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The fountain of youth

In the mythical land of Bimini, the indigenous populations of the Caribbean sought the fountain of youth, an idea which has intrigued and captivated peoples around the world and throughout history. Beginning with Herodontus, carried in the hopes and dreams of the conquistadors and persisting into 19th Century literature, the fountain of youth has been a metaphor for increased longevity and vitality. This was not a trivial quest. Over the centuries, mankind has had to come to terms with the nastiness, the brutishness and the shortness of life. Within living memory in the UK, generations have experienced virulent infections, high childhood mortality and longevity of not much more than 50 years. It is only now that society sees a reversal of its fortunes with healthy life expectancy increasing and longevity showing no signs of abatement.

For many, 60 is truly the new 40 and increasingly the benefits of a healthy third age are becoming an accepted reality. But there are many others, some 12 million in the UK, who are plagued with long term chronic illness. And there are equal numbers who either do not know how or who do not have the means to secure a healthy future.

Over the last 40 years, notably since the establishment of a strategic programme of ageing research in the USA, science has slowly revealed the secrets of ageing. The myths of ageing are slowly being dispelled: our lifespan is not determined at birth; ageing does not begin when we retire but from 11 years of age; its process is ongoing throughout life and marvel upon marvel, we may influence it and slow it down. And if we can slow it down, we can remain healthy for longer.

This therefore begs the question: what does science tell us about slowing down ageing, about remaining healthy and about retaining a productive and quality older age? Age UK has worked with leading scientists and physicians to distil their accumulated wisdom into advice which is accessible and clear. We call it our top ten tips – ten pieces of precious advice which if followed will translate into a happier and healthier life. Re-iterated here, they are:

  • Take regular exercise

  • Engage socially with others

  • Have a positive attitude about ageing

  • Eat a healthy diet

  • Protect your eyes

  • Don’t smoke

  • Get regular health check-ups

  • Avoid excessive sun exposure

  • Get sufficient, good quality sleep

  • Pay attention to your pension and get expert financial advice.

Some of this advice may appear no better than what grandma said. But grandma said lots of things and not all of them were true. And some of the details of the advice may be surprising to many people. I would focus on just two, by way of illustration. The research evidence for thinking positively about ageing is remarkable. Our beliefs and attitude influence our health – and we can control our beliefs. So much so that thinking positively can put, on average, 7.5 extra healthy years on our life. Another example would be sleep. Science has shown that poor quality sleep dramatically affects our health and our risk of disease; it is directly related to increased risks of diabetes type 2, a killer disease and it raises the levels of inflammation in the body, accelerating the ageing process. These two examples are but part of a paradigm, a new way of thinking, a discipline of ageing. We can control it, we can slow it down and we can reap what our forebears would say is a sprinkling, if not a veritable fountain of youth.

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