We all aspire to a long and healthy life, to give us time to do all the things that we have planned. We want to see children grow up, to travel the world, to spend time relaxing when we no longer have to work. What can we do to increase our chances of seeing more birthdays?
Life expectancy in the developed world has increased dramatically in recent years. As well as advances in health care, the huge reduction in infant and child mortality has meant that the average British male can now hope to celebrate his 77th birthday. His wife or sister has a reasonable chance of blowing out eighty-one candles on her cake.
Hopes are even higher in other countries. The accredited ‘oldest man in the world’ died recently in Japan at the age of 116, frail but still mentally active. He believed that his long life was due to eating small portions of food, and to a positive attitude. Other super-centenarians have cited everything from regular consumption of bacon to a daily glass of gin as being the secret of a long life.
Our expectations of how long we should live have also changed. ‘Premature death’ now seems to be defined as any death under the age of 75 – it is only a few decades since that age would have been considered exceptional.
Longevity is of course mostly a matter of luck and statistics – the figures are averaged over the whole population so there are no guarantees for any of us. Genetics and family history also play a huge part, although modern medical advances have helped here. Sadly we also need to consider the other side of a long life – losing friends and family, worsening health and possible serious impairment. Most people would decide that living longer is better than the alternative – so what can we do to improve our odds?
In the modern world there are five major aspects to a healthy lifestyle, and all of them are in our control.
Smoking – we’ve all heard the stories of Grandpa such-and-such or Auntie So-and-So who smoked thirty a day and lived to see their nineties. They were the lucky ones – most people also know someone who has contracted cancer or has severe breathing problems due to smoking.
Years of research have proved conclusively that there is no better way to shorten your life than to take up smoking. Tobacco use greatly increases the likelihood of cancer, has terrible effects on lungs and heart, damages the immune system and is also implicated in a host of other diseases. ‘Workarounds’ such as cigar smoking, shisha pipes or chewing tobacco are equally unhealthy. E-cigarettes are also still controversial and are not guaranteed to be risk-free. Nicotine is very addictive, which is why it is so difficult to stop smoking. There is no doubt that giving up is the best thing you can do to improve your health and your life expectancy.
Alcohol – surprisingly this one is rather less clear-cut. There is no doubt that excessive alcohol consumption damages the liver and circulatory system, and alcohol ‘binges’ can kill even more quickly. However there is evidence that a small amount of alcohol can be beneficial. Guidelines vary, but experts seem to agree that giving your body a rest from alcohol for a day or two a week is good.
Obesity – There is no doubt that being obese is a major contributor to poor health and earlier death. We are continually bombarded with images and messages about diet and weight, but some of these are inaccurate. Most of us know what the healthy weight range is for our height and build, and an honest look in the mirror will tell us if something needs to be done. That doesn’t mean that food has to become a chore – it just means a little portion control, a balanced diet and perhaps some research on new recipes. Eating healthily should mean more enjoyable food – after a while you will wonder why you ever ate junk!
It is important not to become obsessive about food – no-one enjoys the company of a diet bore. So if you are going for a meal out, relax the rules for a day, it won’t hurt!
Exercise – we all know that we need to move around. A workout in the gym, a swim, a run or a brisk walk are all easy ways to know that you are getting the two-and-a-half hours of moderate exercise that everyone needs each week. There are plenty of other ways to fit in activity – mow the lawn, do the housework, walk the dog or simply park further from your destination and walk the extra distance.
Attitude – this is the final pillar to increasing your chances of a longer and healthier life. Stress and depression have real physical effects and should not be ignored. On an everyday basis, if you have to do things that you don’t particularly enjoy, being miserable about them will not make them go away. Each day only passes us once – we might as well try to enjoy what happens.
There is a fair degree of cynicism on this subject. Some say that we are here ‘for a good time, not a long time’ – but the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Others comment that living a healthy lifestyle may not actually make you live longer - it will just seem to be longer! With the exception of smoking, there really is no need to give up anything that you enjoy in the pursuit of a longer life.
Finally, remember the greatest risks to long life in the UK and take appropriate action. That means driving carefully and looking both ways before crossing the road!
by Kath Webb
by Laura Briggs
by Kath Webb
by Kath Webb
by Jessica Ambrose