Keep Your Mind and Body in Top Condition

By Sally Wadyka
Photos by Laurie Frankel

Simple but effective strategies to stay vital, sharp, and looking great.

Taking Care of Your Brain

  • What aging can bring: Forgetfulness, decline in mental agility, risk of Alzheimer's disease.
  • What the research shows: "Doing things that hit both the left and right sides of the brain, like word puzzles plus mazes and visuals, has been proven to build brainpower," says Gary Small, M.D., director of the University of California at Los Angeles Center on Aging. Swedish researchers believe there's also a connection between physical activity and cognitive decline. Their study found that subjects who exercised at least 20 minutes two or more times a week at midlife reduced their risk of developing Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia later by 60 percent. On the nutrition front, a study at the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center showed that an essential omega-3 fatty acid counteracts the brain's production of neuron-damaging amyloid proteins.
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  • What you can do: "Challenge yourself mentally and physically; as little as 10 minutes of exercise a day may lower your risk of Alzheimer's," says Small. Eat antioxidant-loaded foods, such as almonds, leafy greens, and blueberries; and if you don't eat enough fatty fish rich in omega-3 acids, like salmon (at least two servings a week), ask your doctor about taking a daily 1,000-milligram fish-oil supplement.

Taking Care of Your Skin

  • What aging can bring: Wrinkles, brown spots, skin cancer.
  • What the research shows: Sun exposure and smoking can cause the loss of collagen and elastin and changes in DNA that can lead to skin cancer. Avoiding these stressors is "the most important thing to for skin," says Kenneth Beer, a dermatologic surgeon in West Palm Beach, Florida. Antioxidants will help keep damage at bay by "allowing the skin to repair itself," says Beer.
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  • What you can do: Drink at least one cup of green tea (a powerful antioxidant) daily, and be sure to get enough vitamins C and E. Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen (one that protects against both UVA and UVB rays) of at least SPF 30 every day; check the label for one or more of these ingredients: titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, and Mexoryl. Topical application of green tea and vitamins C and E, which are found in many anti-aging products, helps boost the skin's ability to fend off free-radical damage. And cover up outside whenever possible: Sun exposure can also lead to brown patches.

Taking Care of Your Teeth

  • What aging can bring: Yellowing, gum disease, tooth loss, oral cancer.
  • What the research shows: "Teeth can last a lifetime," says Edmond Hewlett, associate professor of restorative dentistry at the UCLA School of Dentistry. A healthy mouth has a good supply of saliva, which contains minerals that can halt and even reverse early stages of tooth decay. If you have a drier mouth (a common side effect of antihistamines, antidepressants, and medications for high blood pressure), decay can spread faster, and you'll need to be even more vigilant with your care.
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  • What you can do: "Anytime we eat, bacteria are left sitting on the teeth, so brush your teeth as soon as possible," says Hewlett. This will also help remove stains from foods and beverages such as blueberries, coffee, tea, and red wine. Brush for two minutes to cover all your teeth and gums, floss, and consider rinsing once a day with a mouthwash that contains fluoride. See your dentist for a cleaning twice a year (or more often if needed), and have a thorough checkup once a year for gum disease, cavities, and signs of oral cancer.

Taking Care of Your Lungs

  • What aging can bring: Loss of aerobic capacity.
  • What the research shows: "At any age, you can maximize your aerobic capacity with regular exercise," says Jerome L. Fleg, M.D., a medical officer at the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. And the fitter you are, the easier it is to perform daily tasks. If you are in good shape, you may need only 50 percent of your aerobic capacity to do something like push a vacuum, depending on your age and sex.
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  • What you can do: Intense activities aren't necessary; even "walking at a brisk pace on a regular basis can help maintain aerobic capacity in older adults," says Fleg. (Always consult your physician before starting an exercise program.)

Taking Care of Your Muscles

  • What aging can bring: Decreases in strength and muscle mass, loss of flexibility, loss of balance.
  • What the research shows: "Maximal muscle strength is achieved in the 20s and 30s," says Roseann M. Lyle, Ph.D., professor of public health at Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Indiana. "If you're sedentary, you will start losing strength after age 50 at a rate of 2 to 5 percent per decade." But if you keep using your muscles, through activities like weight training, you can maintain strength and flexibility even into your 90s. It's also important to work on balance, which falters with age, and to keep muscles agile so you can react quickly.
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  • What you can do: Add resistance moves to your workout, and mix in some fast, dynamic exercise as well―dance classes, tennis, volleyball, anything that gets you "moving fast in different directions," says Lyle. Good balance builders are one-legged squats, yoga poses such as "tree," and even something as simple as standing on one foot and then the other while you brush your teeth or do the dishes.

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