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 79.2 years and a newborn baby girl 82.9 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 Gary Bolger, Chief Medical Officer at AXA PPP healthcare, says:
“How we treat ourselves throughout our lives has a knock-on effect in later life. 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. While we can’t stop the ageing process, some conditions we often put down to getting older are preventable or can be ameliorated with the right lifestyle choices.”
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, then build it up.” suggests Dr Bolger.
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.
- If you smoke, then aim to stop completely
We all know that smoking is bad for your health – increasing 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.
- Eat good, healthy food
Eating a nutrient-rich, balanced diet is one of the best ways to maintain good health into older age, protecting us from the risk of developing heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers.
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 can’t have ‘treats’ – balance is the important thing 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, for example tinned salmon.
- Eat less
Cholesterol-raising saturated fats, refined sugars and salt. Avoid convenience 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.
- Watch the calories
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.
In fact, one of the first studies to explore the effects of calorie restriction on humans showed that cutting caloric intake by 15% for 2 years slowed aging and metabolism and protected against age-related disease. The study, which appeared on March 22 2018 in the journal Cell Metabolismiv , found that calorie restriction decreased systemic oxidative stress, which has been tied to age-related neurological conditions such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, as well as cancer, diabetes and others.
- 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 two aspects 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 means has a negative impact on our cardio health.
Dr Bolger says: “Although the current guidelines are 150 minutes of moderate exercise a weekv , which works out at 30 minutes of walking, swimming, cycling 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 and some is better than nothing.”
Visit our fitness and exercise centre for 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 Bolger 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.”
Read need to know expert Q&As about exercise, fitness and weight loss for more information on the kind of activities you can do.
- Brain training
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.
You may also be interested in
Video: How can we live healthier for longer? – AXA Research Fund
Why do I need Vitamin D? – AXA PPP
Dementia signs, symptoms and diagnosis – AXA PPP
iNational life tables, UK: 2014 to 2016
iiNHS Macular Degeneration
iiiNHS Red meat and the risk of bowel cancer
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
vNHS Physical activity guidelines for adults