How can we stay healthy longer?

We’d probably all like to live long and healthy lives. But how feasible is this? And what can we do to stay healthy longer? 

There are two main risks to our health as we get older: 

  • Lifestyle diseases are associated with physical inactivity, overeating, smoking and alcohol misuse. These diseases increase the risk of heart attack, stroke, cancer and diabetes.
  • Age-related illnesses or disabilities – as we live longer, we are more likely to suffer from illnesses such as dementia and arthritis, and from disabilities such as sight and hearing loss.

Lifestyle diseases

What can we do to reduce the risk to our health of lifestyle diseases? 

As we report in another article on Age Watch, a healthy lifestyle includes changing the way we choose to live.

Exercise regularly (which includes dance)

Exercise is good for both physical health and mental health. 

Change to a healthier diet

Eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, oily fish such as salmon, sardines and mackerel, lean white meat such as skinless chicken and pork with the fat removed, oats, olive oil and nuts. 

Avoid sugary, salty and fatty processed foods

These foods include cakes, sweets and sugary drinks, many types of snacks, and processed meats and cheeses. 

Social networking and activity

Loneliness and a lack of contact with other people can be a risk to both our physical and to our mental health. 

Help others and do paid or voluntary work you enjoy

Helping other people and doing work which is valued by others seems to have health benefits. 

Stay mentally active and continue to learn and do new things

These activities seem to help the brain build a resilience against damage. This resilience, for instance, can delay the onset of dementia. 

Stop smoking and don’t drink too much alcohol

Studies of global health have shown that these habits are still major causes of ill health across the world. 

Are age-related illnesses and diseases inevitable? 

As we grow older the risks to our health increases. Our lifestyle choices, however, (mental as well as physical) can protect us against age-related illnesses and disease.

For example, the Alzheimer’s Society points out that physical activity, a healthy diet, not smoking, drinking less alcohol and being more mentally active all help reduce the risk of this most common form of dementia.

Similarly, positive lifestyle choices can help protect our senses as we age. For instance, glaucoma and macular degeneration (the leading cause of irreversible sight loss among the elderly) are two significant risks to our sight as we age.

Here are three examples of how we can lessen the risk of developing such eyesight problems:

Fork in road

Our lifestyle can influence our health, even when we are ill

For example, Macmillan Cancer Support encourages a healthy lifestyle as healthy lifestyle choices can help your body recover after treatment for cancer.

In particular they recommend stopping smoking, being more active, keeping to a healthy diet and to a healthy weight, consuming alcohol sensibly, and trying to reduce stress.

A healthy lifestyle can add healthy years to your life

By making the right lifestyle choices you can live a longer, healthier life.

  • A 2018 study of data from 123,219 US health professionals, collected over 34 years, found that a healthy lifestyle can increase adult life expectancy at the age of 50 by up to 12 years for women and up to 14 years for men. Healthy lifestyle choices can also substantially lower the risk of an early death.
  • A Swedish study found that even after the age of 75 a healthy/low-risk lifestyle could add five years to women’s lives and six years to men’s lives. 
  • Harvard University published some research in 2019 that showed a healthy/low-risk lifestyle delayed the onset of diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and cancer by an average of nearly 11 years for women and about 9 years for men. 

Government and businesses can also help

We now know that cheap fast foods and many kinds of processed foods often contain too much sugar, salt and fat. Any action by the government and by food companies and supermarkets to ensure that the food most readily and cheaply available is also healthy is likely to help. So too are their actions to limit access to cheap, high strength alcohol, as well as their continued actions to reduce smoking.

Many population studies have shown that social inequality results in health inequality, including poor health resulting from poor diets. For instance, people in London’s more affluent boroughs enjoy many more years of healthy life than people in less affluent boroughs.

Office for National Statistics figures published in the London Evening Standard in 2017 showed that men in Richmond upon Thames, an affluent borough of London, could expect to live an average of 69.9 years in good health, whereas the figure for the less affluent Borough of Barking and Dagenham was just 58.2 years. Similarly, women in Richmond upon Thames (affluent) can expect to live an average of 70 years in good health, compared with an average of just 55.6 years for women in Tower Hamlets (less affluent).

There is a continuing debate in the media about the difficulties of poorer families affording healthy food. Most comparisons between healthy and unhealthy food overestimate the price difference because the typical measure is ‘price per calorie’. In practice, unhealthy foods are often high in calories and low in nutrients (a lower price/calorie), whereas healthy foods tend to be lower in calories and higher in nutrients (a higher price/calorie). Such comparisons are therefore questionable in terms of the value of the food to consumers.

A systematic review by the Harvard School of Public Health, published in 2014, calculated that the extra cost of a healthy diet compared with an unhealthy diet was about $1.50 per person per day. This is about $2,200 a year for a family of four. For most families this might be affordable, but it could be beyond the budget of many others.

Conclusions 

  • Following a healthy lifestyle can help you live longer, with more years free of serious or disabling illness. 
  • Physical and mental activity, healthy food, a healthy weight, leisure activities, work you enjoy (paid or voluntary) and social networks can add years to your life and can also help you stay healthy for longer.
  • Smoking, too much alcohol, lack of exercise and unhealthy foods can take years off your life. Such lifestyle choices can mean that you spend more time with chronic illness and disability. 
  • Governments, food companies and supermarkets have a contribution to make, not least in ensuring that food is healthy and affordable. They can also continue their actions to limit smoking and alcohol abuse.

Reviewed and updated April 2020. Next review due March 2023.

The State of Ageing in 2019

Healthy Life Expectancy Calculator

Healthy Life Expectancy Calculator

Goldenson Centre for Actuarial Research

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