Five retirement health myths debunked
It's seen as the finishing line after a long life of hard work, but calling time on your day job doesn't mean giving up on staying in shape or eating well. Arlene Harris asks five experts to dispel common misconceptions about well-being in your golden years
We've all heard the adage 'use it or lose it' which refers to physical and mental health in older people.
And while there is no doubt that exercising both the body and mind is hugely beneficial at any age, there are some myths that get bandied about regarding what the older generation should and shouldn't do to remain in good shape.
We asked five experts to debunk these falsehoods and provide their top tips for a healthy retirement.
■ MYTH: It's too late to start changing your diet
Sarah Keogh, dietician and Course Specialist in Nutrition of the Retirement Planning Council of Ireland, says age doesn't matter when it comes to improving your diet.
"People often say that it's too late to do anything for your health, but this isn't the case. In reality, there is still plenty you can do to improve and maintain your health. Our bodies are constantly updating - we get new skin every 28 days - so putting good food into your body even in your 70s and 80s will still have big benefits.
"The main difference is that you need more protein in your 70s than you do in your 20s, so it's important to have protein at every meal - not huge amounts, but we know that having protein regularly through the day helps to preserve muscle and bone into old age. Meat, chicken, fish, beans, eggs and nuts are all good sources.
"Vitamin D is the most important supplement as it helps to maintain healthy muscles and bones. We don't get enough sunshine in Ireland and although it can be found in oily fish and eggs, it's still difficult to eat enough of these foods to get all the vitamin D you need. A supplement which gives you around 10 micrograms is worth taking and Omega-3s from fish are also important. Ideally, we need to eat oily fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines and trout twice a week. If you don't eat fish - and are not going to start - a good fish oil supplement is useful.
"It is also a common myth that a glass of wine is good for you. In reality, alcohol is linked with an increased risk of cancer at any level. However, if you drink small amounts occasionally, your risk is low. There is no need to cut out alcohol, but it's best not to have more than 2-3 drinks in 24 hours and to have 3-4 alcohol-free days per week."
■ MYTH: Ageing means slowing down
Julie Broderick, Assistant Professor of Physiotherapy at the Trinity Centre for Health Sciences, says this doesn't necessarily have to be the case.
"One of most common myths is that muscle mass can't be built as we age. But getting old is not a barrier to exercise. What we see as people age is a spectrum of physical abilities: on one end of the spectrum are those who are frail and have major physical limitations to those at the other end who have the strength, fitness and energy of someone decades younger - appearing to almost defy the ageing process.
"Wherever people are on this spectrum of physical ability, it's never too late to optimise physical health and ability. Ideally, older people should exercise 30 minutes most days, enough to sweat and increase heart rate. Also, it's good to include activities which challenge balance, like Tai Chi, to prevent falls, and some strength training to maintain muscle mass to limit the development of sarcopenia (muscle loss due to ageing) and frailty. But bearing all this in mind, chose any exercise that you enjoy - nothing is off limits.
"However, it might need to be avoided if blood pressure is abnormally high or low, if you have an active infection or are in pain. If any of these are present, get assessed by the GP and make sure you are medically optimised and stabilised before returning to exercise. Also if you are due to have surgery, try to stay active as much as possible beforehand, which will really help you endure the rigours of surgery and aid recovery.
"The reality as we age is that chronic conditions accrue, so it's a case of remaining active and modifying exercise through the lifespan. If you have a number of different medical conditions, seek advice from a physiotherapist or other exercise professional so your programme can be modified accordingly.
"The type and amount of exercise you do throughout the lifespan will naturally ebb and flow - the main thing is to stay active to gain maximum health benefits. Some is better than none and the more the better."
■ MYTH: Older people don't need as much stimulation as younger ones do
Psychotherapist Stella O'Malley says older people certainly do need as much stimulation as everyone else.
"Many people assume that because the older person looks frail, they are also mentally weak. But often they are perfectly able to hold complex thought processes - they just may have difficulty communicating them. There is also a common myth that older people need to 'take it easy' when, for a lot of elderly people, this feels like a very negative way to live, and while they should probably take it easier, they should also balance this with the need to stay active and interested in life.
"Authentic connection is the most powerful way to look after the older generation's emotional health. So conversation should be real and not made up of the bland phrases which leave most people feeling more isolated. This doesn't mean we have to have an intense discussion about the horrors of the ageing process, more that we have genuine conversations with the older people in our lives, just like the conversations we have with people at our own age and stage.
"It is vital to keep a sense of purpose about each day; whether it is to do gardening or to visit friends. If the ageing person has nothing to do, all this can feel exhausting and oppressive and is very bad for their mental health."
■ MYTH: You don't need as much exercise as you get older
Dr Angie Brown, Consultant Cardiologist and Medical Director of the Irish Heart Foundation, says the most common myth surrounding heart health for older people is that exercise is not advisable.
"Many people believe that as they get older, they have less need for physical activity. However, the National Guidelines on Physical Activity for Ireland recommend that all adults get at least 30 minutes of moderate activity five times a week. TILDA (the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing) found that almost half (48pc) of adults aged 50 and over do not reach the recommended amount of exercise. Walking between 20 and 30 minutes per day or 10 minutes to the shop and back is associated with reductions in the risk of Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and premature death.
"Generally, the level of exercise a person should do will depend on how fit they are and if they have any medical issues. We would advise, for those who are able, to engage regularly in brisk walking, jogging, cycling or swimming depending on their ability.
"As we age, we are more likely to have medical and musculoskeletal issues. There are a number of things we can all do to look after our hearts - eat healthily, get regular physical activity, maintain a healthy weight, don't smoke, reduce alcohol consumption, check and manage your blood pressure and cholesterol level, and take any medications that you have been prescribed in line with your doctor's instructions.
"But as we get older, we are more likely to develop atherosclerosis (plaque build-up on artery walls) due to wear and tear, and other risk factors, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking, high cholesterol, being overweight or low levels of physical activity. It's therefore important to have these risk factors checked regularly and treated or managed as appropriate. If you experience symptoms of breathlessness, chest pain or dizziness, go to your GP. Or if you think you are having a heart attack, call 999 or go to your nearest emergency department."
■ MYTH: Mental health problems become prevalent as you age
John Saunders, Director of See Change and Shine, says many people believe that mental health issues are rife amongst the older generation, but this is not the case.
"It's not true that most people have severe mental health problems in old age. Of course, some develop dementia, but for most, they are the same as the younger generation and may suffer with stress and depression due to lifestyle or lack of stimulation or exercise.
"There is also a big myth out there that older people have nothing to contribute to society and they have used all their talents, but this is far from true - they have the same skills they had while working, so should do their best to utilise them.
"Many people find retirement difficult, so in order to get the most out of this next phase of life, it's important to develop new hobbies, particularly those which involve other people, and realise that now is the time to do all the things you didn't have time for before."
Health & Living