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Health tips for growing old gracefully

Publish date: 08/01/2014

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Now that we’re living longer, we all want to stay healthy and active for longer too. We reveal the steps you can take to grow old gracefully... 

According to the Institute for Ageing and Health at Newcastle University, life expectancy in the developed world has been increasing: Women can expect to live for an average of 82 years, with men not far behind at 77.9 years.

Much of this increase is down to better nutrition, medical care and living conditions rather than any anti-ageing magic bullets. But given that age itself is a risk factor in many diseases, including heart disease, stroke, cancer and Alzheimer’s, is there anything we can do to offset what many perceive to be an inevitable decline in both physical and mental health?

Most definitely, yes, reveals a large study led by Professor Kay-Tee Khaw of the University of Cambridge, which showed that being active, not drinking too much alcohol, eating enough fruit and vegetables as part of a healthy diet and not smoking can add up to 14 years to your life.

Go Mediterranean

The so-called Mediterranean diet, based on plenty of vegetables and fruit, oily fish, a limited amount of meat and dairy products, and lots of low fat cereal products, such as wholegrains, means a reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, some cancers and even Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, says Professor John Mathers, director of the Human Nutrition Research Centre at Newcastle University’s Institute for Ageing and Health.

And this applies even if you are a healthy weight. Though if you are overweight, sticking to such a eating plan, along with reduced portion sizes, will also help you to lose those extra pounds especially around your waist, which can increase your risk of type 2 diabetes.

This means cutting back on saturated fats, refined sugars and salt – common ingredients in processed foods. ‘You need fewer calories, too,’ says nutrition scientist Helena Gibson-Moore of the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF). ‘Muscle mass is declining, bringing down your metabolic rate,’ she explains, ‘so energy requirements from food are not as great. But key to healthy ageing is ensuring you get essential nutrients. And there are a few that are particularly relevant, among them calcium, vitamin D and the B vitamins.’

Calcium and vitamin D

Both vital for protection against osteoporosis in later life. ‘Good sources of calcium include low-fat dairy products, calcium-fortified soya, almond and rice milks and tofu, and fish with edible bones,’ advises Helena.

‘The best source of vitamin D is summer sunlight, though it’s found in egg yolks, oily fish, fortified yogurt and some spreads,’ says Helena.

Evidence shows that vitamin D is also essential for muscle health, helps to prevent some cancers and supports a healthy immune system.

B vitamins (B6, B12 and folate)

These are linked with a lower risk of heart disease, depression and dementia, says Helena. ‘Good sources of B6 are fortified breakfast cereals, beans, poultry and fish. B12 is found in red meat, eggs, dairy and some soya products. And folate is found in leafy green veg and whole grains.

Omega-3 fatty acids Important for the heart, brain and the joints, the best source is oily fish, such as fresh tuna, trout, or canned sardines. ‘If you don’t like fish, consider taking a supplement,’ suggests Helena.

Fibre-rich foods, such as wholegrain bread and pasta, beans, lentils, fruit and veg, are important to prevent constipation. They also help to fill you up, but, cautions Helena, ‘if you have a poor appetite, eat these in moderation and make sure you drink plenty of water to help digestion.’

The right moves

Whether you call it exercise or physical activity, this goes hand in hand with a healthy diet in the anti-ageing stakes. And regular daily activities are shown to prevent many age-related conditions, including diabetes and high blood pressure, as well as keeping your brain active and preventing depression.

‘There are two aspects to consider,’ explains Clyde Williams, Emeritus Professor of Sports Science at Loughborough School of Sport, Exercise and Health Science. ‘The first is cardiovascular fitness, which is our ability to take up oxygen into the muscles. This declines with age and with no regular exercise. So you’ll find that walk to the shops and back requires more effort. We tend to respond to this by reducing speed or distance, or both, which means that the cardiovascular system works even less efficiently.

‘The other aspect is the inevitable decline in muscle mass, though regular exercise can do much to slow the rate of decline,’ says Professor Williams. ‘When you lose the quality of the muscle, functional fitness falls.

This means, for example, that when you try to get up out of a chair, rather than using your muscles to get up, you use your knees and hips, which places stress on the joints.’

Although the current guidelines are 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week, which works out at 30 minutes five days a week, these are minimum guidelines and ideally you should do some form of activity every day. 

To gain the maximum benefit, try to mix and match the following throughout the week.

For aerobic fitness


Walking, cycling, swimming, dancing, housework, badminton; anything that gets you slightly breathless.

For strength

Try uphill walking, stair climbing, gardening or gentle jogging. Also known as resistance training, this has the added bonus of reducing insulin resistance.

For flexibility and balance

Try Pilates, yoga, T’ai chi, ballroom dancing or Zumba. If you want one exercise that ticks all three boxes, Professor Williams thoroughly recommends gardening.

‘It’s like having your own outdoor gym,’ he says. However, no matter how active you are, if you spend too much time sitting down, research shows you are still at increased risk of weight gain, heart disease and stroke. So try to get up for five minutes or so every hour to reduce your daily sedentary time, stand up when you talk on the phone, and do something active during those TV ad breaks.

Brain power

The use it or lose it mantra applied to exercise applies equally to the brain to keep it active into later years. Neuroscientists know that key to healthy ageing is to keep developing new connections between the brain cells by stimulating the brain and having new experiences. Scientists call this ‘brain plasticity’, which enables us to hang on to better brain function and helps to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s. Mental aerobics, such as doing crosswords or Sudoku, or even learning a new language help keep your brain in shape.

Need a helping hand?

There may come a time when you, or someone close to you, might benefit from additional support to continue living independently at home or need to make a change to housing arrangements. Age UK has a wide range of information on independent and supported living; visit their website at: www.ageuk.org.uk.

Ageing Well

Designed by nurses who understand the concerns affecting people as they grow older, our ageing well centre provides guidance and support for you and your family. You can access a range of information and recommended websites that provide step-by step guidance for those difficult decisions, such as care support, tips for remaining healthy, and common medical conditions that affect us as we grow older.

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