This is a summary of our Magnificent Midlife Podcast interview with Susan Saunders, co-author of the best-selling book, The Age-Well Project and author of her latest book, The Age-Well Plan, a blue-print for aging well. You can listen to the full interview here.
1. Starting with a purpose: why do you want to age well?
It’s all about planning. It’s about making time and setting an intention for aging well. We start by working out our sense of purpose and why we want to age well, because once you have an understanding of why you’re doing this, it’s easier to stay on track.
It’s one thing thinking, I should probably eat more vegetables, it’s another thing if you’ve really thought through what this is for you. What do you want to get out of it? Our purpose drives us to create a satisfying future and helps us get the most from what we achieve. Actually having a sense of purpose itself helps us age well.
A study published a couple of years ago found that people who had the strongest sense of purpose, something that got them up in the morning, had decreased mortality rates and better heart health. A sense of purpose doesn’t just keep us on track, it actually helps us to age well itself.
If you start from the basis of wanting good health, we make everything so much better.
2. Getting the right nutrition
If you’re eating well to age well, that’s the foundation and what you can build on. Everything else can flow from that. People get so het up about grams of protein or carbohydrate, or you’ve got to be keto, or vegan, because if you’re not, you’ll age really badly. I find that quite frustrating because I don’t think the evidence for those things is quite compelling enough.
You might have a specific condition that means a very, very low carb diet is better for you or you might have ethical reasons to be vegan. For most of us, the answer is somewhere in between making sure that we eat a lot of plants, vegetables, (half our plate should be vegetables) healthy fats, whole grains, and keeping our diets low in sugar as opposed to really ultra-low in carbs but getting fibre and nutrients that we need from carbohydrate. Oily fish is also really important for aging and brain health.
It’s not like there’s a strict diet. Diets are like being in prison. As soon as you’re released, it’s really difficult to go straight and you lose your parameters. What’s really important is when you’re thinking about aging well and thinking about what your future is going to be like, create a way of eating that works for you that will help you age well. You don’t need to follow a very strict and exact diet.
One really key thing is to make sure that you get enough fibre. There was a study done in Australia which looked at successful agers, people going into the later stages of life with the lowest incidence of chronic health conditions, illness, brain issues etc . The ones who were eating the most fibre were the most successful agers. They have the lowest incidence of chronic conditions, illness, brain issues, etc. We should be looking to get 25 to 30 grams of fibre a day. We get fibre from starchy whole wheat carbohydrates, fruits and vegetable. Traditional grains are good sources too, such as:
- Pearl barley
Fibre is so good because our gut microbiota ferment it. What comes from that fermentation process are short chain fatty acids, which are really important for brain health. They’re also really important in terms of mood so it’s not just about aging; it’s about how we feel today. They help dampen inflammation which builds up in our bodies as we get older. The number one thing we want to do is reduce that low grade chronic inflammation which makes our bodies less efficient.
Grains, oats, beans, lentils, onions, leaks are all really good for us. Really humble foods. We don’t need really expensive super foods. Sardines are brilliant too and they’re so cheap. They are one of our favorite age well foods, and they’re packed with fatty acids which are so important for our brains. If you buy the really cheap ones with the bones in, you’re eating calcium to feed your own bones too. They can be the basis of great easy lunches – greens, beans and sardines.
The dirty dozen and the clean 15
In the UK, the government sets maximum residue levels on individual pesticides but doesn’t on the way that they add up. So you can have almost maximum residue levels on multiple pesticides in a food and it still passes government regulations.
Some foods just have six or seven different pesticides in them. Washing isn’t enough. These pesticides are systemic. They’re grown right into the fruit or vegetable. We have to be aware that things like pears and grapefruits have multiple different pesticide residues in them. Buying organic pears, citrus and strawberries is really worth doing. Other fruit and vegetables have very low levels of pesticides, such as beetroot and leeks, so you don’t need to worry about buying those organic.
Rice that’s imported into the UK, for example, tends to have lots of pesticides in it so best to buy organic if you can.
3. The importance of movement
It’s not rocket science to say that we need to keep moving or get moving. Exercising means we age better. You don’t have to do that much. It’s really just about getting breathless and stressing our bodies in a good way.
Work stress is chronic stress and is bad for us, but stressing our bodies by pushing them to exercise a little harder than we might think is enough. Just pushing ourselves a little bit further pushes our body into repair mode and that is exactly what we need as we get older.
We’re aging at a cellular level. It’s not just wrinkles and gray hair. It is every cell in our body that is going through this process of aging. We want to push our bodies into repair mode. One of the things that does that is exercising and just exercising a little with a little more intensity than we would do normally. So think about how you can go a little bit harder, get a bit more breathless. HIIT training is very effective. Helping to keep our telomeres (the caps at the end of each strand of DNA that protect our chromosomes and shorten as we age) long and healthy.
Women who fidget use as many calories and have as many health benefits as women who are exercising and then just stopping. We are so sedentary these days. Just keep moving, whatever it is that will keep you moving. Stand on one leg when you’re brushing your teeth to help your balance. Exercise doesn’t have to be a big expensive thing. Just find space for movement in your life.
4. The importance of prioritizing sleep
As we get to midlife, sleeping just becomes very elusive, and it becomes elusive at the time we need it most. When we go into deep sleep, our brains go into this incredible cleaning program. When we’re in deep sleep, our brains shrink by up to 60%. The microglia, which are a type of immune cell, literally come out and sweep between the brain cells to get rid of all the accumulated toxins, which can build up into amyloid that then becomes plaques as part of the whole Alzheimer’s process. Our brains have a system where that can all be cleaned out. That only happens in deep sleep.
We have to do what we can to maximize our sleep. Sleeping well starts in the morning. It’s getting daylight in the morning and getting the strong blue light that we need that sets our circadian rhythms, that tells us it’s morning now and we’re going to literally start the clock.
Setting our clocks off is really important. As we get into midlife and beyond, our body starts to create a second circadian clock which kind of knocks the first out, which is really unhelpful and that’s why our sleep patterns go awry. But if we can anchor our clocks as much as possible in the morning then we can wind down to bed much more easily.
Setting an alarm in the evening to remind you that bedtime is coming soon is also very helpful. We need a sleep routine more as we get older and regular patterns of sleep behaviour so you’re going to bed and getting up at roughly the same time every day.
5. Understanding how to be
This is about acknowledging that aging well isn’t just physical. A lot of it comes down to how we are in the world, our engagement, staying positive about aging, and interaction. Social interaction makes a huge difference to how we age. It’s very important that we don’t lose track of that.
We’re social animals. We developed to work as a tribe. You can see in our brains that positive interaction has a positive impact on our brain health. The amygdala is the area of our brain that processes memory, and is stimulated by the company of others. We are hardwired to get a feeling of safety by being with our tribe.
One of the ways we can get the positives that we get from interaction without having to interact is to feel gratitude, to express gratitude. We can do that with our families around the table, talking about things that we feel grateful for that happened during the day, or just when we’re out doing our morning walk getting all that blue light first thing in the morning, looking at nice things, positive things, and noticing them with intention. Consciously doing that locks it into our brains and has a very positive effect.
Meditation is also so powerful. Not only does it just make us feel better, because you’re calmer and more in control of your thoughts, but also it has been found to have an impact on how we age at a cellular level. Long-term meditators have longer telomeres which is extraordinary.
6. Thinking about how you live
Our homes aren’t always quite the safe havens that we hope they will be. We can sometimes find ourselves in a kind of toxic combination of chemicals at home, because we’ve got air coming in from outside which can be polluted. And inside our homes, if we’re burning fuels or candles, if we have emissions from building materials, soft furnishings, and our household cleaning products, they all build up and it’s just something to be conscious of. On a daily basis, we spray chemicals all around our homes.
We need to be aware of the number of chemicals we’re exposed to on a daily basis. None of us really know what our threshold is, and how we’re going to be impacted by this cocktail of chemicals that we were exposed to. We’re all different and what affects you might not affect me, or vice versa.
We know that exposure to pollution increases dementia risk. We know that heavy exposure to cleaning products increases the risk of lung health issues. It’s just something to be aware of.
The most important thing is to believe that you can change the way you age. Aging well is not set in stone. It doesn’t take a lot, but if you believe you can make a change, you will.
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