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20 Jun 2017

A User’s Guide to Ageing Well

As editor of the New York Times magazine WELL Tara Parker-Pope is an authority on getting older. Something she says is inevitable and clearly better than the alternative. 

Her advice is not rail against the process but instead embrace it. Making it more productive and pleasant is the goal whereby the so-called ‘golden years’ can be ones that shine. 

Her recommendations mirror those of many others in pursuit of enduring and winning strategies to make a difference. The path best trodden, she believes, is to find simple ways to keep your body tuned up and your mind tuned in. As everyone agrees the most compelling viewpoint is that it’s NEVER too late to get going. 

Eat well to age well  

Small changes in your eating habits can lower your risk for many of the diseases associated with ageing.

Don’t go on crash diets but aim for realistic reductions as studies have indicated that losing just 5 percent of your body weight can reduce the risk of diabetes and heart disease. Similarly, you can improve the metabolic function in live, fat and muscle tissue. 

Tasty though they might be some processed meats that have been salted, cured or smoked—such as some sausages and the like—aren’t good for heart health or those on the borderline of diabetes. 

Colour-full fruit and vegetables are another winning addition to the diet. Blueberries have been found to deliver a 26 percent lower risk of diabetes. Similarly, other ‘super’ foods such as cherries, spinach or kale, achieve stellar results. 

They may be convenient but the best eating strategy for ageing well is to put the brakes on processed food or drink. The likes of junk food or packaged options with lots of ingredients and also preservatives. If you’re hungry opt for natural snacks such as fruit or nuts. Again, in moderation rather than bulk. 

Get moving  

Couch time is still allowed provided that you’ve put your body in motion some time during the day. 

It may sound intense, but in truth high-intensity just means repeating short bursts of ‘all out’ exercise with longer periods of recovery time. Parker-Pope writes that a number of studies have shown that our bodies get more out of interval training compared with slow-and-steady exercise. A study from the venerated Mayo Clinic, of 72 healthy but sedentary men and women who were randomly assigned to different exercise groups or a control group found that interval training actually led to changes in muscles at the cellular level, essentially reversing the natural decline that occurs with aging.

The typical time frame for work outs of this ilk last less than 15 minutes. That includes a warm up and warm down period. 

Chances are you are seeking to become a body builder (but good luck if you are) but weight lifting is outstanding for maintaining muscle mass and stronger bones as you age. Lighter routines can still be effective. Using weights that are 30 and 50 percent of a ‘one off’ maximum lift, can increase the number of repetitions and therefore the benefits. The key is to grow tired rather than be thwarted after just one lift.   

The internal benefits of an exercise regime is one thing. Making your biggest, and most visible, organ—the skin—look its best is another positive ‘by product’ of putting yourself in motion. 

Parker-Pope proposed that after about age 40, most of us begin to experience a thickening of our stratum corneum, the final, protective, outer layer of the epidermis, itself the top layer of your skin. The stratum corneum is the portion of the skin that you see and feel. Composed mostly of dead skin cells and some collagen, it gets drier, flakier and denser with age.

At the same time, the layer of skin beneath the epidermis, the dermis, begins to thin. It loses cells and elasticity, giving the skin a more translucent and often saggy appearance. These are not the results of your skin’s worst enemy, the sun, but rather what happens with the passage of time. 

It appears that after age 40 men and women who exercise regularly had markedly thinner, healthier stratum corneums and thicker dermis layers in their skin with similar results achieved past age 65. 

Now that you think about it

As one of the body’s more important organs the brain benefits from exercise. But it’s resilience and longevity can also be enhanced by putting it, and you, through some extra paces. 

It appears that ‘learning on the job’ outperforms more regular routines. Studies have compared, for example, the neurological effects on folk dancing compared to straight walking or regular routines. It seems, from the brain’s point of view, dancing did the job. 

After six months, brain scans of the dancing group showed improvements in the part of the brain involved with processing speed and memory. 

Notably, almost everyone in the study performed better on thinking tests whether they took part in the walking, stretching or dancing intervention. But the cognitively-challenging dance appeared to have the biggest effect on the brain, suggesting that activities that involve moving and socializing have the potential to perk up an aging brain. 

The benefits of new endeavours go beyond movement. Activities such as music, dance, painting, quilting, singing, poetry writing and storytelling give meaning and a sense of wellbeing. Benefits that, again, are positive for the brain. 

Those who, for some reason, that are not able to exercise can still benefit from activities including yoga or meditation. Having these as part of a regular regime may strengthen thinking skills and keep age-related mental decline at bay. 

One study compared people who took part in yoga with a group doing mental exercises as part of a brain-training program. The yoga participates spent an hour each week learning Kundalini yoga. This involves breathing exercises and meditation, as well as movement and poses.

The researchers chose this form of yoga largely because people who are out of shape or new to yoga generally find it easy to complete the classes. 

The yoga group also was taught a type of meditation known as Kirtan Kriya, which involves repeating a mantra and finger movements. They were asked to meditate in this way for 15 minutes every day. The total time commitment to either yoga and meditation or brain training was equivalent for both groups.

After 12 weeks, those who had practiced yoga and meditation showed improvements in their moods. They also scored lower on a scale for potential depression than the brain-training group. They also did better on a test of visuospatial memory. This is a type of remembering that is important for balance, depth perception, the ability to recognize objects and navigate the world.

In reviewing the brain scans, researchers found those who had practiced yoga had developed more communication between parts of the brain that control attention, suggesting a greater ability now to focus and multitask.

Again, these tips are not designed to be life changing in a disruptive, or negative, sense. 

Start in ways that are comfortable and you are capable of doing. 

Ask for help and support when needed. 

Remembering ageing well on your terms is all about YOU. You are starting point and you are the beneficiary.