Simple steps to a healthier old age
Tuesday 13 June 2009
The average life expectancy in UK today is about 80 years, which is 10 years older than it was in 1959. If trends continue, by 2060 people can expect to be living a further 10 years longer but, for many, the prospect of living to the age of 90, with the accompanying deterioration in physical and mental health, is not a happy one. However, latest research, presented by eminent scientists at the British Nutrition Foundation’s (BNF) Healthy Ageing conference in London today, shows that a few simple dietary and lifestyle changes can help people delay or avoid the onset of many illnesses and diseases associated with ageing and vastly improve their quality of life as they age*.
“Illness in old age often leads to incapacity which can result in isolation and depression - not a happy prospect for anyone,” says Professor John Mathers (Newcastle University), Chair of the Healthy Ageing Task Force. “Yet there are simple things that everyone can do to help safeguard their health and to ensure that their later years are happy and fulfilled. “
Research presented at the conference shows what people eat and how active they are have a real impact on mental and physical health and the BNF is urging people to take steps now to help ensure they don’t spend their later years incapacitated by frailty and unnecessary illness. “People who put this advice into practice throughout life will undoubtedly reap the most benefits but it’s never too late to make changes and to look forward to a healthier old age,” adds Professor Mathers.
Research shows that nutrition and physical activity together play an important role in keeping the body’s systems healthy and protecting them from disease. The BNF says that adopting dietary patterns that provide appropriate amounts of key nutrients early in life will have a positive impact on long-term health and wellbeing.
One in 8 people aged over 75 years suffers from severe vision impairment. According to the BNF, lutein and zeaxanthin found in some fruits and vegetables may help protect against poor eye health in later life. So, regularly eating foods like Kiwi fruit, grapes, spinach and broccoli is a good idea.
Around one in 20 people over the age of 65 suffers from severe cognitive impairment or dementia. Folate found in leafy vegetables, some fruits (for example oranges) and fortified breakfast cereals (as folic acid), vitamin B12 found in fish, meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products and long chain omega-3 fatty acids found in oily fish are good for the brain, and should help to keep people’s minds alert and agile as they age.
Osteoporosis affects an estimated one in three women and one in 12 men over the age of 55. Calcium (found particularly in milk, yogurt and cheese) is very important for the protection of bone health, as are vitamin D (found in eggs, oily fish, margarine) and vitamin K (found in dark green leafy vegetables and some fruits). Vitamin D is also made in skin exposed to sunlight but in the UK, we make no vitamin D from sunlight during the months of October to March due to the reduced angle of the sun. Older people and women who cover their skin for cultural reasons are particularly prone to vitamin D deficiency.
Coronary heart disease accounts for around 94,000 deaths in the UK each year. According to the BNF, long chain omega 3 fatty acids found in oily fish; ‘healthier’ fats like vegetable oils and low fat spreads; foods rich in soluble fibre such as oats, peas, beans, some fruits and vegetables; foods rich in folate and vitamin B12; and sources of potassium such as root vegetables and fruits like peaches and bananas, are all features of a heart-healthy diet. Other foods that have been shown to be beneficial include wholegrain foods, nuts, soya and mycoprotein products, and foods with added plant sterols and stanols.
Research also shows that staying physically active is vital to maintaining health in later years. Weight bearing exercise is important for keeping bones healthy but all forms of activity – walking, gardening, dancing - helps reduce the risk of diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers. It also helps to keep the brain working well.
“Physical activity is important for preserving muscles and joints,” adds Professor Judy Buttriss, Director General of the BNF, “this allows older people to maintain their mobility and independence, and so has a knock-on effect on quality of life. A 30 minute brisk walk each day will help to keep the body and mind working efficiently.”
The BNF also makes recommendations for the protection of muscle health, the gut and other body systems by the inclusion of foods rich in nutrients such as vitamin C, beta-carotene, vitamin E and protein.
Future planning; future proofing
“The Task Force’s work has highlighted that making good food and physical activity choices can all vastly improve our chances of staying healthy and active for longer,” says Professor Judy Buttriss. “So, to help people put our advice into practice we’ve developed a simple chart, showing which foods impact on particular aspects of the body.” The BNF’s ‘Live long and healthily’ chart is available at www.nutrition.org.uk/healthyageing
For people who think that taking supplements is the easy answer, Professor Paul Dieppe of the University of Oxford has a few words of caution: “there is a lack of evidence to support a beneficial effect from many popular supplements. People should look to get the nutrients they need to keep themselves healthy from the foods they eat. Supplements can’t replace the benefits of a healthy, balanced diet.”
The BNF report emphasises that we need to plan ahead for the future, both as individuals and as a nation, and take responsibility for our own lifestyle habits and those of our children, to help ensure a bright physical and mental future.
National health promotion programmes, provision of information, and appropriate targeting and application of health services are also needed to ensure that we are well equipped with the information and support we need to make lifestyle changes. “Many people already live for 20 years or more after retirement and 20 years from now, a quarter of the UK population will be ‘elderly’. So, urgent action is needed now to help ensure we all enjoy better physical and mental health, making those extra years we have ahead of us something to look forward to, rather than dread”, says Professor Judy Buttriss.
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Notes to Editors:
British Nutrition Foundation
1. For further information see www.nutrition.org.uk/healthyageing .
2. These comments are highlights from the recommendations published in the new British Nutrition Foundation Task Force Report Healthy Ageing: The Role of Nutrition and Lifestyle. The report is being launched at a conference in Holborn, London on 13th January 2009.
4. The British Nutrition Foundation is a registered charity. It promotes the wellbeing of society through the impartial interpretation and effective dissemination of scientifically based knowledge and advice on the relationship between diet, physical activity and health. For further information: www.nutrition.org.uk
Context and statistics*
1. Life expectancy has for some decades been increasing by 2-3y per decade as infectious disease and infant mortality have been checked and death rates from chronic disease reduced. For example, death rates from coronary heart disease have been falling for the past 30 years and, over the past 10 years, fell by 44% in those under the age of 65. 70% of all cardiovascular deaths now occur after the age of 75. But many of these extra years are spent in ill health – healthy life expectancy has not been increasing at the same rate as total life expectancy. By 2030 a quarter of the UK population will be ‘elderly’ and health care costs are projected to escalate out of control.
2. But improvements in life expectancy may well be offset by the obesity epidemic and the ill health it brings, unless obesity trends are reversed: obesity in UK adults aged 16-64 increased by over 50% in the past decade; by 2010, 33% men and 30% of women will be obese and a further 42% of men and 30% of women will be overweight; Foresight has estimated that by 2050, 60% of men and 50% of women will be obese. Around a third of children are already heavier than they should be and 1 in 5 children is obese.
3. The Government’s Change4Life campaign emphasises that by age 11, a third of UK children are either overweight or obese and, by 2050, this will have risen to 90% unless something is done now. Yet only 6% of people in Britain recognise the link between obesity and poor health.
4. Obesity increases the risk of (type 2) diabetes (which is already now being seen in children). It is estimated that as many as 2.5 million people in the UK already have type 2 diabetes and this is estimated to rise to around 3 million by 2010. This form of diabetes increases the risk of coronary heart disease by 2-4 fold in men and 3-5 fold in women.
5. Yet the sort of advice advocated in BNF’s report – sensible eating combined with regular physical activity – can reduce the development of type 2 diabetes in high risk individuals by almost 60%. Aspects of the same type of approach can also benefit most organ systems in the body and help minimise disease and loss of function, such as gastrointestinal problems, cognitive decline, osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, muscle loss and associated falls as we age, and even eye disorders and immune function.
© British Nutrition Foundation 2009
Last reviewed July 2009. Next review due December 2013.
- © British Nutrition Foundation 2009