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The great anti-ageing myth: the price we pay for our obsession with staying young

Is 50 really the new 40? Is it possible to hold back the tide of years with superfoods, Botox and resistance training? Yes, we are living longer, but are we actually healthier into old age? Emily Hourican looks at whether ageing is now optional, or if our belief in Forever Young is just self-delusion

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Cindy Crawford attends the Chanel show as part of the Paris Fashion Week Womenswear  Spring/Summer 2018 on October 3, 2017 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

Cindy Crawford attends the Chanel show as part of the Paris Fashion Week Womenswear Spring/Summer 2018 on October 3, 2017 in Paris, France. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

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Exuberant beauty: Cindy Crawford

Exuberant beauty: Cindy Crawford

Getty Images for The Met Museum/

Keanu Reeves

Keanu Reeves

FilmMagic

Bruce Willis

Bruce Willis

LightRocket via Getty Images

Denzel Washington

Denzel Washington

FilmMagic

Edna O'Brien

Edna O'Brien

Getty Images

Helen Mirren

Helen Mirren

Walt Disney Television via Getty

Mary O'Rourke

Mary O'Rourke

Meryl Streep

Meryl Streep

Samir Hussein/WireImage

Daniel Day Lewis

Daniel Day Lewis

/

Cindy Crawford attends the Chanel show as part of the Paris Fashion Week Womenswear Spring/Summer 2018 on October 3, 2017 in Paris, France. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

Is it just me, or is getting older starting to seem a bit... lax? A bit sloppy? A bit like you didn’t commit? Perhaps it’s because everything we eat, every cream or serum we put on our faces and bodies, many forms of exercise, hobbies, even gardening and colouring books (I’m not kidding), now promise to be' anti-ageing.'

My eight-year-old daughter smeared on some cheap own-brand supermarket sunscreen a while ago. “So,”

she asked, “do I look five?” It was, of course, ‘anti-ageing’ sunscreen. Really, all I need it to do is just stop me getting sunburned. But instead it comes with a dollop of non-optional extra youth thrown in.

Which is fine - knock yourselves out, marketers -except for the way in which this laser-focus is all trickling back into our societal psychology, the collective conscious/neurosis that drives so much of what we aspire to. It’s particularly awkward for those of us in what used to be called ‘middle age’ with merry complacency, because this particular life-stage is now no longer a time of increasingly elasticated waistbands and comfy shoes. Instead, it’s a war zone, the ultimate frontline in the battle against ageing.

Actually, what even is middle age? There is no official start or end time, and it varies as life expectancy increases. In the days when Paul McCartney was singing “will you still need me ... when I’m 64?”, middle age was 30. Now that we can confidently expect to live well into our 80s and beyond, middle age could be supposed to be 40 or even maybe 50.

The thing is, though, that the very people that figure applies to, are having none of it. Not when there are triathlons and ultramarathons to be run, anti-ageing superfoods to be consumed, and Sudoku puzzles to complete. Not only are we are not going gentle into that good night, we’re not even willing to go beyond lunchtime.

Apparently there are two lies we are all particularly susceptible to; two pieces of untruthfulness we all allow. First is the belief that the future will be better than the present, even when nothing in the present indicates that it will. Second is that we look younger than we are.

But even if we are lying, a little, to ourselves about still passing for 38 on a good day, we are correct that we do not, most of us, look or seem like our parents’ generation at the same age. Whatever example of middle age we were brought up with, we are not sticking to it. “Would a middle-aged man do this?” we ask ourselves, as we’re 100km into a 200km cycle.

“Would a middle-aged woman wear this?” we wonder, as we struggle into a Victoria Beckham ruffletrimmed dress and stick on a faintly S&M Chanel cuff to celebrate our 45th birthday?

And it is legitimately confusing. After all, if we don’t behave or dress or expect like previous generations of the middle-aged, then perhaps we aren’t ‘old’ in the way the previous generations were?

If we can still rock a Nirvana T-shirt, get excited about the release of Spiderman: Far From Home, and track down the best burger in town; if Bono can still wear the biker jacket at 59; if Richard Corrigan (55) and Gerald Kean (62) can hang out at the All Together Now festival, while Mary O’Rourke (82) runs a writing workshop and Edna O’Brien (87) smuggles £15,000 into Nigeria in her underwear during a mission to track down schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram, then ‘age’ as a concept is definitely up for renegotiation.

After 20 years of the media claiming that ‘50 is the new 40’, ‘60 is the new 50’ and so on, we are starting to believe it, and act accordingly. We use sunscreen, we Botox, we lift weights, take Viagra, do yoga, all in an effort to cheat, not so much death - that comes to us all - but life. Cheat life of its winding-down process by refusing to engage with that process.

But is this just an attitude of mind? Is it really in our power to hold back the march of time with chia seeds and PMA so that we can, in our 50s and 60s, say, be as physically youthful as our 20s and 30s? If we look under the bonnet, is 50 really the new 40? Or are we all just looking the wrong way? Is ageing just as inevitable as death, and our efforts to slow it down simply window-dressing? A 50-year-old wearing a Nirvana T-shirt is still 50, right? Or not?

There is an out-there school of thought, favoured by Californians and tech gurus with god complexes, that the key to immortality is just around the corner.

There are plenty of people actively pursuing the goal of living ‘forever’ through dubious practises such as calorie restriction and the taking of zillions of supplements, just hoping to hang on until science catches up with their desire for longevity. However, science may be about to screw them, because at the same time, medical focus has begun to shift in a very fundamental way, from quantity to quality.

After years of glorying in rising life expectancy, we have hit a wall. Perhaps it’s no surprise. After all, the considerable rise in life expectancy has not, largely, been brought about by individual lifestyle choices. It is the result of state efforts: unsexy stuff, like better sanitation, antibiotics and vaccines. It’s down to better management of specific illnesses such as high blood pressure, with some input from public health messages around smoking, exercise and obesity.

These were the low-hanging fruit, and tackling them delivered big. Now, we have reached a whole new stage in our development, in which we may be living longer, but we are not, by and large - and this, sorry guys, despite the 60-year-olds running marathons - living healthier.

Actually, according to a recent issue of Chemistry World, the magazine of the Royal Chemistry Society, “our number of healthy years lived has stalled.”

Colin Selman, Professor of Biogenterology at the University of Glasgow is just as succinct: “We are ageing better insofar as we are generally living longer,” he says, “however, age itself is the primary risk factor for a whole host of diseases — Alzheimers, type-2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis - and so more people within our society are reaching an age where they experience these diseases and typically people do not suffer from a single disease but rather several. The issue is that llifespan is increasing globally but healthspan (that is the period of our life free from these age-associated diseases) is not increasing at the same rate, and this disconnect means that people are likely to live this ‘extra’ period of long-life in poor health.”

That seems like a terrible deal and the kind of wish an evil fairy might grant: ‘may you live an extra 20 years. And may you suffer with ill-health for most of that…’ Cue wild, cackling laughter.

Prof Selman’s read-out is, frankly, for most of us, a kick in the teeth. After all, we were ‘promised’ better than this. Or so we believe. We bought into the idea that if we did/ate/wore what the big brands offered, if we tracked our fitness, supplemented our hormones, froze our eggs and even our ovaries, banked our stem cells, and followed a 16-step cosmetic regime, we ould stay ‘young’ forever.

And, the future looks even bleaker. Even as we all hail the discovery of a new youth serum or supergrain from South America, the reality is that our 11-year-olds are significantly less healthy than 11-year-olds were 50 years ago. They are in general, heavier, taller, they start puberty earlier, which is a risk for breast cancer in women, and they show too many signs of metabolic syndrome, which is a precursor for type-2 diabetes, heart and vascular disease. They have high blood pressure and high cholesterol, and their fitness has declined dramatically - by 4.2pc a decade, globally.

Take any of that to its logical conclusion, and the future picture is gloomy. These kids are going to hit their 50s, 60s and 70s with a host of health problems.

They are not going to be living the dream of silver serenity. The myth of the Septugenarian Superman/ woman will remain just that, a myth.

So what actually causes ageing? If we could answer that, we’d be closer to addressing it. But the answer is, we don’t quite know. There are various theories, and plenty of work being done in labs and tech centres around the world, but let’s leave that aside - it belongs to the boffins, and won’t trickle down to rest of us for quite some time.

For most of us without an immortality fixation, or indeed a God complex, the point now is to work out, what can we do ourselves, within our own lives, that will work, and what is just window dressing? After all,

Botox and the judicial use of sunscreen will make us look younger, but won’t prevent muscle wastage and osteoporosis, just two common indignities of ageing.

So what are the things we can do that will help? Here, despite all the fancy explorations into DNA, the core advice is the same old-same old. As

Dr Diarmuid O’Shea, geriatrician and president of the Irish Gerontological Society, one of the oldest gerontological societies in the world, puts it, the areas to focus on are: “Regular healthy exercise and diet, no smoking, attention to specific health issues such as getting your blood pressure checked regularly. And weight. If you are overweight at 40, statistics suggest that you will live three years less. If you are obese at 40, you will live seven to eight years less. If you are obese and smoke at 40, that figure becomes 14 years less.”

And there’s more. “Loneliness is associated with an increased risk of illness and mortality every bit as strong as heart disease,” says Dr O’Shea. “And it peaks in our 30s, and in our 60s. Social connections are vital. Knowing your sense of purpose is equal to seven years extra life expectancy. Those with a sense of belonging - for example faith-based communities, regardless of denomination — tend to live four to 14 years longer.” In other words, forget the ovary freezing - instead, make friends.

So can we actually avoid ageing? “I would say that ageing is inevitable,” says Prof Selman, “but the process can be slowed (rather than cheated).” Sorry - no quick-or-fancy fixes; he lists all the same sensible stuff as Dr O’Shea, then adds “However, ageing is really complex. How you age as a person will have genetic influences (how old your parents/grandparent lived to), environmental influences (eg social deprivation, diet, exercise) and epigenetic influences."

Beyond all the chat about muscle mass and eating right for your decade, there is an urgency to all this that is not individual - it’s not about you or me looking fit into our 60s - it is the ageing population and the coming burden on state services.

There will be one million over-65s in Ireland by 2031. At the moment, around 80pc of the healthcare budget is spent treating the over-65s. You don’t need to be a mathematician to see that there may be trouble ahead. For the health service, obviously, but also social services, community services, even free travel.

Dr Diarmuid O’Shea spells it out: “We need to be planning for this. We need to look at countries around the world that have ageing populations, and learn from them. We need to drive the public health message and the personal responsibility message, which are intertwined, but also drive the political message — to improve healthcare and access to healthcare.”

What else can we do? Well, we can stop the ageism, for starters, Dr O’Shea reckons, ditching the ‘frail and lonely’ stereotype in favour of something much more dynamic.

And he’s right — after all, if we can’t see it, we can’t be it. And that’s where the 80-year-old marathon runners come in; the triathloners; the septuagenarian round-the-world yachters; Helen Mirren sexy at 73; Glenda Jackson playing Lear on Broadway at 83; the Notorious RBG (US Supreme Court judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg), epic at 85; Gloria Steinem equally epic at 84. We need to keep looking at them, and telling ourselves — that’s what age looks like. And if that means a ‘middle age’ spent in slightly smug preparation, so be it.

 

Who's ageing well?

And we don't mean the cat-people, with their slanted features and smooth brows. No, we mean the real people, who look good at their real ages.

Meryl Streep

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Meryl Streep

Meryl Streep

Samir Hussein/WireImage

Meryl Streep
 

Same as she does everything well, Meryl is ageing well. She looks elegant, witty, alive. Who cares how old she is? Who would bother guessing? We'd like to look like this at any age.

Cindy Crawford

The abundant, exuberant beauty that Crawford had at 20 is still there, in spades, now that she's 53. It may not be 100pc natural, but it's careful, and appropriate. 

Edna O'Brien

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Edna O'Brien

Edna O'Brien

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Edna O'Brien
 

Fabulous when she first arrived in our lives aged 32 on publication ofThe Country Girls, equally fabulous now, 57 years later, with the publication of Girl, her 19th novel (and we're not counting non-fiction or short stories). Her searing intelligence is undimmed, the emotional register as epic as ever. Edna, we salute you.

Helen Mirren

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Helen Mirren

Helen Mirren

Walt Disney Television via Getty

Helen Mirren
 

Mirren is undiminished in gorgeousness at 73. It's in the sparkling eyes and humorous attitude as much as the bone structure.

Mary O'Rourke

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Mary O'Rourke

Mary O'Rourke

Mary O'Rourke
 

From the nation's Mammy to Grandmammy, Mary seems to get better, sharper, funnier and more fearless with every year that passes. Regularly makes anyone who shares a panel with her seem stuffy, pompous and old, even when they are decades younger.

Keanu Reeves

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Keanu Reeves

Keanu Reeves

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Keanu Reeves
 

I think 'absurdly' might be the word we're now looking for to describe Keanu's youthful appearance. He's 54, but somehow his art of Zen means he comes across as decades younger

Denzel Washington

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Denzel Washington

Denzel Washington

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Denzel Washington
 

A bit more grizzled, a little chunkier, Denzel is nonetheless improving with age. He's added a wry humour to that hard stare, which makes him pretty much irresistible.

Daniel Day Lewis

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Daniel Day Lewis

Daniel Day Lewis

Daniel Day Lewis
 

Now that ‘work’ on male actors is nearly as common as the ladies, and synthetic chins no longer the unicorns they used to be, what a relief to see the elegantly ageing Dan Day.

Bruce Willis

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Bruce Willis

Bruce Willis

LightRocket via Getty Images

Bruce Willis
 

Willis went bald with aplomb, and still looks like himself four decades into his career. You might think that’s a given for all-action heroes, but in Hollywood, it’s really not.

Halle Berry

Berry swears by sweat to keep a glowing complexion — “Cardio. Cardio. Cardio,” she said recently, when asked how she stayed looking youthful. Now 52, she could still pull off a perfect Bond girl.

 

How badly do you want to stay young?

These are the lengths some will go  to. Unproven, be warned, but they  are popular:

Cryotherapy

This is where you try to freeze time. Literally. Wearing just a swimsuit, gloves and socks, devotees stand in what looks like a shower cubicle and allow dry steam, at a temperature of -140°C, to blast the body for three minutes. This, apparently, invigorates all the systems in your body, increasing oxygen supply to organs, muscles and skin, as well as giving you a big rush of endorphins.

Sound Baths

At the kookier end of the mindfulness curve are sound baths, in which practitioners 'bathe' in sounds. The theory is that sound waves can slow down the heart and respiratory rate, creating a therapeutic effect on the mind and body and combating stress, which, as we all know (or should know), is a major cause of premature ageing.

Starvation

Actually, this may well work. There is evidence to suggest that restricting calories - either by 25-30pc overall, or by adopting a 'fasting-mimicking diet' for minimum five days a month - is effective in reducing risk factors for ageing and age-related diseases. Better known as The Hunger Gains. But, frankly, who wants to live like that?

Blood transfusions

This is the idea that 'young' blood can replace 'old' blood, and bring with it all the vigour and possibility of youth. So far, such treatments are not broadly considered either safe or effective.

Weight-Lifting

Forget the marathons and triathlons. In fact weight-lifting is likely to have a better effect on ageing. By our early 40s, most of us are losing muscle mass at a rate of 5% a decade. Lifting weights can slow down or even reverse that, leading to gains in strength, mobility, mental sharpness, metabolic health and hormonal profile.

Testosterone

A recent study found a link between men who have higher levels of the sex hormone estradiol (produced from testosterone), and slower ageing. There is growing interest in testosterone-replacement therapy, for men and women.

 

 

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