The good news is that we’re all living longer than we were twenty years ago. But thanks to our advancing years, we’re also developing more chronic diseases. More than 133 million Americans have one form of chronic health condition or another, nearly half of the total population, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
With such high rates of chronic illness, you might just think that it’s all a part of ageing. But according to the latest science, that isn’t the case at all. It turns out that the way we live our lives has a much bigger impact on our health than simply getting older. Not only will adopting better lifestyle habits help you stay out of the nursing home, but you’ll also feel healthier and happier. Here are some tips from scientists for how to remain spritely into a ripe old age.
It’s Never Too Late
Most people get to retirement age and think to themselves, “it’s too late. I can’t change anything now”, and so they never bother changing their health habits. But the truth is that it’s never too late to change your lifestyle and improve your health, even if you’re in your 90s. The reason for this has to do with the body’s uncanny ability to repair itself. When you change your lifestyle, you literally shock your genes into expressing themselves in a different way. One minute they’re expressing themselves in a way that gives you disease, the next they’re acting differently and making you healthy again.
Perhaps the most obvious example of this weird phenomenon in action is what happens to varicose veins when people change their lifestyle. It used to be thought that varicose veins were just a sign of wear and tear. Doctors assumed that the valves at the top of the legs failed, thanks to old age, and that’s what caused blood to accumulate in the blood vessels in the lower leg, causing them to swell up and go hard.
But then some researchers decided to go back to the problem and think about it a little differently. What if lifestyle factors flicked a genetic switch that causes the valve to fail, leading to the varicose veins? Then the problem wouldn’t be mechanical and irreversible, but genetic and potentially reversible.
The researchers put a small group of people on a healthy lifestyle and diet to try to get their genes to express themselves in a healthy way again. After a few weeks, their varicose veins on their legs started getting softer and less protrusive. Soon it became clear that the lifestyle medicine had worked, and that it had flicked a genetic switch, causing the valve at the top of the leg to start working again.
It’s not the first place, of course, where reversal has occurred, even after the disease has begun. Back at the beginning of the 1990s, Dean Ornish, a doctor for the US, set out to prove that lifestyle intervention could reverse heart disease, even in people who had already had heart attacks. Participants ate a mainly vegetable diet, and within a few months, their arteries started opening up again. It seemed like magic, but again it was more evidence that the body’s genetics express themselves differently, depending on the kind of environment we are in. If we eat a high-calorie, junk food diet, our genes express themselves in an unhealthy way. And if we eat a low fat, vegetable diet, our genes express themselves in a healthier way. The bottom line is that it is never too late to change one’s approach to health.
Improve Your Fitness
If you’ve been following the latest news on anti-aging research, you’ll have come across a new form of exercise that is supposed to slow the rate of aging, and even reverse it.
For many years, people in the fitness community have extolled the virtues of a type of training called interval training. Essentially, it means exercising as hard as you can for a short period of time, followed by a rest, and then repeating the process. Most people do hard physical activity for about 30 seconds and then rest for a minute.
What was interesting about this exercise was its effect on older folk. The researchers found that when people over the age of 50 did interval training, their mitochondria - the little energy factories in their cells - behaved as if they were twenty years younger. The reason scientists got so excited about this is because mitochondrial aging has long been considered the human aging master clock. Thus, anything that can reverse it can potentially extend life.
In the short term, there are benefits to intense exercise too. Not only does it only take around ten minutes for a full session, but it also improves many biomarkers associated with the diseases of old age. For instance, it’s excellent at reducing blood sugar levels, inflammation, and blood pressure.
The bottom line is that there is no need to join a gym. All you have to do is find a flat piece of ground or use a stationary bike and exercise as hard as you can. Then take a rest and repeat the process about six to eight times. That’s it.
Fitness experts like to split fitness up into three categories: strength, conditioning, and flexibility. The first two get a lot of attention in the medical sector. But the role of flexibility in helping in old age is often overlooked. According to research by the Oregon Health and Science University, regular daily stretching can help to relieve chronic conditions like arthritis and fibromyalgia. Activities such as yoga also help to maintain balance, something that also deteriorates with old age.
Keep Your Weight Low
For decades, scientists have been doing experiments on animals to see whether they can control their lifespan by feeding them less. The answer is that they can. Mice, rats, fish - even monkeys - that eat less food live longer. The mechanisms for this aren’t entirely clear, but it’s believed to be something that is related to our evolutionary past. When food was scarce, it made sense to slow down the aging process so that animals would have more time to reproduce once food was abundant again.
Cultures that eat the least food today are also those that eat the longest. The Okinawans, for instance, eat mainly beans and sweet potatoes, and until recently, had the highest proportion of people over the age of 100 on Earth. The Okinawans practiced eating until they were about 80 percent full and then leaving the rest for the next day.
Eating whole foods is the best way to reduce calories and lose weight since these are the most filling. Things like beans, vegetables, and soups will keep you full and away from the ice cream in the freezer.
Be Optimistic And Spiritual
Being religious and having a sunny outlook on life can help you to live longer, according to research. The reason for this is apparently reduced stress levels experienced by people who are optimistic and who are part of close-knit communities. It’s not clear whether belief in religion itself is the fundamental driver, or whether it's the other benefits that religion brings, but it does appear to help.
Optimism is a big factor too. In 2004, a study of more than a thousand people found that those who described themselves as optimistic had a 55 percent lower chance of dying during the nine-year study than those who didn’t. To put that in perspective, if cancer were to disappear tomorrow, life expectancy would rise by about 4.5 years.