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NIH MedlinePlus the Magazine, Trusted Health Information from the National Institutes of Health

Family 2009

Assuring Healthy Aging

7 Smart Steps to Aging Well

1. Control Blood Pressure

You can have high blood pressure—also called hypertension—and still feel fine. Known as the "silent killer," it does not cause symptoms that you can see or feel, but is a major health problem. Left untreated, it can lead to stroke, heart disease, eye problems, and kidney failure.

  • Normal BP—The systolic (top, or first, number) pressure is less than 120 and the diastolic pressure (bottom, or second, number) is less than 80—for example, 119/79.
  • Prehypertension—If the top number is between 120 and 139 or the bottom number between 80 and 89, you may be at risk for high blood pressure.
  • High BP—Blood pressure measures 140/90 or higher at two or more checkups.

What You Can Do:

  • Keep a healthy weight. Being overweight adds to your risk.
  • Exercise every day. Moderate exercise can lower blood pressure. Check with your doctor before starting a new exercise plan.
  • Eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy foods. These foods, which are high in potassium, help to control high blood pressure.
  • Cut down on salt and sodium. Most Americans eat more salt and sodium than they need. A low-salt diet might help lower your blood pressure.
  • Drink less alcohol. Alcohol affects blood pressure. Men should have no more than two drinks a day; women no more than one.
  • Follow doctor's orders. If lifestyle changes alone do not work, your doctor may prescribe blood pressure pills. Take them as directed.

2. Control Cholesterol

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance present throughout the body, including the heart. Everyone needs some cholesterol, but deposited in your blood it can raise your risk of heart disease or stroke. It builds up in your arteries, including the coronary arteries, narrowing and blocking them. Cholesterol travels through the blood in two forms: high-density lipoprotein (HDL), the "good" cholesterol, which prevents cholesterol from building up on artery walls and carries it from throughout the body to the liver for removal. Low density lipoprotein (LDL), the "bad" cholesterol, builds arterial wall cholesterol; the higher your LDL blood level, the greater your chances of developing coronary heart disease.

What You Can Do: Diet and exercise to lower your LDL and raise your HDL. Failing this, you may need drugs.

  • Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes (TLC)—Follow the cholesterol–lowering TLC diet (less saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium), be physically active, manage your weight.
  • Drug Treatment—Take as directed by your physician, together with TLC treatment to help lower LDL.

3. Control Weight

Extra weight puts people at greater risk for many health problems as they age: type 2 diabetes (high blood sugar), high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke, certain cancers, sleep apnea (when breathing stops for short periods during sleep), osteoarthritis (wearing away of the joints), and more.

What You Can Do:Losing as little as five to 15 percent of your body weight can improve your health. To help keep the weight off:

  • Keep a food diary.
  • Shop when you are not hungry and from a list of approved foods.
  • Store foods out of sight
  • Eat smaller portions. At restaurants, eat only half your meal and take the rest home.
  • Turn off the TV at mealtime.
  • Be realistic: aim for steady, modest loss.
  • Seek emotional support from family and friends.
  • Expect setbacks; forgive yourself.
  • Make physical activity part of your weight-loss plan.

4. Exercise

Burn more calories than you eat each day and watch the pounds come off. As you age, muscle tissue quality decreases and you may lose up to 40 percent of muscle mass. Strength exercises can often quickly restore some mass and strength.

What You Can Do: Talk to your doctor about what kind of exercise and how much is right for you. A good goal is to exercise four to six times a week for 30 to 60 minutes at a time. "Exercise: A Guide from the National Institute on Aging" brochure features strength, balance, and stretching exercises you can do at home.

5. Stop Smoking

Tobacco use remains the single most preventable cause of death in the United States. Cigarette smoking accounts for nearly one-third of all cancer deaths each year, for example. Smoking is the most common risk factor for lung cancer, the nation's leading cancer killer, and is associated with many cancers. Smoking also puts people at higher risk for chronic lung disease, heart disease, and other ailments. Smoking during pregnancy can have adverse effects on the unborn child, such as premature delivery and low birth weight.

What You Can Do: The best gift you can give yourself and your loved ones is to stop smoking. For help, go online to for The National Cancer Institute's smoking cessation guidelines; also, the American Lung Association's "Freedom From Smoking" online program (, offers a thorough approach to stopping.

6. Don't Drink Too Much

Misuse of alcohol has life-threatening consequences. Heavy drinking can increase the risk for certain cancers, especially those of the liver, esophagus, throat, and larynx (voice box). It can also cause cirrhosis of the liver, immune system problems, brain damage, and harm the fetus during pregnancy. Drinking increases the risk of death from automobile crashes as well as recreational and on-the-job injuries.

What You Can Do:  Drink in moderation: up to two drinks a day for men, and one for women and older people. (A standard drink is one 12-ounce bottle or can of either beer or wine cooler, one 5-ounce glass of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits.)

7. Follow Proven, Preventive Measures

Taking responsibility for your own health as you age means being an active participant with your physician and other health care professionals.

What You Can Do: 

  • Find a "medical home." With the growing use of retail-based and emergency walk-in clinics, many families are in danger of seeing a succession of health care professionals who have no history of their health. Find—and stick with—a doctor you like.
  • Get vaccinated. Pay attention to childhood immunization schedules (see page 5), as well as established and emerging vaccines for adults. Ignoring them can be hazardous to your health—at any age.
  • Save your skin. With age come sunlight-related effects, from wrinkles and dermatitis to various skin cancers. Protect your skin from over-exposure to the sun. See your physician regularly to check for changes in your skin.
  • Take your medicine. Take the correct amount of your prescribed medicine at the proper time.
  • Educate yourself. Safeguarding your health as you age requires continually learning how to stay healthy. One of the best ways to do this is to visit and for the most trusted, latest health care information.

Winter 2009 Issue: Volume 4 Number 1 Pages 7 - 8