When Susan Saunders was 36, her mother was diagnosed with severe dementia. “I had a toddler, a newborn, a full-time job as a TV producer – and I became a carer as well.” As a teenager, she had watched her mum care for her own mother, who had the same condition. “I became determined to do everything I could to increase my chances of ageing well.”
Annabel Streets’ story is similar. When she was a student, her grandfather died from cancer months after he retired; later, she watched her mother care for her grandmother, who lived with dementia and crippling rheumatoid arthritis for nearly 30 years. “When I developed a chronic autoimmune disease, I knew things had to change. But by then I had four young children and there was precious little time for my own health.”
Together, Saunders and Streets started researching the latest science on how to have a healthier, happier old age and how to apply it to their own lives, and blogged about their findings for five years. Their Age Well Project has now been published as a book, compiling almost 100 shortcuts to health in mid- and later life – and Streets and Saunders, who are both in their 50s, say they have never been in better health.
What did they learn?
Look to your ancestors for answers
If you are serious about ageing well, you need to become an expert in your own health – don’t be afraid to ask questions of your doctor and your family. We started our project to age well by compiling ancestral health trees, listing any known illnesses in old age and the causes of mortality and ages at death of as many direct ancestors as possible. We did DNA tests, built records of our blood pressure, blood glucose, cholesterol and vitamin D levels, and took note of our BMI and waist-to-hip ratio to devise more personalised ageing plans.
Coffee is rich in antioxidants, polyphenols and phenylindane, a recently identified compound that researchers think may help fend off Alzheimer’sand Parkinson’s disease. Drinking coffee has also been linked to reduced risks for several cancers, heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Drink your coffee without sugar or processed syrups, and don’t make it too milky: the antioxidant value appears to drop when milk is added.
Walking is good, but pace matters. Brisk walking has been linked to better memory, better health and a longer life. Increase your pace until you are slightly out of breath or sweaty and aim for 30 minutes a day, ideally outdoors to get the additional benefits of vitamin D and light. New research suggests that those walking first thing in the morning also make better decisions during the day, so consider swapping your morning commute for a robust walk.
Exercise in green space
Trees produce phytoncides which help to lower blood pressure, reduce stress and boost immunity. The microbes in forest soil have been found to reduce depression and may contribute to the health of our microbiome. A 15-minute walk is all it takes to reap the benefits, but researchers have found that a weekend in the woods improves immunity for up to a month, while a short afternoon run or walk somewhere green means better sleep at night.
Fast every day
Our bodies have adapted to go without food for short periods – the surprise has been discovering how beneficial this is for many of us. Intermittent fasting, made famous by Michael Mosley’s popular 5:2 diet, is a proven method for increasing longevity. It also appears to fend off Alzheimer’s, type 2 diabetes and weight gain. There are several forms of fasting and it is important to find one that suits your lifestyle. We like the extended overnight fast of 14-16 hours, which has been found to improve gut health, but was also followed by our distant forebears, who typically ate supper at sundown, rarely snacked, and then ate mid-morning the following day.
Experts believe resistance training is as important for ageing as aerobic exercise, eating vegetables and sleeping well. After age 40, we lose muscle at the rate of 1% a year, increasing our risk of heart attacks, strokes and osteoporosis. Recent research found that older adults who did twice-weekly strength training lived longer and with less illness than those who did none. We like rowing and weight-training for efficiency; we also keep pairs of weights near the kettle and the TV and lift them if we have a few minutes to spare.
Although reading is sedentary and solitary, frequent reading has been linked to longer, healthier life. A Yale study of 3,600 over-50s found that reading increased longevity by almost two years; readers of books outlived readers of newspapers and magazines. While those who read for more than 3.5 hours a week lived longest, the researchers said “30 minutes a day was still beneficial”. Meanwhile, every expert seems to recommend reading as a means of getting to sleep.
While many of us dream of a golden age of retirement, a 2016 study found that people who worked longer lived longer, a fact reflected in earlier longitudinal studies that found correlations between retirement and poor health. Researchers speculate that this is because working usually involves social interaction, movement and a sense of purpose. Several studies have linked retirement with loneliness and depression. But working long hours year after year is not the answer either. Research shows that from mid-life onwards, the sweet spot for health and longevity is working at a less intense pace and perhaps for fewer hours.
Old brains are just as equipped to build new neurons and synapses as young ones. But this process works best when we repeatedly force ourselves to learn new things. The brain loves novelty: crafts, games, even cooking from a new recipe, all trigger the creation of neurons, but the more complex and more difficult the new activity is, the greater the rewards. Choose something that also involves social interaction and a bit of movement, such as singing. Best of all, try learning complex new dance moves.
Take a nap
Several studies have found that nappers have better attention and focus, better memory and better non-verbal reasoning. Oddly, nappers also appear to sleep better at night (with the proviso that your nap shouldn’t be taken too late in the afternoon). A Nasa study found that sleepy pilots had a 45% improvement in performance and a 100% improvement in alertness after a short nap. But the key is to keep the nap short (about 30 minutes). Studies consistently show that naps of more than 90 minutes can be detrimental to our health.