Cities Are Good for Healthy Aging. Here’s How to Take Advantage, No Matter Where You Live

By Adam Hanft

Back in 2001, what seems like ancient history – and in many ways it is – I co-wrote a book called “Dictionary of the Future.”

It was what it declared itself to be – a compendium of words and terms that would define a still-inchoate world; as William Gibson wrote, the “future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.”

Forgive the sidebar, but I find that quote to be remarkably valuable wisdom, and I pass it along to you in the hope that it will change or at least alter, the way you see (and scour) the present.   

Back to my book. Two entries provide the basis for this brief musing on aging and geography. One is “Yogurt Cities,” defined as places to live that have active cultures: vital museums, symphonies, independent bookstores, downtown neighborhoods with throbbing street life.” The other is “Reurbanize,” a popular migration to those same cities.

The data around the trend is nuanced, but it is the case – as this New York Times story reported – that “The typical 80-year-old is more likely than the typical 70-year-old to live in an urban neighborhood, and the typical 85-year-old even more so.”

Living in an urban area has obvious advantages for older adults: less reliance on automobiles; more immediate access to emergency medical services and specialized expertise; proximity to cultural events; and a greatly reduced risk of succumbing to the scourges of the loneliness epidemic.

As the word ‘epidemic’ implies, loneliness is a key risk to watch out for in anyone’s successful aging plan. It’s a multi-dimensional social illness, which includes an increased risk of dementia. Even casual daily interactions can protect your health, and you are more likely to have those moments of social engagement in an urban area – ordering a decaf soy cappuccino (extra foam), or picking up some room-brightening flowers down the street than in a suburban, exurban, or rural area.

In addition to nurturing your social life, cities nourish a healthy brain because of their startling dynamism.  Walk a couple of blocks and you can take in different fashion and architecture, check out the latest retail innovations, and be continually surprised and stimulated. There’s always something going on, and you can usually get there without driving, via a bus, taxi, subway, or Uber. Or your own two feet.

This isn’t to say, of course, that cities are perfect for an aging population, or that there isn’t work to be done. As the Guardian put it:  “For an ageing society to function there needs to be a movement back to the cities – but cities need to be adapted and designed with this in mind.” And not all of us have the means nor circumstances to pack up and move, even if we wanted to (despite the fact that we like to think of ourselves as a mobile nation, more than half of Americans live within an hour of extended family, and 72% of us live in the towns we grew up in).

So for those of you who want to benefit from the stimulation of city living, no matter where you live at the moment, here are five ways you can live urban, anywhere:

Seek out more casual interactions  

I talked about how important those brief social snippets at the bakery and florist can be in real life. But if you focus on it, you can create them no matter where you live.   

We are so obsessed by convenience that we forget what we give up in its pursuit. Reclaim those meaningful moments with the grocery clerk, the receptionist, or the gas station attendant and you’ll be glad you did. The Dutch are two steps ahead with their creation of slower, chat-friendly checkout lanes and in-store Coffee Corners in grocery stores to combat older adult loneliness.

And you can even do this from your living room. Next time you need to place an order for something, don’t do it on your app. Do it live. Call the restaurant or the drugstore and strike up a conversation with the person on the other end of the phone. I guarantee they’ll be hungering for some human interaction as well.

Spend more time in the nearest big city to you  

You don’t have to journey to New York or Chicago or Miami to recharge your batteries with urban energy. Midsized and even smaller cities have transformed themselves; Metropolis declares that they are the “front line for urban innovation.”  

And the good news is that these downtowns—alive with culture and great restaurants—are often Uber-able. Uber is available in all 50 states and most cities (here’s a list). So if you can’t or don’t want to drive, book an Uber and spend a day a week downtown. Even better, defray the cost by carpooling with friends or members of your reading group.

Create cross-cut experiences  

You can come close to the brain-stimulating novelty and diversity of urban strolling at home, by self-creating experiences that range across different genres.  

Read a chapter of a biography about a 19th century president; then put it down and create your own personal tour of the brain-opening American Visionary Art Museum. Next, change the stimulative rhythms and listen to one of ten pieces of classical music that will “100 percent change your life.”

Those are just a few selections to inspire you to create your own healthy chaos, combining the familiar and the unfamiliar.

Capture vicarious urban energy  

Immersion can be achieved by taking advantage of the way great artists have captured the pulse and tang of cities. I guarantee you can find something in this thoughtfully expansive list of “101 Movies About Cities.”  

Similarly, from The Culture Trip comes Destination Reads: The Best Books Set in European Cities. Or see what the Guardian has to say with their “Ten Best City Novels.” If you want to go further down the rabbit hole, here’s an endlessly giving Wikipedia entry, a list of songs about cities.

Learn a new language that reflects urban diversity  

It’s well-established that learning a new language is good for brain plasticity. So why not take up one of the fastest-growing languages in America?  

You’ll be surprised when I tell you that the fastest growing language in the United States is Telugu—it’s growing by 150%—followed by Arabic, Hindi, Urdu, and Chinese. Here are some apps to get you started 

And while you’re at it, prepare some Telugu recipes and go full shock-and-awe with your friends.

So there you have it, my crash course in urbanizing your life, no matter where you live.  Let me know if it helps to crowd out the isolation that many of you may be feeling.

Adam Hanft is a well-known futurist (co-author of “Dictionary of the Future”), branding authority, political consultant, and cultural commentator. He is also a strategic advisor to NeverStop.