AGING does not have to mean ailing and forgetting. This "ideal" can be a reality if, at midlife and beyond, we grapple well with key questions like: "How long are we likely to live? Will our later years be blessed by healthy aging or marred by a host of illnesses?" To a limited extent, these questions rest with the genes we have inherited. Yet many studies have shown from the 1980s onward that more than a third of deaths in such countries like the USA, were tied to smoking, poor dietary choices, and inactivity -- a finding that holds as much truth in the Philippines.

Truth is, whether or not your family is "long-lived," the answers lie less in your genes than in your actions. How well we age will help determine how long we stay alive and the quality of our life when we grow older. It is good to face these questions now: Do we eat natural food or binge on junk food? Do we smoke? Are we heavy on alcohol? Are we a couch potato, or do we stay active? Are we obese? What illnesses do we have now and, based on our family background and our current lifestyle, which ones are we likely to get?

If your answers to these questions now seem discouraging, all is not lost. A study in the American Journal of Medicine ( 2007) focused on adults who adopted a healthier lifestyle during middle age. The researchers followed 15,700adults (ages 45-64) for a decade and noted that 970 of these people embraced a healthier lifestyle in the sixth year of the study. These individuals ate five or more daily servings of fruits and vegetables, worked out at least two and a half hours per week, didn't smoke, and avoided obesity. Benefits appeared quickly. Just four years later, the group of individuals who made these four changes had a 40% lower rate of death for any reason and 35% fewer cases of heart disease compared with the participants who made fewer of these changes. No matter what your age or stage of life, you have the power to change many of the variables that influence disability and longevity.

Regardless of our age or stage of life -- early adulthood, middle age, or senior, we have the power to change many of the variables that influence disability and longevity. From many published studies that I have read, the message is consistent: simple lifestyle choices have an enormous impact on our longevity and quality of life.

"LIVING TO 100: What's the secret?" another Harvard Medical School Special Health Report provides the following 10 steps toward a longer healthier life:

1. Don't smoke.

2. Build physical and mental activities into every day.

3. Eat a healthy diet rich in whole grains, vegetables, and fruits, and substitute healthier monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats for unhealthy saturated fats and trans fats.

4. Take a daily multivitamin, and be sure to get enough calcium and vitamin D.

5. Maintain a healthy weight and body shape.

6. Challenge your mind.

7. Build a strong social network.

8. Protect your sight, hearing, and general health by following preventive care guidelines.

9. Floss, brush and see a dentist regularly. Poor oral health may have many repercussions, including poor nutrition, unnecessary pain, and possibly even higher risk of heart disease and stroke.

10. Discuss with your doctor whether you need any medication-perhaps to control high blood pressure, treat osteoporosis, or lower cholesterol-to help you stay healthy.

How then are we to age healthily in pandemic times? Full engagement with life. People who are curious, open, and eager to make connections with the world most enjoy the last decades of their lives. Even in the face of disabilities, these people seem to thrive and find joy despite their challenges. Depressed, anxious, or grumpy people in good health can also live long lives, but take far less pleasure in them. No magic pill, no secret potion can make us live long and healthy. But if you bring to your life appreciation and respect, and embrace aging with good humor, grace, vigor, and flexibility, you will -- at the very least -- be happy to grow old.