How healthy is your body? As the years roll by, everything from our heart and joints to our brain and gut microbiome is vulnerable to wear and tear and the cumulative effects of poor diet and exercise choices.
The result is that we are increasingly at risk of illness and disease that can seriously threaten our longevity.
Thankfully, there is much we can do to age-proof our bodies and provide protection from midlife onwards. Here are the steps to take:
Although the biggest risk factor for dementia is age, the condition is not an inevitable part of ageing. Certainly, diet plays a role and the more fruit and vegetables you can consume, the better according to scientists from Harvard University who found that people with the highest intake of flavones and anthocyanins — powerful antioxidant plant compounds — from these foods were 19% less likely to report confusion and forgetfulness as they aged.
“Polyphenols are compounds found in plants and help maintain cognitive function,” says Dublin-based dietician Aveen Bannon.
“All fruit and vegetables contain them but dark-coloured fruits like blueberries, red grapes and blackberries are particularly good sources.”
Among the foods that topped the list in the Harvard study were berries, spinach, and onions. With about 180mg of total flavonoids per 100g serving, strawberries were ranked as one of the best brain-boosting foods, with cherries, apples and pears also high scorers.
The Harvard team said that eating a single pear or half an apple a day made a positive difference in cognition when consumed in addition to other flavonoid-rich foods.
Blueberries, providing 164mg of beneficial anthocyanins per 100g, are another potent brain booster.
Blueberries, providing 164mg of beneficial anthocyanins per 100g, are another potent brain booster. Drinking 30ml of blueberry juice (the equivalent of 230g of blueberries) every day for 12 weeks was shown by nutritionists at the University of Exeter to improve cognitive function in a group of healthy 65- to 77-year-olds compared with those who drank a placebo product.
Generally, the less processed a food is the better. While two heaped tablespoons of cooked spinach a day helped to prevent mental decline in older adults, eating spinach raw in a salad maximised the effect by increasing flavonoid intake, the Harvard researchers found.
“Omega-3 fatty acids are also something to look at for heart health,” says Bannon.
“DHA, which is an omega-3 fat is an important component of neuronal membranes, and EPA and DHA are thought to enhance neural function.” Omega-3s are found in oily fish, walnuts, chia seeds, linseed and flaxseed.
Researchers recently studied data on 88,000 middle-aged adults and found that those who exercised more vigorously to the point of breathing hard each week had lower rates of heart attacks, strokes, and heart disease over the next seven years.
Almost 9,000 lives a year are lost to heart disease, according to the Irish Heart Association (IHA).
There are many risk factors for heart disease and poor cardiovascular health, including physical inactivity and poor diet, but the IHA says that 90% of them can be controlled and that setting measures in place to protect your heart is key. Your first step should be to walk daily and at as brisk a pace as possible.
Researchers recently studied data on 88,000 middle-aged adults and found that those who exercised more vigorously to the point of breathing hard each week — that included walking at a brisk pace of at least 100 steps per minute — had lower rates of heart attacks, strokes, and heart disease over the next seven years. Increasing the amount of time spent doing vigorous exercise by 20% each week slashed their heart disease risk by 23%.
Consuming heart-friendly foods is also helpful. “A Mediterranean style diet rich in fruit, vegetables, oily fish, and wholegrains has been shown to reduce risk of heart disease,” says Bannon.
“More recently scientists have shown that a Nordic diet with lots of fish, berries, wholegrains and nuts can reduce the risk.”
Broccoli is one of the best foods for joint protection
Feeling more stiff and achy as you get older? According to a report by the HSE’s Get Ireland Active campaign, more than 400,000 people in Ireland are affected by osteoarthritis, mostly a result of damage to cartilage, the smooth, rubbery layer that covers the ends of bones, and often due to wear and tear as we get older. It typically causes pain and discomfort in the knees, hips, hands, and spine joints.
Bannon says several studies have shown how a diet high in sugar and fat has been shown to make joint inflammation worse.
“And no supplement will replace a processed diet,” she says.
Professor Ian Clark, a molecular cell biologist at the University of East Anglia, believes that broccoli is one of the best foods for joint protection. It contains sulforaphane, a naturally occurring compound that Clark has shown helps slow down cartilage destruction in joints with early signs of osteoarthritis.
According to the Irish Osteoporosis Society, one in four men and one in two women over 50 will fracture a bone as a result of osteoporosis so keeping bones strong is key.
The skeleton relies on physical activity — and a bone-friendly diet — to stay healthy.
Daily walking can help to boost bone density. Even better is to add resistance workouts — such as lifting weights — and high-impact weight-bearing activity — running, jumping, skipping. Both forms of exercise provide forces that pull down on the skeleton to strengthen it.
According to the authors of a paper published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine on the subject last year, weight training at least twice a week, lifting progressively heavier weights, is something we should all do to protect our bones.
Diet goes hand in hand with exercise for bone health.
Adults need 700mg a day of calcium, says Bannon.
While dairy is a convenient source (700mg of calcium is equivalent to about three servings of dairy or a small pot of yogurt plus milk on cereal and about 30g of cheese), she says there are other sources.
Almonds are a great source of calcium
Almonds, sesame seeds, pulses, fortified soya and nut drinks also have high calcium levels.
“Magnesium, phosphorous, protein, potassium, vitamin D and K are all important for bone health and so we need a varied and healthy balanced diet for bones,” Bannon says.
Prunes are a surprising bone-friendly food as they contain minerals, vitamin K, phenolic compounds and dietary fibre which combine to boost bone health — eating five to 10 a day was shown in a study to increase bone density in women.
As we age, the number and variety of beneficial bacteria we harbour in our gut microbiome — a vast population of bacteria, fungi and yeasts that inhabit our intestines — that’s crucial for health — slowly declines.
It follows that boosting the health of your microbiome can be important for age-proofing the body, including warding off stress which is associated with higher risk of disease.
Researchers at the APC Microbiome Ireland recently showed how eating more fruit and vegetables high in prebiotic fibres, grains, and legumes as well as fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kefir, or kombucha for four weeks produced significant changes in levels of 40 brain and body chemicals that can influence stress as well as producing subtle changes in microbial composition and function.
“Using microbiota-targeted diets to positively modulate gut-brain communication holds possibilities for the reduction of stress and stress-associated disorders,” says Professor John Cryan, vice president for research & innovation at APC Microbiome Ireland.
Last month, researchers at the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care in Canada also reported how the gut microbiome is thought to play a role in brain health and dementia risk, while another group of researchers recently confirmed a distinct overlap between deterioration in gut health and a rise in age-related disease.
Most adults don’t consume enough fibre and rectifying that is perhaps the critical step we can take for long-term gut health.
“It is estimated that 80% of Irish people are not eating enough fibre,” Bannon says.
“Ideally, we should aim for 25-35g per day.” High-fibre foods, such as wholegrains, pulses, nuts and seeds, fruit and vegetables, are bulky and fill you up but also work wonders on the microbiome, Bannon says.
Our hearing deteriorates as we get older but is exacerbated by exposure to loud noises and can also be caused by hereditary and autoimmune conditions.
Around 40% of people aged 50 plus (71% of those over 70) experience some hearing loss.
“A regular annual hearing test over the age of 40 is important to keep tabs on deterioration,” says Gordon Harrison, Specsavers’ chief audiologist.
“If you notice sudden or gradual hearing loss, you should get a test as soon as you can.”
Walking, running, and cycling are all forms of aerobic exercise that boost body circulation and increase the supply of nutrients to the ears and ear canals to help preserve hearing.
When researchers from Bellarmine University tracked the aerobic fitness levels and hearing ability of 1,082 female participants aged 20-49 years, women with better cardio fitness levels were six per cent more likely to have good hearing than those who were unfit.
Psychologists at Curtin University found people who meditated daily for 15 minutes on at least four days a week had enhanced hearing skills
Meditation has been shown to improve blood flow to the brain and within the ears to help preserve hearing.
According to psychologists at Curtin University in Australia, people who meditated daily for 15 minutes on at least four days a week had enhanced hearing skills and “greater sensitivity to sounds” compared to non-meditators.
Age-related macular degeneration (AMD), which causes progressive deterioration of the central area of the retina, is a leading cause of sight loss.
Figures from the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing indicate that 7.2% of all people over 50 have AMD, accounting for 25% of all blind registration in Ireland.
A daily orange is a good idea as flavonoids specific to the fruit appear to help to protect against eye disease.
In an Australian study of 3,000 people tracked over 15 years, those who ate at least one serving of oranges daily had more than a 60% reduced risk of developing AMD, a level of protection not seen from other common flavonoid-rich foods such as tea and apples.
“Even eating an orange once a week seems to offer significant benefits,” wrote the researchers at the University of Sydney.