Health care has done humanity a disservice by focusing on longevity, when vitality and quality-of-life are what people really want most. Sadly, few discover that until they’re burdened with a chronic condition.
In 2023, we’re living longer than ever. Life expectancy for humans, on average, has more than doubled since 1900.
But while we’re living longer, we’re not necessarily enjoying great health for all those years. Diseases, as most of us will be aware, can rob us of quality of life, to the point where we may be living longer, but not living well.
Experts are now focusing more on health expectancy. How can we give ourselves the best chance of living long, staying healthy for as long as possible, living life to the full then transitioning peacefully in our sleep?
Sports medicine expert Dr Geoffrey Moore believes that the operative phrase is not to just live, but to live well.
So what do the experts recommend for vitality? What can we do to live younger longer?
Live somewhere healthy
The environment we live in can significantly impact how well we age. It is not always easy or possible to create but establishing a balance of physical, mental, and emotional health is more a product of the right environment than sustained, conscious behaviour optimisation, so where possible create a physical environment that is socially connected and supports healthy practices.
There is now evidence that stress can play a huge part in how well we age, as well as affecting our risk of many chronic diseases. Finding ways to deal with stress, and eliminating as much as possible, is key to living well for longer. Whether it be turning the phone off, connecting with family, pottering in the garden, taking a nap or prayer, implementing daily routines to eliminate stress is important.
A good night’s sleep
Isaac Newton rarely drifted off before 2am. Charles Darwin considered the stretch between 8am and 9.30am his most productive. But research has revealed rather more about our body clocks and schedules, says James Goodwin, director of the Brain Health Network and author of Supercharge Your Brain.
In 2017, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to three scientists for their research on circadian rhythms. From the Latin “circa diem”, or “nearly a day”, these body clocks help to regulate our blood pressure, body temperature, hormones and general good health. Or they did, before we stopped winding them properly.
Our modern, erratic lifestyles are to blame. We’re eating at unpredictable times, sleeping at erratic times, working or socialising online at odd times too. Long-term disruption of our circadian clocks by our lifestyles can raise our risk of chronic illness. Even in the short term, it can hobble our mental agility, dulling our reasoning and decision-making, damaging our mood and our social interactions.
Power up on plants
There is no disagreement on this point: eating more plants is good for us. And for optimal ageing, more plants and less meat is ideal. Vegetarians do have a lower risk for some diseases.
So saying, we do need more protein as we get older, and our needs increase significantly after 70. Getting enough, and spreading it out throughout the day, is important, so include protein sources in every meal and snack if you can: that’s meat, fish, chicken, eggs, dairy, soy, nuts, and pulses.
Maintaining a healthy weight is also important. Obesity is a contributor to diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers, but there’s also evidence we can be too thin for our own good, too, especially as we get into our 70s and 80s. Recent studies found there’s a greater risk of mortality for older people with BMIs lower than 23.
Walk it off
One of the more predictable tips for living well is participating in some form of exercise.
As we mark up the birthday milestones, we naturally start to slow down. We lose muscle mass, and our joints and bones can start to degrade. Exercise helps prevent this. Keeping joints moving prevents pain, and conserving muscle mass protects joints and bones, as well as helping us retain a healthy weight.
While intense exercise in the gym is great, and it’s never too late to start, experts emphasise that one can stay on the wellness path with a focus on age-appropriate fitness. For those over 50, “ChefMD” Dr John La Puma is a fan of moving naturally, doing activities such as gardening and working outside.
Data suggest that between the ages of 30 to 40 we start to lose muscle mass, both the number of fibres we have and the size of the fibres. If you think of muscle as bundles of straws tightly packed together, we lose both the number of straws and the remaining ones get smaller, which means that what came easily to us in our 20s and 30s might not be quite as achievable as we enter our 50s, and we should make some changes to stay on the right fitness path.
Obviously, as we age, slower-paced workouts such as walking, yoga and pilates, can be beneficial. The physical benefits include increased flexibility and mobility, improved posture, improved circulation, increased strength and, in higher energy-based yoga classes, cardiovascular improvements. The mental benefits that come from yoga being such a strong mindfulness practice, are stress reduction, decreased anxiety, mental resilience and overall calmness.
For women in their 50s, changes to their estrogen levels can result in insulin resistance, leading to an increase in belly fat and a higher risk of osteoporosis and loss of bone density” says personal trainer Zana Morris.
A study by Tufts University, Boston, found that women who walked more than 7.5 miles (12km) per week had higher bone density than women who walked less than 1 mile per week.
Morris adds that weight training, as well as increasing muscle generally, can also target aches and pains. Training back muscles will help keep shoulder and neck issues at bay, while strong glutes and hamstrings are vital for healthy, supple knees and hips.
And just because you’ve reached your 70s, it’s not the time to stop. If a person has been active throughout adulthood, they should be able to continue with daily exercise. Eddie Brocklesby is testament to this; she became the oldest British woman to compete in an Ironman Triathlon at the age of 72.
At this age, strength training is more important than ever. German researchers found that three sessions a week, consisting of three to four sets with about 10 repetitions per muscle, builds muscle mass.
Have purpose and connection
Last but not least, one of the things experts recommend for longevity is less about food or exercise, and more about psychology and behaviour. An important theme for living well is nurturing a sense of purpose and strong connections with community, family and friends.
A life well-lived is a life with purpose. Something that moves one to wake up in the morning and think: ‘Today, I’m going to do …’ and then bring all of one’s heart and soul to bear on the challenge and be filled with the zest of life and appreciation of one’s small bit of time on this blue orb.
What’s your body’s real age?
Enthused and motivated? Should you want to know how old your body’s biological age (as opposed to your birthday age) try the Real Age test. It’s an algorithm developed by Dr Michael Roizen. Visit https://you.sharecare.com/you/real-age-test to take the test. And if you’re so inclined, take the test again in a year to see how far you’ve come.
Excerpts of this article have been republished from an article by Erin Miller in NZ Herald and Niki Bezzant, editor of Healthy Food Guide