We use the expression ‘growing older gracefully’ to describe an older person who has become more mellow with age – like a fine wine, age has helped to mature him, and he now produces distilled wisdom which make people seek out his company. We would all like to grow old like this, but there is another scenario in which old men get referred to as ‘Grumpy old men’ because they become cranky. I am told I fall in the latter category! Although people may have the same chronological age, we age at different rates; some people get old prematurely while others stay healthy into their eighties. Why do some people age better than others? Is it our genes, the result of disease and sickness, or are there things that we do which age us?
When we are young we may live as if there will be no tomorrow, but we all hope we will live to a ripe old age to enjoy tomorrow. What we do in terms of lifestyle when we are young has significant effect on how we age. If we abuse our bodies with drugs and alcohol we are likely to age more quickly and even die prematurely. Smoking also causes premature aging and lack of sleep is known to be detrimental to our health. Other factors play a role, particularly one’s genetics, but having good or bad genes is not the whole story, aging well is also strongly influenced by the habits we adopt during our life, such as having a healthy diet, watching our weight, cultivating an active mind and exercising. The amount of exercise a person takes throughout his life is proven to be associated with longevity. A recent study correlated the number of hours a person jogs during his lifetime with the number of extra years he can expect to live. It should be noted that such studies show statistical averages, and jogging will not guarantee that any individual will live to a ripe old age.
Of course, as one gets older there is increased risk from diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, which cause strokes and heart attacks, and from cancer, but the risk from such diseases can also be mitigated through lifestyle choices. Inflammation is known to be a major predisposing factor to non-communicable diseases (NCDs) and one can prevent inflammation of the blood vessels through reducing sugar and taking exercise.
The risk of breast and prostate cancers increase as we get older, but if detected early both cancers can be treated. The frequency of Lung cancer reduces significantly when people stop smoking. The disease which appears to have become more common with advancing age is Alzheimer’s Disease in which the person loses his memory and becomes senile. Medical science is still wrestling to find a cure for Alzheimer’s, but progress has been made in defining predisposing factors. High on the list are a sedentary lifestyle, an inactive mind, and a lack of physical activity.
If we want to stay in good health as we grow older, we need to start when we are young. If we have an unhealthy lifestyle when we are young and middle-aged we will age more quickly. If we do not exercise when we are young, we will find it difficult to adopt the habit when we are older. If we have a lazy mind, we will be at higher risk of Alzheimer’s. Even our posture matters – if we slouch when we are young, we will become stooped as we get older. If we carry excess weight we put strain on the musculoskeletal system and are more likely to develop joint problems.
Living into old age is not guaranteed for anyone, but if we want to live long and healthy lives, we need to develop the right habits and lifestyle. We can reduce our chances of cancer, strokes and heart attacks through diet and lifestyle; we can develop the habit of regular exercise, good posture and good sleep patterns. I would like to live to a ripe old age, but I also need a good quality of life to enjoy those years. I might be a grumpy old man, but at least I can be a fit grumpy old man!