Reading is an early activity that can affect brain composition, and contribute to a lifetime of good health.
Healthy aging goes beyond eating right, exercise
K-State expert notes external factors that contribute to healthy lives
Dec. 14, 2020
MANHATTAN, Kan. – Most people know that exercising regularly and eating healthfully is directly connected to aging well, and Kansas State University aging specialist Erin Yelland certainly agrees.
But, she says, those two factors alone are not enough.
“So many times when we hear about health, we’re hearing about those specific health behaviors that we should be doing: eating right and exercising,” Yelland said. “Of course those play a huge role in our health, but when you look at all the things that contribute to our length and quality of life, those specific health behaviors only contribute 30%. The other 70% relates to external factors different from eating well and exercising.”
Listen to an interview by Jeff Wichman with Erin Yelland on the weekly radio program, Sound Living
Speaking recently on the K-State Research and Extension radio program, Sound Living, Yelland said that such external factors as environment, geographic location, education, socioeconomic status and others contribute to a person’s health at any age.
She noted that each individual’s level of risk often corresponds to public health programs enacted by the community, county or state they live in. One example she cited is a public information campaign to limit tobacco and alcohol advertising in stores.
“That is one example where public health initiatives work to reduce the marketing message that makes consumers think about cigarettes and alcohol, which then makes you less likely to want to buy them,” Yelland said. “These types of local policies can be huge in determining your health behaviors.”
Speaking on the factors that influence healthy aging, Yelland said:
- Environment. Air and water quality, housing and transit are included in this category. “Do you live in an environment where there is clean air, or do you live near a factory?” Yelland asked. “Or, do you have clean water with fluoride in it, or do you live in Flint, Michigan,” a city that since 2014 has struggled with high levels of lead in drinking water.
A safe home – free from asbestos or other hazards – and access to transportation are also important to good health.
- Geographic location. Urban, suburban and rural communities each have their challenges. Neighborhoods in which younger residents feel unsafe to walk to school are stressful. “It can affect your brain development, and obviously it can be dangerous,” Yelland said.
Rural areas may not feel the pressure of unsafe neighborhoods, but can struggle with access to transportation, food, internet and medical care.
- Education. “First of all,” Yelland said, “do you have parents who read to you and support you positively from a young age?” Older children who work to support the family or raise siblings also are at a disadvantage. “There are a lot of questions that go into whether you are able to attain a high school diploma, let alone go on to trade school or a four-year university.”
Education also affects brain composition for the rest of one’s life. “We see that certain aspects of the brain are smaller in people who have higher levels of stress and lower levels of education. The more educated you are, the more likely you are to live a longer and healthier life.”
Yelland added that socioeconomic status “always” affects external factors.
“When we think about things such as broadband internet or healthy eating, having a stable job influences your behavior. If you have more money, you’re more likely to have faster and more stable internet. If you have more money, you’re more likely to be able to access nutritious and healthy, fresh food.”
K-State Research and Extension agents across Kansas are helping to promote healthy communities by building local coalitions that address residents’ needs. Yelland said many of those efforts aim to identify “projects that we can help spearhead or partner with to make our community a safer and healthier place.”
“K-State is using data developed across the world to talk about how we can make Kansas a healthier place, as well as doing our own research,” Yelland said. “There are a lot of things that extension is doing to address the 70% of outside factors that contribute to our good health.”More information on healthy aging is available online.