An Australian article – a good read…
News we’re living longer is heartening to many of us. But the idea our extra years might not all be healthy is a sobering reality.
Heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, and cognitive problems are all more common as we get older and the increased risk often starts in mid life or earlier.
The great news is there’s much you can do to enhance your complete physical, mental and social wellbeing in later life, says the University of Melbourne’s Associate Professor Briony Dow, who is also director of health promotion for the National Ageing Research Institute.
“You’re ageing from the moment you’re born really,” Dow says. “Ageing healthily is not different from healthy living I guess. It’s just we’ve looked at it from the perspective of older people.”
Making certain lifestyle choices can reduce your chance of needing residential care or going to hospital. It can also help you feel safe and secure and ensure you are an active participant in life, rather than an observer on the side lines. To the extent you can control your destiny, “you’re wise if you do,” she says.
Here are Professor Dow’s top tips to maximise your chances of ageing well.
1. Keep physically active
This means aiming for at least a good half hour to an hour of moderate intensity physical activity every day, where you’re working hard enough to get a bit puffed but you can still talk. (Australian exercise guidelines also state you can settle for clocking up roughly half that amount of activity if you exercise more vigorously, where you are so puffed you can barely talk.)
This reduces your risk of a wide range of diseases but especially heart disease, our biggest killer. It can also help mental health problems like anxiety and depression.
It doesn’t have to be formal exercise: gardening, housework or walking to the shops all count. Some stretching exercises or yoga are also important for flexibility “so you can keep doing what you want to do,” Dow says. And it’s good to include some strength training, such as exercising with weights to help control weight and keep your bones strong.
“Physical activity is the most important thing, although it’s a toss up between that and giving up smoking if you’re a smoker.”
2. Don’t smoke
“If you’re a smoker, you need to stop smoking and the message is it’s never too late to do it,” Dow says.
“If you give up smoking in middle age, you’ll improve your life expectancy by 10 years. Or another way to put that is your life expectancy is reduced by 10 years if you keep smoking. But it’s not just about life expectancy. Smoking is a risk factor for all the chronic diseases, including the ones that affect your brain [Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia].”
3. Be socially active
“This is really important for both your physical health and mental health,” says Dow. “If you’re socially isolated, it’s equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.”
Some evidence suggests loneliness can increase your risk of premature death by as much as 30 per cent.
It may be that increased stress hormones increase the risk of heart disease, but social activity is also likely to be a form of mental stimulation that’s good for ageing brains.
Says Maree Farrow, a neuroscientist and research fellow with Alzheimer’s Australia, being socially active means “you have to think about what you’re saying and understand what [someone else] is saying. You have to understand facial expressions and body language. Lots of different parts of your brain are working.”
Social isolation can happen even when other people around, Dow points out. It’s having a real sense of connect to others that’s thought to be important.
4. Eat well and limit the booze
Eating well has a significant role to play in warding off chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and even some cancers.
There’s no magic food that’s going to keep your brain healthy, says Farrow but eating a varied and balanced diet that includes plenty of fruit and vegetables seem to be particularly important.
As well, limit your alcohol intake. Australia’s current drinking guidelines recommend no more than two standard drinks a day.
5. Keep your brain active
“We know from lots of research that people who do more stimulating activities throughout their life have better brain function and a lower chance of developing dementia,” says Farrow.
While there has been much emphasis on crosswords and sudoku puzzles to boost your brain, other activities you could do include taking up a second language, pursuing a course of study, reading widely or learning a musical instrument.
The research suggests it’s challenging the brain so it’s learning something new or different is what matters most.
But Dow says the publicity over the role of mental stimulation has suggested there is stronger evidence for a protective effect than there really is.
“We don’t have nearly as strong evidence as you would think from all that you read,” she says, adding that there’s more evidence exercise is important. Nonetheless, it seems to be helpful and certainly won’t hurt.
6. Have an optimistic outlook
Are you a glass half empty or glass half full person? The evidence the latter might help you fare better as you age comes from talking to older people who feel they’re doing well and asking them what they think has helped, Dow says.
As well, research has found optimists are more willing to adapt and actively participate in seeking solutions to problems and because they feel less hopelessness, they have less stress and depression. Positive people are also more likely to engage in behaviours that keep them physically healthy like eating well and exercising.
While personality type and life experiences can influence your tendency to be optimistic, you can also take matters into your own hands. “I think you can control it to some extent,” Dow says. “I think you can manage your life so you’ve always got something that is exciting for you and can keep you upbeat.”