Ageing is inevitable but deteriorating health is unwelcome. Nutrition expert Patrick Holford reveals his top tips for looking and feeling younger.
We learn a variety of things throughout our life from how to manage our money, cook, garden or dance, but how to age well may not be on that list.
All too many of us probably rely on a combination of good genes, good luck and GP check-ups to get us through our later years, believes nutrition expert Patrick Holford, co-author with journalist Jerome Burne of The 10 Secrets Of Healthy Ageing.
"As little as 10 years ago it was thought that having good genes was your best bet for ageing well. That's no longer true. According to the latest research, there's a great deal we can do to stay healthy as we age."
Scientists, he says, have discovered that markers for how well you are ageing - found in every cell in your body - can be altered by, among other things, the kind of exercise we do, the food we eat and the way we handle stress.
A persuasive argument for focusing on ageing is that, in general, we're all going to be around a lot longer.
The average lifespan in the UK has increased to 78 for men and 82 for women.
"But many of us are also popping more pills. Soon the NHS won't be able to foot the bill, because more than half of us will be on more than five drugs a day, as we battle stiffening arteries, aching joints and fading memory," says Holford.
What's worrying economists, and those shaping health policy, he asserts, is that the number of years of virtual immobility has increased in part due to both obesity and lack of health awareness.
European research states that while women are living longer, the quality of their life is reduced. A woman now has, on average, 9.8 years of disability, data from the College of Medicine suggests. That means not being able to climb 10 steps, walk a quarter of a mile or bend or kneel without using special equipment.
Encouragingly, he says, this gloomy scenario can be avoided by learning a new life skill: How to age well.
"In order to take charge of your future, you need a plan. As children you have lots of help learning how to do exams and later in life you have help with becoming good at your job and your hobbies.
"But no one tells us how to age well. If you change your attitude and regard your body in a similar way to a home, which needs regular maintenance and preventative work, we can alter our later years, prolong your life and improve the quality of it."
PATRICK HOLFORD'S TOP TIPS TO SLOW THE AGEING CLOCK
Before making an dietary or exercises changes to your life or taking supplements, you should always consult your doctor, especially if you have a pre-existing medical condition or are on prescribed medication.
By 40 you're already starting to lose muscle mass at the rate of 1% a year, and your tendons and ligaments are becoming less elastic. Only 20% of us in the UK aged between 65 and 74 exercise enough to reverse that.
By age 50 your levels of hormones needed for the likes of libido, muscle mass and skin repair will have dropped sharply.
Half of those who reach 65 have signs of osteoarthritis, and every year after the age of 65 one in two will have a bad fall that can cause a bad fracture, a hospital visit and possibly an admission to a nursing home.
Over 65 is the watershed. This is when 50% of heart attacks occur, most strokes, three-quarters of cancers and 95% of the deaths from pneumonia.
A BIT LESS FAT
The average person eats up to 40% of calories as fat, much of it as saturated fat, and that's probably too much and the wrong kind.
But rather than trying to dramatically cut fat down, the important thing is to make sure the fats you eat are healthy.
"That means eating fish, nuts, seeds and their oils and using spreads such as tahini, almond and pumpkin-seed butter, which should be staples in a healthily stocked fridge," Holford advises.
Also use good quality oils, including cold-pressed virgin olive oil on salads.
THE FIBRE FACTOR
Fibre in complex carbohydrates is what slows down the release of sugars into the blood, so go for soluble fibres such as those found in oats, which are also present in chia seeds and flax seeds - you can sprinkle these on to a meal.
"To get maximum fibre effect, try glucomannan fibre from the konjac plant, " he says.
"Add a heaped tablespoonful to a glass of water, then take it at the start of a meal. Glucomannan taken this way will almost halve the blood sugar spike of that meal, therefore making the whole meal more slow-releasing and therefore healthier."
A SPOONFUL OF CINNAMON
The active ingredient in cinnamon, MCHP, mimics the action of the hormone insulin, so a teaspoonful a day helps to remove excess sugar from the bloodstream.
"It also seems to reduce levels of cholesterol and fat in the blood and to decrease blood pressure," says Holford.
"The mineral chromium also makes you more sensitive to the effects of insulin, reversing insulin resistance and improving blood sugar control. Some supplements combine chromium with a high-potency cinnamon extract if a teaspoon seems a lot."
Exercise has a direct effect on a gene linked with laying down fat, says Holford.
The more exercise you do, the less likely the gene is to push fat into storage and the more likely it is to burn it off.
"Beside burning calories, exercise can help to lower insulin, improves blood sugar levels and builds muscle. Muscle-building resistance, such as using weights, makes your body more sensitive to insulin," he says.
"Also, simply getting moving after a meal, such as taking a brisk 10-minute walk, actually helps to get the glucose out of the blood into the cells which need it, such as the brain and muscle cells."
SLEEP TO SLIM
Not getting enough sleep can make you put on weight, says Holford. American research found that less than four hours of sleep makes people 73% more likely to be obese than those getting between seven and eight hours, while an average of five hours gives a 50% greater risk, and even six hours pushes the risk up by 23%.
"Sleep is life-enhancing as during the deep sleep phase, your body releases growth hormone which stimulates the regeneration of cells," says Holford.
"Growth hormone also burns fat and builds muscle and stimulates your immune system."
Avoid alcohol and caffeine after midday if you have difficulty getting to sleep because it suppresses the sleep hormone melatonin for up to 10 hours.