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Healthy ageing: the top 50 factors

Updated: 3 days ago

 

By John Coss, Vice chair of Stockport Humanists


Most of us aspire to a long, healthy life and a good death.  In this article, I review the lifestyle features which maximise the prospects of achieving this for those for whom it is a realistic choice, assuming there are no genetic factors or existing health conditions that need special consideration. I also briefly review advances in medicine aiming to maximise the healthy life span as opposed to the total life span.  In future articles I plan to cover this in greater detail, and also the economic and social consequences of the rising proportion of the population at the higher ages, and the social gradient of health – for far too many people in the UK, the best choices are not really available.



The internet offers a vast and somewhat bewildering range of ideas and recommendations relating to  healthy ageing, much of it focusing on these five basic aspects:


  • maintain a suitable weight

  • follow a sensible diet

  • drink alcohol only in moderation

  • do not smoke

  • engage in regular physical activity

 

A holistic approach to well-being involves addressing the many other aspects of physical, mental, and social health that contribute to healthy ageing. When I asked ChatGPT what other factors were relevant, it came up with the following 50(!) factors – I have added a few comments of my own in brackets:


1. Regular Health Check-ups

Regular medical check-ups and screenings are crucial for the early detection and management of health conditions. Monitoring blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and other indicators helps prevent and address potential issues. (I would add regular PSA tests for older men.)


2. Mental and Cognitive Health

Brain Stimulating Activities: Engaging in mentally stimulating activities, such as puzzles, reading, or learning new skills, helps maintain cognitive function. Social Interaction: Maintaining social connections and participating in social activities are essential for mental well-being.


3. Adequate Sleep

Quality sleep is vital for overall health. Establishing good sleep hygiene practices and ensuring sufficient rest contribute to physical and mental well-being.


4. Stress Management

Effective stress management techniques, such as mindfulness, meditation, or relaxation exercises, help reduce the impact of stress on overall health.


5. Balanced and Varied Diet

Beyond weight management, a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats provides essential nutrients for optimal health.


6. Hydration

Maintaining adequate hydration is crucial for various bodily functions. Water supports digestion, circulation, and temperature regulation.


7. Immunisations

Keeping up-to-date with vaccinations helps protect against infectious diseases and contributes to overall health.


8. Chronic Disease Management

Proper management of chronic conditions, such as diabetes, hypertension, and arthritis, is essential for maintaining health and preventing complications.


9. Bone Health

Adequate intake of calcium and vitamin D, along with weight-bearing exercises, supports bone health and reduces the risk of osteoporosis.


10. Vision and Hearing Care

Regular eye and hearing exams are important for maintaining sensory health and addressing issues early.


11. Financial Planning

Financial stability and planning for retirement are crucial aspects of well-being, reducing stress and providing security in later years.


12. Social Engagement

Staying socially active and maintaining connections with friends, family, and community groups contribute to mental and emotional well-being.


13. Preventive Measures

Implementing preventive measures, such as fall prevention strategies and safety precautions in the home, helps reduce the risk of accidents and injuries.


14. Purpose and Meaning

Having a sense of purpose and engaging in activities that bring joy and fulfilment contribute to mental and emotional well-being.


15. Adaptability and Resilience

Cultivating adaptability and resilience helps individuals navigate life changes, challenges, and uncertainties effectively.


16. Sun Protection

Protecting the skin from excessive sun exposure through sunscreen use and protective clothing helps prevent skin damage and reduces the risk of skin cancer.


17. Genetic Counselling

For individuals with a family history of certain conditions, genetic counselling can provide insights into potential risks and guide preventive measures.


18. Continued Learning

Lifelong learning and staying curious contribute to cognitive health and personal growth.


19. Spiritual Well-being

For some individuals, spiritual practices and a sense of connection to a higher purpose contribute to overall well-being. (Humanists should not neglect this aspect of life, however much they dislike the language. See the May 2022 issue of Humanistically Speaking.)


20. Volunteering

Engaging in volunteer activities and contributing to the community fosters a sense of purpose and social connection. (Participation in local humanist groups is a good way of doing this!)


21. Limiting Environmental Toxins

Minimising exposure to environmental toxins, such as pollutants and chemicals, supports overall health. (Sadly very difficult or impossible for too many people in the UK.)


22. Technology Adoption

Embracing technology for communication, learning, and health monitoring can enhance well-being and connectivity.


23. Regular Physical Activity Variety

Incorporating a variety of physical activities, including aerobic exercise, strength training, and flexibility exercises, supports overall fitness.


24. Regular Dental Care

Dental health is linked to overall well-being. Regular dental check-ups and good oral hygiene contribute to overall health.


25. Environmental Considerations

Creating a safe and supportive living environment, including modifications for ageing in place, enhances overall well-being.


26. Healthy Relationships

Nurturing healthy relationships and addressing conflicts positively contribute to emotional well-being.


27. Self-Care Practices

Incorporating self-care practices, such as relaxation techniques, hobbies, and enjoyable activities, supports mental and emotional health.


28. Active Leisure

Engaging in hobbies, recreational activities, and leisure pursuits that bring joy and relaxation contribute to overall well-being.


29. Health Literacy

Being informed about health conditions, treatments, and preventive measures empowers individuals to make informed decisions about their health.


30. Cultural and Social Connections

Connecting with cultural and social communities provides a sense of identity and support.


31. Personal Safety

Implementing personal safety measures, such as wearing seat belts and using appropriate safety equipment, reduces the risk of accidents.


32. Proactive Mental Health Care

Seeking professional mental health care when needed and addressing mental health concerns proactively.


33. Moderation in Medication Use

Using medications as prescribed, avoiding unnecessary medications, and discussing potential side effects with healthcare providers.


34. Sleep Hygiene

Establishing good sleep habits and addressing sleep disorders contribute to overall health.


35. Limiting Sedentary Behaviour

Reducing prolonged periods of sitting and incorporating movement into daily routines supports cardiovascular health and overall well-being.


36. Equitable Access to Healthcare

Ensuring equitable access to healthcare services and addressing healthcare disparities. (Sadly, this may not be feasible for too many people in the UK at present.)


37. Cognitive Training

Engaging in cognitive training exercises, such as memory games or puzzles, supports cognitive health.


38. Regular Physical Check-ups

Beyond specific health conditions, regular physical check-ups with healthcare providers help monitor overall health.


39. Travel and Exploration

Engaging in travel and exploration, when feasible, provides opportunities for new experiences and personal growth.


40. Limiting Excessive Screen Time

Moderating screen time, especially for activities that may contribute to sedentary behaviour.


41. Mindful Eating

Practising mindful eating, paying attention to hunger and fullness cues, and savouring food.


42. Adherence to Medical Advice

Following medical advice, including prescribed treatments and lifestyle recommendations.


43. Maintaining Legal and Financial Affairs

Organising legal and financial affairs, including wills and advance directives, contributes to peace of mind.


44. Community Engagement

Engaging in community activities, events, and initiatives that contribute to a sense of belonging.


45. Flexible Thinking

Cultivating flexible thinking and adapting to changes in circumstances.


46. Physical Environment

Creating a safe and accessible physical environment, including home modifications for ageing in place.


47. Holistic Approach

Adopting a holistic approach to health that addresses physical, mental, emotional, and social well-being.


48. Evaluating Social Media Use

Mindful evaluation of social media use and its impact on mental health.


49. Empathy and Compassion

Fostering empathy and compassion towards oneself and others.


50. Creativity and Expression

Engaging in creative pursuits and self-expression for personal fulfilment.

 

ChatGPT concluded with the observation that a comprehensive approach to healthy ageing considers these various factors, recognising the interconnectedness of physical, mental, and social well-being. Individual needs and preferences may vary, and adopting a personalised approach to healthy ageing enhances the overall quality of life. 

 

I think this and the earlier bullet points together provide a helpful checklist which we could all usefully work through from time to time. Doing so while writing this article, I was reminded of a number of things I have been neglecting and really need to deal with soon. For example, I realised that since a painful episode of cellulitis in my lower right leg late last year (mostly now recovered from, thanks to excellent help from my GP and the local hospital), I have not fully reverted to my previous exercise regime, and there are some other issues which I should really discuss with my GP.



Blue Zones

There are a number of places in the world whose inhabitants have been living unusually long and active lives, and who do not suffer from some of the debilitating diseases that many people in other parts of the world experience. Known as Blue Zones, they include Ikaria, a small Greek Island, a rural part of Sardinia, and Okinawa in Japan. They have been studied for some 20 years with a view to identifying the lifestyle and environmental factors that contribute to the well-being and longevity of their residents. The key characteristics and factors common to Blue Zones are:


  • Plant-Based Diet: A predominantly plant-based diet rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains.

  • Physical Activity: Regular, natural physical activity as part of daily life.

  • Social Connections: Strong community and social ties contribute to emotional well-being.

  • Sense of Purpose: Having a sense of purpose and meaning in life.

  • Moderate Caloric Intake: Consuming calories in moderation without overeating.

  • Limited Stress: Strategies for stress reduction and relaxation.

  • Healthy Relationships: Nurturing positive relationships with family and community.

 

While these lifestyle factors are associated with the longevity observed in Blue Zones, they are not prescriptive, and individual factors and genetics also play a role in longevity and well-being. Nevertheless, studying them can provide valuable insights into healthy ageing and lifestyle practices.

 

A good death

Old age can be a valuable part of life, as described in Travels with Epicurus by Daniel Klein (a useful guide to meditating on old age which I reviewed in the June 2022 issue of Humanistically Speaking). But few of us are keen on “old” old age – Shakespeare’s “sans teeth, sans eyes, sans teeth, sans everything”. Modern medicine can now keep many of us alive when there is no prospect of ever regaining what we regard as an acceptable quality of life, often involving unbearable suffering, something that was rarely experienced in the past, when pneumonia was often “the old man’s friend”. Like most humanists, I hope it will not be too long before assisted dying is legalised in this country, so that, if needs be, those who choose to can avoid this fate. In the Netherlands, about 5% of deaths are currently by euthanasia, and it would not surprise me if it eventually becomes fairly common in the UK. (Note: the House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee has just published a report on Assisted Dying/Assisted Suicide, see link below. And a bill to allow assisted dying for terminally ill adults was introduced in Scotland on 27th March.)

 

Medical research

Turning now to developments in medical research, there are welcome indications of an increasing focus on healthy ageing, aiming to reduce the period of ill-health at the end of life rather than just extending it, see for example The Art of Aging Well - in particular, the presentations by Dr Sinclair (from 08.00), who offered the visualisation below, and Dr Lipsitz (from 51.00).


Another promising strand of medical research is concerned with 4P medicine, i.e. Predictive, Preventive, Personalised and Participatory. Particular matters that are currently attracting a lot of attention include the relationship between health and the gut biome, and the role of vitamin D3.

 

Additional links





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