How to live well, longer

There’s no denying it: we’re getting older. As a nation, I mean.

According to Statistics New Zealand, the demographic aged 65 plus has doubled since the early 1980s to make up 14 per cent of the population. It’s likely to double again by 2040. The 65 plus group is the fastest-growing segment of our population, as the baby boomers start to hit 65.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but 65 isn’t what it used to be. The days of people stopping work at 60 and commencing a steady decline into little-old-lady-and-man-hood are long gone. When I look at pictures of my grandparents in their 60s, they looked old, and I daresay they probably felt old, too. But this is a complete contrast to my energetic parents and their peers. These days we’re living longer, working longer, engaging more with the world and staying healthier far longer than ever before.

It’s all very well living longer – but the key to enjoying all those years of life is staying healthy. And to achieve that, we have to start before we get old. The older people I know (when I say older, I’m talking 70s and 80s) who are the healthiest, all have things in common. Firstly, they all have interesting things to do. I think of the amazing dance teacher, John Young, who has been teaching ballroom dancing for 61 years. He’s still teaching, he sparkles with energy and still dances a beautiful Argentine tango.

Another thing that keeps us healthy as we get older is regular exercise. John’s clear evidence that dancing keeps you young, but all kinds of movement helps us as we get older. As well as cardiovascular exercise like walking, we need to be doing resistance exercise (working with weight), to help us maintain muscle mass, which we lose as we age. Having strong muscles protects us from falls, loss of mobility and injury as we age, and helps look after our bones and joints. It also helps prevent weight gain, since muscle burns more energy than fat, and this can also contribute to a reduced risk of disease. It’s never too late to start; whether you’re 30, 50 or 70, getting moving can only be a good thing.

The other obvious thing to look at is diet. You don’t get to be a healthy and vibrant oldie without paying attention to what’s going into your body when you’re younger. There’s no magic formula, and once again we have to look at the long game: what we do most of the time, not just sometimes. Think more whole unprocessed foods; more vegetables; less refined and processed foods. There’s little evidence that any supplement or ‘superfood’ can help us live longer, so we’re better off paying attention to getting a really great overall diet and not relying on a quick fix. Pay attention to what you eat, without worrying too much about it (because avoiding stress is another important way to stay healthy).

Choose foods that make you happy and also look after your body and you’ll be on your way to dance classes at 80.

First published: Nov 2018

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