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Healthy aging: Putting life in your years

Advice for staying as healthy as possible as we age.

We can't stop aging but we can slow it down depending on what we eat, how active we are and whether we have any disease. The American Institute for Cancer Research says that 30-40% of cancers can be prevented through diet, activity and weight control.

As we age we lose muscle and fat from the places we like it and gain fat where don't want it; scratches take longer to heal, we get more aches and pains, everyone speaks far too quietly and food just doesn't taste the same. Then there are social changes: grief from losing loved ones to death or disease; loneliness; being stuck at home because we can't drive any more; and financial struggles.

Such things change how we cook and eat. Sometimes it's just too hard to cook a meal of meat and vegetables. A quick pop of the toaster and a nice cup of tea is much easier. But it's never too late to make changes – to your eating, activity or attitude. And these changes can delay and sometimes reverse many of these problems associated with aging.

As we age we lose our sensitivity to thirst. On top of not feeling thirsty, we may drink less to avoid embarrassing moments of incontinence. This drying out of the body can lead to headaches, constipation and more concentrated (even toxic) medication levels.

It's important to drink fluids even when you don't feel thirsty, especially in hot weather. With some medication, the doctor may tell you to restrict fluids but for everyone else it's good to drink enough to keep your urine clear – about eight cups of fluid a day. That can be water, tea – black, green or herbal – juice, or even coffee. You might like to fill a two litre jug with water, add sliced lemon and ice, and drink it slowly over the day to ensure they're getting enough.

Fruit juice is good for people who need to gain weight or have no appetite. A glass of unsweetened juice has about three teaspoons of sugar (mostly from the fruit) along with vitamins and antioxidants, depending on the variety.

Too much coffee or alcohol causes dehydration. However, a recent study of almost 6,000 people aged over 65 found that those who had 7-10 alcoholic drinks a week (not all in one session!) had a third less risk of heart failure compared with abstainers. Perhaps it is the relaxing effect of a glass of wine with a meal each night.

At an age when our sense of taste and smell isn't so great, a glass of wine with dinner may be just what we need to enjoy our meal. It also encourages us to sit down to a 'proper' meal – wine just doesn't go well with tea and toast!

The taste receptors in our mouths take longer to renew themselves as we age and food may start to taste bland. To add some flavour, it's tempting to add extra sugar or salt. Sometimes it's just a habit to shake the salt shaker for a certain time without even tasting the food. Too much salt speeds up calcium loss from the bones, sends up blood pressure and makes us more prone to dehydration. Try using more herbs and spices for both flavour and a few extra antioxidants.

Some medications, pain, depression, mild zinc deficiency, poor oral hygiene, gum disease and poorly fitting dentures can all make eating more of a chore than a pleasure. Try these ideas to help:

  • Go for a pre-meal walk to stimulate appetite.
  • Set the table attractively and make mealtime a social time, where possible.
  • Eat small, frequent meals and have plenty to drink (but go easy on the alcohol).
  • Eat a variety of foods with lots of colour (from vegetables, not artificial colours) and try different textures – crispy roast veges and salad with a casserole rather than sloppy mashed potato.
  • Stimulate your taste buds by eating individual foods rather than piling them all on your fork for one uniform taste. Choose foods low in fat, salt and sugar.
  • Chew food well – just like your mother told you! It extracts more flavour.

As our activity slows with age, we need less food but just as many nutrients – sometimes more. And remember, things change; the low-fat diet you had when you were fat and 50 probably won't suit when you are frail and 80.

Food and exercise are just part of healthy aging. Our interaction with others and how we feel about life also affects health. As the proverb goes: 'A heart at peace gives life to the body.'

Fruit and vegetables may boost your immune system but so does being happily married. On the other hand, if your wife or husband has just died, all the fruit and veges in the world won't stop the grief, loneliness and resulting stress on the body.

A British study of people over 65 found that those who were single, divorced or widowed had lower antibodies than those who were happily married. The UCLA School of Medicine found that people had a stronger immune system when they had more social contacts. Perhaps the most effective strategy for healthy aging is getting out of the house! Join a club, get involved with your marae, volunteer to help in the community or invite friends and neighbours for dinner.

If you can't cook, eat out (and bring the leftovers home), buy takeaways or make it 'pot-luck' where the guests bring food. If you have older friends or neighbours, invite them for a meal – not just for the food but for the social contact. And try to have a laugh – it boosts the immune system. One author, himself in his 80s, told some nursing home residents, "If you can't find anything to laugh about, take all your clothes off and look in the mirror. That should keep you laughing all day!"

Like a good wine or cheese, in many ways we improve with age. Youth may bring vim and vigour but with maturity comes depth and wisdom. Healthy aging is all about feeding and exercising our body, mind and spirit with the nutrients it needs – from food, social contact, learning new things, laughter and thinking outwards. As Abraham Lincoln once said, "It's not the years in your life that counts. It's the life in your years."