Just a number?
PUBLISHED: 13:08 29 May 2013 | UPDATED: 13:08 29 May 2013
Helen Cooke lets us in on the secrets of healthy ageing
You have probably heard the recent statistics about the number of people who are likely to reach 100. In the last 30 years the number of centenarians in the UK has increased five fold. There are now more than 1.5 million people older than 85 in the UK. By 2030 this number will have doubled and by 2050 it will be around 5 million.
As it’s now likely we’ll all be living to a ripe old age, it’s more important than ever to keep as healthy as possible to maintain a good quality of life and enjoy our senior years. It’s all too easy to become complacent and think our ageing destiny is pre-mapped, but it’s not just down to genetics or good luck, there are plenty of factors within our control that determine how well we age.
A recent study at Harvard University concluded that most important factors for healthy ageing were; avoiding cigarettes (enough said), keeping a healthy weight, good coping skills, regular exercise, maintaining strong social relationships and keeping mentally agile.
• Keeping a healthy weight – Since a recent Horizon documentary there has been a huge amount of excitement about the intermittent fasting or 5:2 diet. This involves restricting calories for two days a week to 600 calories (500 for women) and eating whatever you like for the rest of the week. Although many people seem to be losing weight successfully and impressive health claims have been made for the diet (improvement in blood sugar balance and blood pressure), the majority of the scientific trials were animal studies, so we don’t know for sure how well the approach works in humans. I strongly recommend you check with your doctor or nutritional therapist before embarking on this fairly radical way of eating.
Unless people are very overweight or have serious health issues, I tend to advocate an 80:20 approach: Simply try to eat more healthily during the week, so you don’t have to worry too much at the weekend. If you’re going to indulge, enjoy, don’t feel guilty and just make some healthier choices the next day.
• Good coping skills – We know we can’t avoid stress altogether, but we can learn how to cope with it more effectively. Some people are genetically more predisposed to worrying than others – you will probably know if you’re one of these people..
I use a computer programme in my practice called a heart rate variability monitor. By using an earlobe or finger pulse sensor the monitor reads changes in your heart rhythm pattern. As well as measuring how your body is dealing with stress, the computer programme also guides you through various exercises which teaches you to cope with stress more effectively.
Ongoing poorly managed stress can accelerate ageing at a cellular level and increase the risk of certain illnesses. Research has shown however that making simple lifestyle changes such as regularly exercising and engaging in stress management techniques can boost an enzyme which increases telomere length. Telomeres are the protective caps at the end of our chromosones (DNA genetic material) which help delay the process of ageing. A Nobel Prize was given to Professor Elizabeth Blackburn in 2009 for the work she carried out in this area.
Every time a cell divides the telomeres shorten. People with shorter telomeres have a greater risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity and various other age-related diseases like osteoarthritis and osteoporosis.
• Regular exercise – Find an exercise you enjoy and ideally combine aerobic exercise (which increases the heart rate) with muscle building. We start losing 1% of our lean muscle mass every year over the age of 45. Two things help counteract this and have a major impact on muscle mass – strength or muscle training and adequate dietary protein. Make sure you have good quality protein on a daily basis (chicken, white meat, fish, nuts and eggs). Increasing your levels of exercise is also likely to help you sleep better, which is an essential time for cell-repair.
• Maintain strong social relationships – Lack of social connection has been shown to be considerably more harmful to your health than obesity or smoking. Keep in touch with family or friends or take up hobbies as a way of meeting people. Consider volunteering www.wrvs.org.uk is a good place to look for local opportunities. Remember to have some fun too. It’s great for the immune system and probably the best anti-ageing remedy of all!
Keeping mentally agile – Mental agility is as important as physical agility. Sudoku, brain gym exercises and crossword puzzles are well worth pursuing. Research tells us that having new experiences builds neural pathways in our nervous system which may help ward off cognitive decline – time to learn a new language maybe or consider joining the University of the Third Age www.u3a.org.uk
Top healthy ageing nutrition tips:
• Good oils: Aim to include anti-inflammatory omega-3 rich foods (oily fish [wild Alaskan salmon, mackerel or sardines], nuts and seeds) on a daily basis. These are helpful for preventing heart disease, joint health and provide the building blocks for our cell walls. Do not be overly concerned about adding these oils to your diet (in moderation). Interestingly, it has been suggested that low-fat diets can encourage people to overeat. When we deprive ourselves of critical nutrients our bodies keep sending signals for us to eat in the hope of finding them. You may have noticed there’s a new trend for virgin coconut oil – a highly nutritious oil which is great for cooking with. Initial trials have shown it can not only improve cognitive function but also boost immunity and metabolism. It has the added benefit as being a wonderful skin moisturiser too!
• Avoid sugar and quick release carbohydrate foods (white bread, processed foods): These food substances not only increase people’s risk of diabetes, but also damage cells. Blood cells literally become sugar-coated (glycosylated) and stop working as efficiently causing a cascade of health problems
• Vitamin D has recently been officially acknowledged as something we’re lacking in as a nation - unsurprising after our prolonged winter this year! It helps us to absorb calcium and is therefore essential for strong bones; it also may protect you from a host of other health problems including heart disease and cancer. Ask your doctor for a test or try a home test for £25 at www.vitamindtest.org.uk
• Supplements: Several studies have shown that the older you are, the more likely you are to be deficient in various vitamins and minerals. Certain supplements however can be do more harm than good so it is worth investing in a review from a nutritional therapist before taking supplements on a long-term basis. B vitamins for example can be very beneficial to take to help brain function and reduce homocysteine levels, but only if you are deficient, otherwise they can be detrimental to your health.
• Increase levels of anti-oxidants: These help reduce the effects of oxidative stress caused by free radicals which are responsible for ageing. Ensure you have adequate intakes of brightly-coloured fruit and vegetables. These contain high quantities of health giving phyto-nutrients and anti-oxidants. Turmeric contains powerful antioxidants which are more potent than vitamin C and E. Green tea contains powerful antioxidants called catechins – aim for 2 cups a day.
As you can see there is now growing evidence that we can make a significant difference to how healthily we age. It doesn’t just depend on good genes or luck –it’s also up to us.
Helen Cooke MA, BSc, CHNC
Helen is a registered nutritionist/integrative health specialist with a background in nursing. She holds degrees in Nutritional Medicine and Complementary Health Studies and has over 25 years’ experience in the field of integrated health. She works as a freelance advisor/writer/researcher for a number of national integrative health initiatives with leading doctors and academics and as a nutritionist at the Complete Health Centre in Cirencester and The Practice Rooms in Bristol and Bath. www.thesoulfoodcompany.org.uk