Who says it’s downhill all the way? Keeping younger and fitter for longer is easier than most people think — just follow these easy tips, for starters…
There’s lots of research showing that one particular diet appears to boost longevity. The traditional Mediterranean diet is rich in exactly the kind of foods that the World Health Organisation recommends for everybody. It includes lots of fruit and vegetables, legumes, nuts and whole grains. It also has minimal meat, but plenty of fish, moderate amounts of red wine and poultry, and olive oil, which is rich in healthy monounsaturated fats. In research conducted at the University of Cambridge, using data from a large US study, the diets of nearly 400,000 retired people were scored on how closely they corresponded to a Mediterranean diet. Ten years later, those who had the highest scores were 20 per cent less likely to have died than those with the lowest scores.
Or take the Okinawa islands in Japan, famed for having the highest percentage of centenarians in the world. Scientists believe their diet is crucial in maintaining health in later life. It is vegetable-based, high in water and fibre, low in calories but nutrient-rich in vitamins and minerals. Staples include sweet potatoes, rather than rice as in the rest of Japan, along with seaweed, health-promoting spices such as fennel, and green tea.
It’s a myth…
…that you need eight glasses of water a day. There’s no evidence to back up this widely held belief, according to kidney specialists Dan Negoanu and Stanley Goldfarb of the University of Pennsylvania. While it’s important to stay hydrated, fluid in foods contributes, too — especially water-rich fruit and vegetables. What’s more, the notion that only pure water counts has been debunked — in a British study of healthy volunteers, black tea was found to be just as hydrating as water.
Coffee: healthy or not?
Coffee, especially if it’s unfiltered (as with Greek and Turkish coffee, which is boiled in the pot) raises cholesterol levels, but most studies have shown no associated increased risk of cardiovascular disease. And now it seems that coffee may actually protect against Type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s and liver disease, according to scientists in Oregon.
Tea also has benefits. In 2011, UK researchers who reviewed published studies concluded that three or four cups a day reduces heart-attack risk. Green tea is well-known for its health-boosting properties and even black tea contains some antioxidants. Herbal teas contain a range of phytochemicals with protective effects.
There’s little evidence that the caffeine content of tea, coffee and cocoa is harmful, either. In fact, research suggests that caffeine itself is an antioxidant and may protect against heart disease and Alzheimer’s. A French medical study found that women aged 65 and over who drank more than three cups of coffee daily (or the equivalent as tea) showed less memory decline over four years than women who drank one cup or less. The benefits were not seen in men, but increased with age in women: 65-year-old females were 30 per cent less likely to have a decline in memory if they drank coffee; by the age of 80, that level of protection increased to a staggering 70 per cent.
Top tips for healthy eating
- Okinawans practice hara hachi bu — eating until you are 80 per cent full. It’s enough to stop you feeling hungry, but avoids over-eating.
- A bacon butty is a thing of pleasure. But Swedish researchers have found that two rashers of bacon a day can up your risk of pancreatic cancer by 19 per cent. If you can’t give up the occasional bacon sandwich, try having a grapefruit or an orange at the same time — the vitamin C helps block nitrosamines, the carcinogens produced by the body after eating processed meats.
- Deep breathing can aid weight loss. It triggers the relaxation response in the body, helping to stop the release of cortisol, and this encourages your body to burn fat. By way of a bonus, deep breathing strengthens the abdominal muscles, too. Or try kissing— it’s an unusual way of boosting your oxygen intake, but your lungs work harder afterwards. It also lowers your blood pressure and cholesterol!
- Obesity-related diabetes may be reversible in its early stages. How? By the shock of an extremely low calorie diet to remove excess fat in the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. Scientists at Newcastle University put 11 people with Type 2 diabetes and an average age of 50 on 600 calories a day for eight weeks. Their blood sugar values became normal, as did their measures of pancreatic function. (However, this diet shouldn’t be followed without medical supervision.)
An easy way to stay active
People who garden are more likely to remain fit. If you have a garden to tend, you’re probably active for the recommended 150 minutes a week. Australian researchers found that daily gardening reduced the risk of dementia by 36 per cent in a sample group of over-60s. Gardening is a perfect antidote to stress, while the sense of achievement you get is good for your self-esteem.
Boosting immunity: why?
You have forces at your disposal to resist the armies of germs that invade your body and can cause infection: white blood cells, or lymphocytes. The two main types are T cells and B cells, and are made in the bone marrow; B cells mature there, while T cells are deployed to the thymus gland (located above the heart), where they mature fully and move to the spleen and lymph nodes, ready to battle against illness. Before T cells can get to work, though, they need to learn how to detect specific foreign invaders; this “education” process occurs in the thymus.
As your body ages, your thymus shrinks — by the time you reach 60 only a few wispy remnants remain—and your body has far fewer T cells. It’s not fully understood why. You might find it takes longer to throw off an illness than it would have before, or that your wounds heal more slowly. So it’s important to boost your resistance to illness wherever possible!
Top tips for staving off sickness
- Most people know that to stay healthy they need to avoid smoking, follow a balanced diet full of fruit and veg, keep active and sleep well. But sleeping has now been proven to be crucial in sustaining the immune system as you grow older. A Brazilian study showed that sleep deprivation causes the body to produce fewer antibodies to fight infection.
- Many people eat special yoghurt to boost the gut’s “friendly bacteria”, but a 2010 study at the University of Turku in Finland demonstrated that aged cheeses — for example, vintage Gouda — are an excellent source of probiotics because during the ripening process, bacteria spontaneously grow. So opting for the cheese board could be an innovative way to boost your immunity!
- Listening to your favourite music can help your immune system. A study at system that helps fight infections — increased, remaining elevated, while stress levels were reduced proportionately.
- An antiseptic mouthwash could save your life. How? There’s increasing evidence that periodontal disease doesn’t just affect your gums but causes bodywide inflammation that increases your risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s. The antiseptics in some mouthwashes (such as chlorhexidine in Corsodyl or methyl salicylate in Listerine) combat the bacteria in periodontal disease. A Taiwanese study found that people who regularly visited a dental hygienist (or had their teeth cleaned by a dentist) cut their risk of a heart attack by 24 per cent and stroke by 13 per cent.
- A study at Pennsylvania State University showed that five different types of edible mushroom stimulate the Heart health immune system: white button crimini, maitake, oyster and shiitake.
- Even a mild deficiency in zinc—which is common as you get older—can impare your immune function and make you more open to infections. Shellfish, pumpkin seeds, pine nuts and wholemeal bread are all rich in zinc.
- Olive oil is not only good for the heart. A 2011 study at Alagappa University, India, clearly illustrated that olive oil — an excellent source of vitamin E and monounsaturated fats — is good for the immune system, guarding against oxidative stress (which produces free radicals), and DNA damage. Wilkes University in Pennsylvania found that when the music stopped after 30 minutes of listening, levels of IgA — a protein from the immune
Did you know?
By the time you reach 75, the 200-plus colds you’ll have had will have made you sneeze for the equivalent of two years. The good news is that by this age you can enjoy a break from the rhinovirus because you’ll have already acquired immunity to most cold bugs.
A Cambridge University study found that people who eat one square of dark chocolate a day are less likely to suffer heart disease and strokes. It may be the antioxidant flavonoids in cocoa beans that make chocolate heart-friendly. Or people may simply find eating it relaxing, and anything that relaxes the heart is good for it.
Some doctors still see men as the main target for heart-related advice and checks. But researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore have found that it’s just as important for older women to control their blood pressure. Women are much more likely to die from coronary artery disease than breast cancer. Diabetes and high cholesterol are both greater risk factors for women over 65 than men of the same age.
Between the ages of 20 and 90, your brain loses between five and ten per cent of its volume. Most of this shrinkage takes place in the hippocampus, a key area for memory. There’s also a diminishing in the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain responsible for helping you recall information, organise your thoughts and multitask. In practice, this means you may find it takes you longer to complete mental tasks than when you were younger.
But the older brain can still learn. Making mistakes is part of it — children learn by doing something over and over until they get it right. It used to be thought that such trial-and-error taxed older brains, that passive learning—where the correct answer is repeatedly presented — was better. But a 2011 Canadian study that compared learning ability in a group of 20-somethings with a group with an average age of 70 may refute this. It found that the older group learned better when allowed to experiment and make mistakes. So if at first you don’t succeed, keep trying!
It’s a myth…
…that just doing crosswords can reduce your risk of dementia. True, if you’ve been a crossword addict all your life, you might have a lower statistical risk of developing dementia. But that may be because people with a high baseline intelligence seem to be less at risk — precisely the kind of people who tend to do crosswords. The daily puzzle may stimulate your mind, but this won’t necessarily protect you against cognitive decline. To keep your brain fit, it’s important to keep stimulating it by learning to do new things, which means tackling all sorts of mental challenges.
Playing video games can help enhance your memory and speed up your reactions. In a study at the University of Illinois, a group of over-60s who played a computer game called Rise of Nations for eight weeks scored higher in tests of “executive function” — the ability to plan, reason and problem solve — than those who stayed on the side.
- Go for the carrot! When trying to learn something new, one of the best ways to ensure that information sticks is by rewarding yourself, according to a University of California study. Researchers who studied both younger (aged 18 to 33) and older (aged 66 to 92) adults found that both groups were much more likely to remember when promised financial rewards. Try promising yourself a present in return for learning something new.
- Take up t’ai chi. A 2011 study at the University of California looked at a group of people aged over 60 who were suffering from depression. It found that a weekly t’ai chi class combined with a standard antidepressant helped combat the blues. T’ai chi also improved quality of life, memory and other aspects of mental health.
- Make a curry. Studies show that a chemical in turmeric — found in curry powder — might help to protect you against some of the damage to the brain that is associated with Alzheimer’s. Home-cooked curries are better for you than takeaways, which are often high in saturated and trans fats.
- Think nuts. Not only are nuts high in “good fats”, the antioxidants they contain could also help protect you against memory problems. Studies, such as one carried out in India in 2010 on animals with chemically induced amnesia, show almonds to be a healthy choice for boosting memory, but other types such as walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts, pistachios, Brazil nuts and macademias are all good for you, too.
- A boiled egg at breakfast can help protect your brain against the signs of ageing. A study carried out at Boston University of 1,400 adults discovered that those who had a good intake of the amino acid choline, found in eggs, performed better in memory tests and were less likely to show brain changes associated with dementia than those with a lower intake. It seems that our brain cells require choline to synthesise the brain messenger acetylcholine, which decreases in the brains of those with Alzheimer’s.
The August issue of Reader’s Digest is out 24th July