Lived a less than perfect life health-wise? Take heart. The good news is that increasing evidence shows it's possible to slow down the ageing process and alter our futures for a longer, healthier and happier life. And according to Dr Rajendra Sharma, author of an inspiring new book Live Longer, Live Younger it's never too late to start.
"Healthy ageing is within all of our grasp and not simply down to a genetic lottery," Dr Sharma says. "There is no time when it is too late to make changes and, in many instances where disease has set in, we can even reverse damage.
"Ageing well is not about the perfect lifestyle: it is about helping you achieve optimum health for as long as possible within your normal life patterns. Simple changes to lifestyle can enable us to enjoy, in moderation, our bad habits such as a glass of wine," says Dr Sharma.
Here, experts share their top five tips to help you age well...
All exercise of any description, whether that be walking or gardening, benefits every aspect of our health but the nervous system is perhaps best served, says Dr Sharma. “Aerobic exercise in particular where you get breathless and sweaty, protects against dementia, it’s as simple as that.”
Taking regular exercise in mid life can significantly reduce the risk of dementia by nearly a third (30%) and the risk of Alzheimer’s (a specific type of dementia) by nearly half (45%), according to the Alzheimer’s Society, which cites the combined results of 11 studies.
Muscle tone is important, too, and feeling physically strong does good things for the mind as well as the body, boosting confidence and feelings of being young for our age, says Dr Sharma.
A good night’s sleep
Getting a decent amount of shut eye can enhance memory, protect from dementia, lower the risk of heart attacks, stroke, diabetes, and make you feel happier, says neuroscientist Matthew Walker, director of the Sleep Laboratory at Berkley University author of Why We Sleep.
If you find it difficult to doze off, check first that you are practicing the basics of good sleep hygiene. This begins long before bedtime and consists of taking some exercise (not too late in the day), spending as much time as possible outdoors to get natural daylight (a minimum of 30 minutes), avoiding caffeine, late meals and alcohol in the evening, following a wind-down routine and having a dark, cool, gadget-free bedroom with a comfortable bed.
But the single most important habit for a good night's sleep is going to bed and getting up at the same time each day, says Professor Walker. This sets the body’s internal clock or circadian rhythm, which is key to our health in so many areas. If you go short of sleep one night, resist the temptation to sleep later the following day as this messes with that clock.
Try something new
Thanks to Covid restrictions days can tend to blur together, but seeking out new experiences of all kinds doesn’t just improve our mood - it feeds and stimulates our brain cells.
A different walk, visits to a new area, music you’ve never heard, visual experiences from paintings to panoramas and even re-arranging or redecorating a room all count.
“Any new experience has an anti-ageing effect on the brain, that helps us stay sharp,” says Dr Sharma. “We know learning a musical instrument or a language will benefit our cognitive abilities, but a musician who continues to play the piano will not get as much benefit as someone who learns for the first time. The key thing is to try something different and new.”
This doesn’t mean we have to abandon what we love because, if you enjoy a hobby, you are beating off the stress response, which has a positive effect, but look for opportunities to add to your life, too, says Dr Sharma.
Feed your friendships
Increased isolation and loneliness as a result of our more restricted lives are a concern to all of us, whether personally or on behalf of loved ones. While connecting with friends and family boosts brain health and wellbeing, the reverse can increase health risks, according to a wealth of evidence.
"Working at and investing in friendships could be one of the loveliest and most important ways of improving your health," says GP Louise Wiseman, author of Your Best Life: a Doctor’s Secret Guide to Radiant Health over 40.
The online meet-ups we're growing so used to are helpful, but meeting outside in a natural environment is a much bigger win. Connecting with nature and friends lifts mood and lowers stress, while daylight sets our circadian rhythm and, on brighter days, delivers a dose of vitamin D.
Wake up well
While we pay great attention to falling asleep, how we wake is also important for our health and wellbeing. Drink a glass of water, preferably with lemon, which has a cleansing effect on the body, then do some stretching, advises Dr Sharma.
“Stretching, yoga or tai chi will increase blood flow and waste draining through the lymphatic system, as well as stimulating circulation and waking up muscles,” says Dr Sharma.
Simple breathing exercises also increase the supply of oxygen to the brain and promote a state of calmness by stimulating the parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system.
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