From life span to health span
There’s no holy grail of anti-aging, though it’s safe to say that medical breakthroughs, improved living conditions and better lifestyle choices are a few of the factors we can thank for their role in increasing life expectancy in the UK, now at its highest ever rate.
According to the Office for National Statisticsi, a newborn baby boy can, on average, expect to live 79.6 years and a newborn baby girl 83.2 years, with the gap between genders likely to close even more.
But how can we ensure we enjoy these extra years to the max? Is it possible to stave off the onset of some age-related conditions, such as heart disease, stroke, Parkinson’s disease, or Alzheimer’s – or should we just accept the decline in physical and mental health as part and parcel of the ageing process?
Dr Arup Paul, Deputy Chief Medical Officer, AXA PPP healthcare says:
“How we treat ourselves today has a significant impact on our future health. There are most definitely things we can do, at any age, to keep our brains and bodies fitter for longer and, what’s more, it’s never too late to start. We may not be able to stop the ageing process, but by making the right lifestyle choices, it’s possible to reduce the effects or problems caused by age-related conditions.”
But where do you start?
“Lifestyle changes can be difficult to make, especially for those with less support to do so. If you want to start making changes to improve your health, it’s always best to start with one change at a time, like reducing the amount of sugar in your tea, or going for a ten minute walk after lunch – whatever suits you and your lifestyle, make it regular so it becomes a habit, then build it up.” suggests Dr Paul.
We’ve cut through the noise to highlight some of the top lifestyle changes you can incorporate into your life now and benefit from later.
1. Quit smoking to stave off sight loss and bad skin
We all know that smoking has zero benefits for our health – it increases the risk of dying early from heart disease, stroke and cancer. But did you know it can also increase the risk of developing age related macular degeneration (AMD is vision loss most common in people over 50)? A person who smokes is up to four times more likely to develop AMD than someone who's never smoked.ii
Bonus benefits of cutting out smoking include increased energy and improved immune system, less stress and better skin. Stopping smoking has been found to slow facial ageing and delay the appearance of wrinkles.
If stopping completely feels too daunting then try cutting down as a step towards this and set a ‘quit date’, so when you’re cutting down you have a goal to work towards. Remember, it’s never too late to quit smoking and the NHS has excellent support.
2. Eat a balanced diet to improve energy and protect against disease
It’s well known that eating a nutrient-rich, balanced diet is one of the best ways to maintain good health into older age. It helps protect us from the risk of developing heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers, not to mention bonus benefits like improved energy, gut health and immune system.
This doesn’t mean you to need to stock up on expensive health foods and supplements. Fresh, frozen, dried or tinned fruit and veg – it all counts. Nor does it mean you shouldn’t have your favourite treats – balance and moderation are the important things to remember.
- Eat more...
Vegetables, fruit, and lots of low fat cereal products, such as wholegrains. Aim to eat oily fish once a week.
Calcium-rich foods, which are vital for protection against osteoporosis in later life. Good sources of this include low-fat dairy products, calcium-fortified soya, almond and rice milks and tofu, and fish with edible bones, such as tinned salmon.
- Eat less...
Cholesterol-raising saturated fats, refined sugars and salt. Try to limit convenience and take-away foods, for example ready-meals, pasties, pies and limit the amount of red and processed meat in your diet. For adults, the NHS suggests that if you eat more than 90g of red or processed meat a day, you should aim to reduce your intake to 70g a day.iii
You can do this by eating smaller portions of red and processed meat, eating these meats less often or swapping them for alternatives.
- Be mindful of calorie intake
According to the British Nutrition Foundation, we need fewer calories as we get older. This is because our muscle mass generally declines, bringing down our metabolic rate, meaning our energy requirements from food are not as great. That’s not to say we need to start counting calories throughout the day, or restricting ourselves, but for anyone wanting to lose some weight, it’s a good idea to keep an eye on calories in versus energy used.
3. Exercise to stay feeling young
Keeping physically fit goes hand in hand with a healthy diet in the anti-ageing stakes. It also has the added bonus of being mood-boosting, helping reduce stress and depression (find out more here). There are lots of ways you can get active, and it's not just about ‘exercising’ – moving your body in a way that feels good is the most important factor.
There are different aspects of physical activity to consider:
This declines with age and with no regular exercise. If your cardiovascular fitness isn’t good in older age, you’ll find a walk to the shops and back takes more effort. We tend to respond to this by reducing speed or distance, or both, which has a negative impact on our cardio health.
Dr Paul says: “Although the current guidelines are 150 minutes of moderate exercise a weekv , which works out at 30 minutes of brisk walking, swimming, cycling or dancing for example, five days a week, it’s worth keeping in mind these are only guidelines. Ideally you should do some form of activity every day.”
Our fitness and exercise centre has lots more information.
When you lose the quality of the muscle, your 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. Without good functional fitness, every day activities we often take for granted, like picking up shopping bags, putting the rubbish out, reaching up to a shelf – all become increasingly difficult.
Dr Paul says: “Try to do a mix of cardio and strength training each week. You don’t need a gym to work on your muscle strength as there are activities you can do at home, using your own body weight, to improve muscle strength and flexibility.”
Body weight exercises such as squats, lunges and push ups are good options for older adults as it helps build strength using your own bodyweight, which is important for fall prevention and maintaining quality of life. It’s also easy to use support for bodyweight exercises if needed. For example, you can squat with a hand on the wall or a chair for support.
Read our expert Q&As about exercise, fitness and weight loss for more information on the kind of activities you can do.
According to the NHS, around 1 in 3 adults over 65 who live at home will have at least one fall a year, and about half of these will have more frequent falls. Balance training is important for older adults as it can help prevent avoidable falls. Balance training improves the ability to resist forces within or outside of the body making it harder to fall and therefore also reducing the risk of bone fractures and other injuries. Balance training can be as simple as practicing to stand from sitting with as little support as is safe to do so.
It’s best to start off with easier activities if you’re new to exercising. Low impact activities, like walking or swimming can improve your health and fitness without straining your joints too much.
4. Brain training to reduce the risk of Alzheimer's
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 can help keep your brain in shape, as does reading and taking up hobbies, such as painting.
For more inspiration and ideas to stay well into older age, visit our 80 ways to 80 website hub page.
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iiNHS Macular Degeneration
ivLeanne M. Redman, Steven R. Smith, Jeffrey H. Burton, Corby K. Martin, Dora Il'yasova, Eric Ravussin. Metabolic Slowing and Reduced Oxidative Damage with Sustained Caloric Restriction Support the Rate of Living and Oxidative Damage Theories of Aging. Cell Metabolism, 2018; DOI: 10.1016/j.cmet.2018.02.019