September 16th, 2009
11:00 AM ET

Secrets for aging gracefully

By Leslie Wade
Producer CNN Medical News

This may sound corny, but I really enjoy spending time with my Mom. In August she turned 80 and could probably beat me in an arm wrestling match - no kidding, and I'm not exactly a weakling.
[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/09/16/leslie.mom.art.jpg caption="Jean Wade knows the secrets of healthy aging."]

Mom is healthy and strong because she has truly taken care of herself physically, mentally and emotionally. You know all of the nagging you get each time you see your doctor for your annual check up? All the talk about not being a couch potato and eating yummy things like raw broccoli? Well, Mom actually listened and followed instructions.

Having Mom around means the world to me. Being around for your family or loved ones may be a gift worth considering. Here are some of Mom's health secrets, so perhaps we can all make it to 80 and beyond.

Back in the 60s Mom hosted a half hour TV show. One morning she interviewed an exercise instructor who was so impressive, Mom decided it was time to get back in shape. She's been exercising virtually every week since then. Unless she's sick, she gets some sort of weekly exercise: she walks, bikes, takes aerobics classes, swims laps in the pool and hits the ski slopes in the winter. From mid May to late September she rises with the sun and swims in the ocean off the Carolina coast: 400 strokes out from the beach and 400 strokes back, for a total of about 45 minutes. Exercising consistently for more than 45 years has a lot to do with her good posture, strong hand shake and brisk stride, but it's also a key component to her longevity.

We all know the benefits of exercise but let me remind you of a few. Consistent aerobic exercise strengthens the heart and keeps our blood vessels flexible and healthy. Exercise also helps keep cholesterol numbers, as well as blood pressure readings, in the healthy range - all good things when trying to keep heart disease at bay. Exercise is good for brain health, perhaps making us sharper mentally and reducing the risk for dementia and stroke. Exercise helps enhance our moods and may have a positive effect on our sex lives.

Good nutrition is about as important to Mom as exercise. She started cooking at age 13, when her mom went off to work in the factories during World War II, and has never stopped. She reads books about nutrition, has notebooks and cookbooks filled with healthy recipes and subscribes to health newsletters. Even during vacation and holidays, Mom eats a balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables. She eats meat, but not every day, and the cuts are always lean. You rarely find fatty hamburger or fried chicken on her table and I don't think she's ever bought chips or soda except when having a party.

How can eating right help all of us stay healthy? Low fat meals filled with fruits, vegetables and whole grains can help lower our risk for heart disease, certain cancers, type 2 diabetes and keep our waistlines trim. I know it's tempting to eat fast food and high-fat meals, especially when on the run, but eating right may help keep your heart pumping longer, your blood vessels coursing more smoothly and your cholesterol down.

There is no doubt that having a good marriage can reduce stress. Having my dad around for the last 50+ years has not only been entertaining for Mom - he's a very funny fellow - but his kindness and love are like a balm to her, plus he forgives easily. Studies show that reducing our stress level is good for our bodies and minds. When we're stressed out we release chemicals that doctors believe play a role in forming plaques that clog blood vessels in our brains (making us more prone to losing mental capacity as we age) and around our hearts (leading to coronary artery disease). Stress has been linked to high blood pressure, heart disease and depression. So good marriage or not, reducing stress should be a priority.

No one can predict the future of course, but it wouldn't surprise me if the family gathered to celebrate mom's 100th birthday in 20 years. She's going strong and showing few signs of slowing down. Her bones are as strong as someone in their 20s, her cholesterol and blood pressure numbers are low and her resting heart rate matches that of many a seasoned athlete. She has lived life wisely by eating well, exercising often and keeping an eye on her stress levels. I for one plan to take a page from her playbook: I may not be able to beat my kids in an arm wrestling match when I'm 80 but I sure hope I'm around to give it a try.

What helps motivate you to exercise and stay healthy. How do you stay on course?

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.