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Healthy Aging: The 20s -- Building a Firm Foundation

Proper diet and lots of exercise can help promote better health in your later years

First part of five-part series

MONDAY, Dec. 26, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- For the average 20-year-old, retirement and the "golden years" may seem a million years away. But ask anyone over 60 -- they'll tell you their youth feels like it passed by just yesterday.

That's why health-smart lifestyles when you're young can be crucial to a long, vigorous old age, experts say.

"Certainly avoiding unhealthy behaviors and habits in youth is key," said Dr. Thomas Weida, a professor of family and community medicine at Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine in Hershey.

"Number one is to quit smoking, or even better, never start," said Weida, who is also a spokesman for the American Academy of Family Physicians. "Certainly you don't want to drink in excess either -- ideally, it should be less than two drinks per day. Binge drinking -- which a lot of kids this age get into -- is not good. It's hard on the liver and hard on decision-making."

Poor decision-making can have serious, even fatal consequences, with accidents a leading cause of death for Americans between 20 and 30 years of age.

"Obviously, that means they shouldn't drink and drive, and they should wear a seatbelt," Weida said. And new technology has brought new dangers: "A recent study found that a teenager or 20-year-old driving while on a cell phone is just as dangerous as an elderly person behind the wheel," he said.

Regular exercise and a healthy diet make the body resilient against stress and age, said Weida. "I usually advise 20 to 30 minutes of exercise a day, if possible, but a minimum of three times per week," he said. Long gaps in exercise frequency can cause the body to lose its condition, so regular exercise is key.

Exercise -- along with a well-balanced diet that is low in saturated fats and salt and high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains -- is like money in the bank when it comes to health, Weida said. "Best of all, it helps avoid obesity, keeping that ideal body weight," he said.

Most college-age adults face few worries when it comes to chronic disease, but Weida said he still checks his young patients for signs of trouble ahead. "They should get their blood pressure checked and I also recommend checking cholesterol levels," he said, "especially for anyone who has a family history of heart attacks or stroke."

The 20s are also prime time for promiscuity and its attendant risk of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). "You certainly want to use some form of barrier method, especially condoms, to decrease STDs and the risk for unintended pregnancy," Weida advised.

While it would be nice to think that the healthy glow of youth will last forever, the sad fact is that it doesn't, he said. Still, experts agree that healthy living in the 20s can help make sure age doesn't always get the upper hand.

More information

To learn more about the benefits of exercise, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

SOURCE: Thomas Weida, M.D., professor, family and community medicine, Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine, Hershey, and spokesman, American Academy of Family Physicians
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