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Learn how to age well

Update: I recently received a medical history form from my physician that I'm supposed to fill out and take to my annual physical exam.

The first item asks me to list current medical concerns. As I thought about it, I realized the most important concern I have is that I am getting older.

Of course, getting older is preferable to the alternative. But aging brings a host of challenges, and how you face these challenges affects how well you age.

Yale University studied more than 660 people for an average of 23 years and found those who had a positive attitude about aging lived an average of seven and a half years longer than those who took a grim view of growing old.

In an article in a recent issue of Remedy magazine, Beth Howard listed several factors that can affect your outlook on aging. Among them are:

Point of view: According to Howard, your point of view on aging can exert a powerful influence on your health because longevity is only 30 percent genetically determined — the rest is controlled by mental factors and lifestyle choices.

In interviews with people who had reached the age of 100, Dr. Michael Brickey said, "What I discovered is that centenarians have very little in common physically. What they have in common are their mental traits. In general, they are optimistic and self-reliant, have a sense of humor and good coping skills, do not hold onto resentment and develop a sense of purpose."

He believes the secret to long life involves what he calls the ABCs of aging:

Attitudes: Be grateful and optimistic. Think about what you have to be thankful for and actively seek to see the glass as half-full—not the other way around.

Beliefs: You need to believe that every age has its benefits, instead of thinking that some younger age was the best time of your life. You also need to believe that you can make new friends at any age and that you have something to offer others. You need to believe you can do things. "Having a sense of purpose . . ." is good medicine.

Coping skills: To be successful, you need to learn how to deal with difficult circumstances. For example, "People over 50 may have a hard time when friends are dying. But those who keep the person present in life despite their death stay young at heart." Brickey says you should "focus on positive memories and try to have a sense of humor about bad memories, if you can't forget them."

In addition to the psychological factors, I believe there are some physical things that need attention in order for you to age well.

For instance, everyone should have a regular physical examination to allow your personal physician a chance to catch some problems early. If you smoke, stopping will add years to your life.

Eating properly will help your body function better. Increasing your intake of fruits and vegetables, decreasing saturated fat and eating whole grains are the guidelines generally accepted for this important factor.

Maintaining proper body weight will decrease some of the risks associated with obesity, and exercising regularly may be the most important of all of these factors in terms of aging gracefully.

I also believe strongly that being involved with some activity for which you have a passion can add years to your life. I ski weekly with a group of senior citizens and am amazed at their vigor and love for getting out on the slopes. The same benefits occur for those who golf, do genealogy, volunteer or do any of the things that make life more meaningful.

Garth Fisher is the former director of the Human Performance Research Center at Brigham Young University.