It's never too late to get healthy

Last week we celebrated my father-in-law’s 90th birthday. This is a man who is ageing well. Fit and healthy and living life to the full, there are a few things we could all learn about how to age well from Jack’s long and happy life.

Over the last few decades, life expectancy in the developed world has been steadily increasing, while healthy life expectancy has been decreasing. That means that we might expect to live longer but we are more likely to develop some sort of disease or condition that impacts our quality of life. But with a little thoughtful care and attention to our daily habits, it might just be possible to add years to our life and life to our years…

Real food – more important than ever

As we age, we lose muscle, so we burn (and need) fewer calories than before. Although this means we need fewer calories as we age, we still need just as many nutrients as in our younger years, meaning that the quality of the food we eat matters more than ever.

Diet and lifestyle changes play a big role in how well we age and how long we live and it is never too late to make changes. So what can you do to age well? Here are my top tips for a healthy old age:

Top tips to age well

  • Eat real food. Pack your food with vegetables, fruit, meat, fish, wholegrains, lentils and beans – the type of food your grandparents would recognise. Soups, stews and curries are a good way to pack plenty of nutrition on to your plate, and can be bulked out with pulses and vegetables to help your meat go a little further.
  • Eat enough calories. That is easier said than done, especially if you do not have much of an appetite. The solution is fat. Fat has more than twice the calories of protein and carbohydrates and is required to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins vitamin A, D and E.

The advice to replace saturated fat and cholesterol with man-made vegetable oils is now out-dated. Vegetable oils are pro-inflammatory, harmful to cognitive health and may actually increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Natural fats like butter and coconut oil, are preferable.

To maintain good cognitive and mental health, you need good amounts of the omega-3 fatty acid DHA, which is found in oily fish. 2-3 servings of oily fish like salmon, mackerel, herring, trout or sardines a week are a good idea. Tinned fish makes a quick and affordable lunch on toast with some grilled tomatoes and a bit of salad – beetroot is especially tasty with mackerel.

  • Refined carbohydrate like white bread, white rice, etc. and sugary foods raise blood sugar levels fast and high. A high-carbohydrate, high-sugar diet is detrimental, especially if you are suffering from type 2 diabetes. Swapping to really dark (70 per cent cocoa) chocolate, or having oatcakes and cheese instead of biscuits is a good start.
  • Eat some red meat. It contains a type of iron that is well absorbed, as well as a host of other nutrients for muscle strength and immune function.
  • Consider supplementation. As we live a long way from the equator, we do not see much sunlight, especially at this time of the year, so we are likely to be low in vitamin D and the older we are, the more likely we are to be low in this sunshine vitamin. Vitamin D is a crucial nutrient for bone health and immune function. We know that people with lower levels of vitamin D have been found to be more adversely affected by Covid-19, so top your levels up now in time for winter.
  • Get outside every day – walking, cycling or gardening are great ways to keep active and enjoy the great outdoors. Being outside and connecting with nature is important for managing stress and anxiety levels.
  • Meet friends and family – from a safe social distance of course. This is especially important if you live alone. Connection with other people is what makes the world go around and is so important for our physical and mental health.

This blog post first appeared as my column in The Irish News on Saturday 12 September 2020.