The Keys to Aging Gracefully
Philip Zimbardo is still going strong at 90. What can we learn from him?
Posted March 20, 2023 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
- To live longer and healthier, don’t smoke, maintain a healthy weight, stay physically active, and eat foods that are good for you.
- Don’t buy into the negative stereotypes of aging that aren’t necessarily true.
This month my colleague and writing partner Phil Zimbardo turned 90 years old. For some, simply reaching this age would be accomplishment enough. For Zimbardo, it’s an acknowledged milestone used as a springboard to leap forward into the future. What does this look like?
- Writing a book on grief and loss.
- Answering the call to bring psychology to mental health professionals in China.
- Training mental health counselors in Poland to help Ukrainian civilians with post-traumatic stress displaced due to Putin’s war in their country.
- Educating people throughout Europe and Eastern Europe about time perspective therapy and his non-profit, The Heroic Imagination Project.
- Working with a group of psychologists in Ukraine to aid in treating soldiers and civilians with trauma stress and post-traumatic stress.
So, is there a secret formula – other than genetics – for staying vibrant and vital as we age?
4 top ways to live longer
According to a comprehensive study conducted by Johns Hopkins Medicine of 6,200 men and women over an eight-year period, those who adopted four smart behaviors reduced the chance of death from all causes within that time frame by 80 percent. All four—we can call them lifestyle choices—are choices we make every day. And all are completely within our power to make and to stick to.
1. Don't smoke. The best plan to live longer is to adopt all four of the lifestyle choices determined as most important in the Johns Hopkins study. But according to the researchers, if you could only choose one, this is it: Don’t smoke. Smoking affects your coronary arteries and lungs, and smokers also have increased rates of cancer and risk of stroke. (Note: Phil has never smoked.)
2. Maintain a healthy weight. The healthiest people in the study maintained a body mass index (BMI)—a ratio of height to weight that measures body mass—of less than 25. To reach and maintain a healthy BMI, embrace the next two lifestyle choices.
3. Get up and move. Aim for about 30 minutes of activity a day most days of the week. This may seem daunting, but you can do it. Especially if you break it into three 10-minute bouts of activity per day. Johns Hopkins’ researchers suggest a 10-minute walk in the morning, another at lunch, and a stroll after dinner. We’d like to broaden that suggestion: Along with walking once a day, you can mix it up and try two 10-minute sessions of stretching, yoga, tai chi, or aerobics such as calisthenics, weight lifting, dance, jogging, or anything else you find enjoyable that will increase your breathing and heart rate.
Note: Phil suffered life-threatening whooping cough and pneumonia at age five. He endured an extended stay in a children’s hospital. It took many years to fully recover. But this experience informed his decision to live a healthy lifestyle. Keeping physically fit has been important to him ever since. Although for decades his heavy work schedule precluded him from being able to go to a gym on a regular basis, he made up for it by walking and using the stairs instead of the elevator. Like many middle-aged and older people, Phil has had knee and hip surgeries. During physical therapy, he was introduced to the many benefits of water aerobics and swimming at the community pool.
4. Make healthy food choices. The study found that the healthiest people followed a Mediterranean-style diet. That means a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, tree nuts with healthy oils, fish, whole-grain carbs and olive oil for cooking. It also means less red meat. Food swaps are fairly easy, such as fish instead of fried chicken and a handful of nuts instead of chips. These heart-healthy, life-extending changes can put the power of the Mediterranean diet on your plate, simply and deliciously. What impact does this diet have? In a large 2013 study, a Mediterranean style of eating reduced heart disease risk by 28 to 30 percent.
Note: About 15 years ago Phil was diagnosed with celiac disease, a chronic digestive and immune disorder which may be genetic, and that damages the small intestine. Since his diagnosis, he maintains a healthy gluten free diet. (But he admits to sometimes indulging in not-so-healthy gluten-free gastronomical delights, especially during holidays and on celebratory occasions.)
But wait, there’s more
While we wholeheartedly agree with the four lifestyle choices suggested by the Johns Hopkins team, we’d add two more areas to the living-longer and healthier lifestyle. Phil practices both, and believes they have helped keep him alive, well, and on his toes:
5. Maintain a sharp mind. If we do the following, no matter our age, we’ll help ourselves stay savvy:
- Keep learning – Challenge your brain with mental exercises. Think Sudoku, Boggle with Friends, or Scrabble, learning a new skill, or volunteering or mentoring.
- Use all your senses – Your senses are stored in different parts of your brain. By using as many as possible when you're learning something new, more of your brain is used and can better retain the memory.
- Believe in yourself – Don’t buy into negative stereotypes of aging. If you believe you can improve and you practice, you have a better chance of keeping your mind sharp.
- Prioritize your brain – So we don’t sweat the small stuff and can focus on what’s important, take advantage of technology like your smartphone for the many things it can do: reminders, calendars, shopping lists, address books, etc. Also keep things you use often like keys, glasses, or your wallet in the same place at home so they aren’t misplaced and you don’t waste time searching for them.
- Repeat what you want to know – When you want to remember something you've just learned, repeat it out loud or write it down. That way, you reinforce the memory or connection.
6. Be social. A recent Pennsylvania State study found that when adults between the ages of 70 and 90 reported more frequent, pleasant social interactions, they also had better cognitive performance on that day and the following two days. The researchers found that when older adults interacted more frequently with people they were close to — especially friends — they performed better on cognitive tests than those who interacted less frequently with others.
By adopting these simple practices, we can help ourselves live longer, healthier, more productive, and fulfilling lives.
JH Staff. 4 top ways to live longer. 2023. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Medicine.
CDC Staff. About Adult BMI. 2022. Washington, DC: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
National Institute of Heart, Lung & Blood Institute Staff. Calculate your BMI - Standard BMI Calculator. Bethesda, MD: National Institute of Health.
National Institute of Diabetes, Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Celiac Disease. Bethesda, MD: National Institute of Health.
JH Staff. Take Your Diet to the Mediterranean. 2023. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Medicine.
HMS Staff. 6 simple steps to keep your mind sharp. 2020. Boston, MA: Harvard Health Publishing.
Bohn, K. Socializing may improve older adults’ cognitive function in daily life. 2021. Pennsylvania, PA: PSU Publishing.