Life Family

Friday 18 October 2019

It's official: you are only as old as you feel

A landmark study has found you live longer by seven years if you have a positive attitude to ageing. Katie Byrne finds out why

Living by the sea can have a positive impact on an older person's health and reduce the risk of depression
Living by the sea can have a positive impact on an older person's health and reduce the risk of depression

Why is it that some older people seem to defy their age while others succumb to frailty and age-related cognitive impairment? Why is it that some older people need a daily pharmacopoeia of medication while others get by with a multivitamin and the occasional aspirin?

These are some of the questions researchers at The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (Tilda) have answered and, before you ask, it's not just a matter of having good genes.

Founded in 2006, Tilda is a large scale longitudinal study of ageing led by Trinity College Dublin. Over 8,500 Irish people aged 50 and older were selected randomly and they have been interviewed and examined regarding many aspects of their lives across four 'waves' so far.

Tilda researchers have gleaned considerable data and now, in partnership with the GAA, they'll be sharing what they consider to be the secrets of successful ageing through a series of public seminars.

For principal investigator Professor Rose Anne Kenny these seminars present an opportunity to "take new knowledge out to the Irish people" and open up an important conversation. It's an opportunity to debunk some myths - and when it comes to the ageing process, myths abound.

One of the most persistent myths about ageing is the idea that quality of life dwindles after the age of 50. On the contrary, researchers at Tilda found that quality of life continues to improve after the age of 50 until age 68. It then starts to gradually decline, reaching the value observed among 50-year-olds at age 80. "In other words, you can have the same quality of life you had at 50 at the age of 80," explains Kenny.

Another well-worn myth is that ageing starts when we are 50, 60, 70 or 80. Actually, it starts decades earlier. Research shows that adverse events in childhood (the death of a parent, physical and sexual abuse, alcoholism in the home) trigger an inflammatory process which is implicated in age-related diseases such as heart disease, dementia and arthritis.

Tilda's vision is to make Ireland "the best place in the world to grow old", but one of the biggest challenges, says Kenny, is widespread ageism.

"It's prevalent and it cuts across the life course. Everybody I speak to about this has their own story about being discriminated against in the workplace, in the family or in society because of their age.

"And this is important because it influences the way an individual ages."

Professor Kenny will be discussing this topic through public seminars. For now, here are five key findings from Tilda's four waves of research:

1. Attitude is everything

The old adage about only being as old as you feel bears some truth. Researchers at Tilda found that older adults with negative attitudes towards ageing had slower walking speed and worse cognitive abilities two years later, compared to older adults with more positive attitudes towards ageing.

Says Kenny: "If you are a certain chronological age, but you perceive yourself to be younger than that number, then you are younger - physically and mentally. You live longer by seven years if you have a positive attitude to ageing. Looking at it that way, it's more important than treating blood pressure and cholesterol."

2. Get to know your neighbours

Community spirit is a major contributor to positive ageing, according to Tilda's research. Adults who reported high neighbourhood 'social cohesion' - how "neighbourly" people feel - tended to rate their health as better than those with low neighbourhood social cohesion.

Geography plays a part too, with 54.3pc of participants living in rural areas reporting high social cohesion compared to 18.6pc of participants living in Dublin city or county.

There is also evidence to suggest that living close to 'blue space' can have a positive impact on health. ESRI research which linked data from Tilda with data from the Ordnance Survey Ireland, found that older people whose homes had extensive sea views had a significantly lower risk of depression.

3. Volunteer your time

There are high rates of volunteering among older adults in Ireland, with 56pc giving up their time at least once in the last year, and almost one-in-five doing so on a weekly basis. Taking part in these activities is associated with better quality of life and fewer depressive symptoms. "Having a sense of purpose is really important after retirement. If doesn't matter how you do it, so long as you have a reason to get up in the morning," says Kenny.

4. Aerobic exercise with resistance training

Researchers at Tilda discovered that a large proportion of older people in Ireland are physically inactive (45pc on average do not get 150 minutes per week of activity). Meanwhile, after the age of 50, muscle mass is lost at rates of up to two per cent per year. Tilda's research also found that three in five people aged 75-plus and one in two people aged 80-plus are classified as "robust or pre-frail". In other words, frailty isn't inevitable; it's preventable.

"Sarcopenia [muscle loss with ageing] is the background cause of frailty," explains Kenny. "So if you can prevent sarcopenia, you can prevent people from becoming frail.

"Resistance exercise [any exercise where you lift or pull against resistance, whether it's body weight or a barbell], coupled with at least an adequate protein intake, will work for preventing sarcopenia," she adds. "This doesn't mean aerobic exercises aren't good. They're important for cardiovascular function and brain function. If you're going to think seriously about exercise - and everyone should after the age of 40 - it has to be mixed."

5. Increase your social network

Increased social integration is associated with higher quality of life in older people. However, when it comes to social networks, quality is more important than quantity, with those reporting "positive supportive" relationships with friends also reporting higher quality of life relative to those with "less supportive" relationships. There is also evidence to suggest that social connections with younger people can have a positive impact. Half of Irish adults aged 54 to 74 years provide regular childcare for their grandchildren and this is significantly associated with better mood and quality of life.

"There's an emerging wealth of research showing the benefits of not segregating older people and younger people," says Kenny. "And the benefits are bidirectional. As a society, we need to take this on board in the way we structure living environments, housing environments, etc. For example, new apartment blocks could include a nursery and residential accommodation so that you have a whole life-course transition in one area. That's very popular in other countries, but we haven't embraced it here yet."

The 'How to Age Well: Evidence from Tilda' seminar series, brought to you by the GAA, Tilda and Irish Life, is in Limerick on March 20, 7pm-9pm at the Woodlands House Hotel and Donegal on March 22, 2pm-4pm at the Letterkenny Institute of Technology. Cork and Mayo dates TBC. For more details on the seminars, see gaa.ie/community.

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