Health & Fitness

Keys to health in 'the new middle age'

Meet the New Middle Age, as personified by women who are extending the prime of life, with all its emotional, intellectual and spiritual potential, way beyond the short horizons that defined their mothers' middle years.

Prevention magazine sifted through the latest research about how to remain physically strong, ward off heart disease, and bolster an immune-boosting sunny outlook to show you how to imbue your second act with more personal contentment, joy, and vibrancy than you ever thought possible.

A strong heart

It's the engine that drives an active lifestyle, essential to your ability to maintain healthy muscles and bones, a sharp mind — even an upbeat attitude.

Your mom's middle age: It was all about cholesterol. If it was normal, she'd ignore it; if it was high, she'd control it with a low-fat diet.

The new middle age: Get a heart scan after menopause. Even women with normal cholesterol levels can have heart disease, so talk to your doctor about getting a CT coronary artery scan. The test, which measures calcium accumulation in arteries (a predictor of heart attack risk), can spot trouble even when other tests, such as those that check cholesterol levels, are normal.

Embrace the Mediterranean diet. Not all heart-healthy diets are created equal. The hands-down winner is the Mediterranean diet, which prevents and even reverses heart disease. Patients whose diets feature monounsaturated fats from olive or canola oil, nuts, and fish, along with abundant fruits and vegetables, reduced their recurrence of heart problems by 50 percent to 70 percent, according to the Lyon Diet Heart Study in France.

Good vision

A sharp pair of eyes is key to getting up and down the mountain, so to speak — and reveling in all of nature's glory during the hike. Sadly, age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a disease that damages the retina, eventually threatens the vision of about one-third of people.

Your mom's middle age: What will be will be. She — and her doctors — believed that AMD could not be prevented.

The new middle age: See better with supplements. Those with vitamins C and E, beta-carotene and zinc can slow vision loss by 25 percent in people with early signs of AMD.

Comic relief

A good laugh is one of the easiest and most reliable tools for managing health-debilitating stress.

Your mom's middle age: She laughed when she felt like it. Experts then thought a sense of humor was determined only by your genes — you're either cheerful or you're not.

The new middle age: Schedule regular "laughercise." Loma Linda University researcher Lee Berk has tested the effects of what he calls "mirthful laughter" by asking volunteers to spend time doing nothing more complicated than watching TV comedies. He found that even anticipating a laugh improves function of immune-enhancing hormones. Berk's latest study found that over the course of a year, the levels of good HDL cholesterol in volunteers participating in a mirthful-laughter group jumped 26 percent, while their levels of C-reactive proteins, a measure of inflammation linked to both heart disease and diabetes risk, dropped 66 percent. "We call it laughercise," he explains, "because the benefits of laughter are so much like those of physical activity."

Keen hearing

One in three Americans has high-frequency hearing loss, according to a 2008 report in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

Your mom's middle age: She used earplugs — when she remembered. The only way to protect hearing, she thought, was to avoid sustained loud noises, a leading cause of hearing loss.

The new middle age: Eat your veggies. We used to think hearing loss occurred when tiny hair cells in the inner ear were torn apart by vibrations from loud noises, but we now know that part of the problem is the accumulation of free radicals, which are toxic to hair cells. Animal studies show that antioxidants may neutralize free radicals, protecting against both short-and long-term damage.

Researchers also just reported that 46 volunteers with age-related hearing loss improved their hearing at all frequencies after taking a combination of antioxidants for 13 weeks. Researchers don't yet know the optimal level or mix of antioxidants for hearing protection. Until they do, take a standard multivitamin and load your plate with antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables — and, of course, avoid very loud, sustained noises.

Sturdy bones

A strong skeleton provides the foundation for an active lifestyle, essential to your ability to bike through wine country, tend your vegetables, and romp with your grandkids.

Your mom's middle age: She got plenty of calcium and vitamin D, both of which are crucial to maintaining bone mass.

The new middle age: Add protein to the mix. In addition to calcium and D, which are very important, you need a steady supply of protein to keep bones strong. Dairy products such as milk and yogurt are the best sources of calcium because they contain the whole suite of nutrients, including protein, that you need for healthy bones.

Boosting vitamin D with supplements (take at least 1,000 IU daily) is particularly important as you get older, because the skin becomes less efficient at generating this crucial nutrient from sunlight.