving your brain a pink slip. Work gives us purpose, a routine and keeps your social network 25% larger.

Yes, you hate me now. But the negatives associated with retirement are eye-popping. Retirement is associated with a 40% increase in cardiovascular incidents like heart attack or stroke. It increases blood pressure, cholesterol, body mass, chance of cancer and likelihood of diabetes. Heck, the chance of any chronic health condition is 21% greater for retirees. Stay employed and you cut that in half.

“Eric, stop saying these things. I want to retire.”

Memory scores drop by 25%. Chance of major depressive disorder increases by 40%.

“Cut it out, Eric.”

Not retiring reduces mortality risk by 11%. For every year you work after 60, your risk of dementia drops by 3.2 percent.

“Eric, say something that makes me feel good about not working or I’m hitting the unsubscribe button.”

Okay, okay. As you might suspect, actually “having a job” isn’t the crucial factor here. But if you stop working you need to maintain the positive things employment provides: being cognitively engaged, a sense of purpose, social interaction, continuing to learn, etc.

Staying in some form of work means you’re still part of the world, still making connections that don’t revolve around pinochle or comparing cholesterol levels. More than anything else, you need to be engaged with life — and not merely shoving as many hours of television into your eyeballs as possible.

The psychological concept of “engagement” has two different varieties. “Receptive engagement” which is passively learning about areas of knowledge you’re already familiar with. This has been shown to improve memory in aging folks. But its more powerful sibling is “Productive engagement.” This is when you’re exposed to new ideas and actively wrestle with them. How can you do this? The simple answer is…

Argue with people. Politely. Diplomatically. And, no, not about political issues you will never, ever, ever change your mind about. Quite the opposite. Medina writes, “Productive engagement involves experiencing environments where you find your assumptions challenged, your perspective stretched, your prejudices confronted, your curiosity inspired.” The real key to keeping your neurons firing like a well-oiled machine is to regularly engage in debates with people whose opinions make your eyebrows meet your hairline in disbelief. The point isn’t to emerge victorious, brandishing the severed head of your opponent’s flawed logic like some kind of intellectual Highlander. The point is to stretch your mind.

Is that too much conflict? Fair enough. The scientists and people who enjoy wearing tweed unironically say that reading a lot is another way to keeping our brains spry, nimble and healthy. A twelve-year study showed that seniors who read 3.5 hours a day had 17% lower mortality. (Read more than 3.5 hours? Up that to a 23% reduction.) The catch? Has to be books. Choose the path less scrolled. Dig a moat around your attention span, fill it with piranhas and crack a book.

You don’t have to keep working but you can’t just sit on the couch. Retirement shouldn’t be about withdrawing from life; it should be about diving into new adventures. Instead of seeing it as the end of our useful lives, let’s look at it as Phase Two. Phase Two involves taking all the nonsense we’ve put up with for decades and turning it into something awesome. Do something that keeps you sharp, keeps you engaged, and, most importantly, keeps you from having to watch daytime TV. Because the only thing worse than getting old is getting boring. Let’s live with the kind of purpose that makes those whippersnappers wonder if, perhaps, the best is yet to come.

Okay, we’ve covered a lot. Let’s round it all up and get the final fun, easy tip…


Sum Up

Here’s how to live a long awesome life:

  • Socialize: Instead of staring into the soulless eyes of your smartphone, spend more time with friends. And play mentor to people who see the early 2000s as “vintage.”
  • Exercise And Sleep: Avoid the sweet, seductive embrace of the couch. Hit the gym and get 8 hours of sleep. This is the path to cerebral salvation.
  • Diet: Health does not reside in the ludicrous promises of anti-aging creams that cost more than your first car or in the meditation apps that gently coax you into a panic about not being calm enough. Give the principles of the Mediterranean diet a shot.
  • Cognitive Challenge: You want “productive engagement.” Reading smart books is like mental yoga. It stretches you. It strengthens you. And you may find yourself in some uncomfortable positions. Or have polite disagreements — which is more like mental MMA.

So what can you expect if you actually do all of this? Researchers performed a two-year study with older folks. Subjects ate a Mediterranean-style diet. They did 2-3 hour-long sessions per week of aerobics or strength training. They played a variety of games to challenge their minds. What happened?

At the end, memory scores were 40% better than those who didn’t participate. Executive function – brainpower – was 83% better. Processing speed shot up 150%. Meanwhile, overall cognitive performance of the control group got 30% worse over the two years.

In many ways, this handful of changes made people feel like they were younger again – and that, in itself, is a very powerful tip. Studies show people who feel younger perform better on cognitive tests. The magic number is twelve. People who feel 12 years younger than they really are crush it on tests of brainpower.

The next time someone tells you to act your age, tell them to stuff it. Think back to your younger years and relive them. Nostalgia, that warm, fuzzy blanket woven from the threads of “back in my day” is actually useful. Numerous studies demonstrate its power. When you reminisce with romantic partners, the two of you grow emotionally closer. Nostalgia makes us more generous, more tolerant of outsiders and more connected to others.

So feel younger, act younger and be a little nostalgic today. I’ll help you get started: remember mixtapes? Those were like the original Spotify playlists, except making one for someone was the equivalent of saying, “I’m willing to spend three hours in front of my stereo, risking carpal tunnel to express my feelings for you.” And now, science says reminiscing about that painstaking process is akin to giving your brain a big ol’ hug.

Who’s up for a mixtape exchange party?

(I’ll bring the pencils for when the tapes inevitably unravel.)


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