My neighbour Charles is 93. As I sit here at my dining table writing this blog post, I can hear him on his lawnmower taking care of his garden, his pride and joy. Almost every morning when I wake up and look out the window I can see him on his morning walk. He drives when he needs to, and until last year looked after his 95 year old wife, cooking for her and caring for her at the home they shared for over 30 years, half of the 60 years they were married. I often tell my husband when I see Charles, that the way he and his wife lived and the way he continues to live is my goal for us. He is fiercely independent and there is this quality in him that he emanates whenever we see him, and that is contentment.
I turned 45 last month and while I did go through a momentary emotional rollercoaster filled with a multitude of questions ("what am I doing with my life?", "am I a good mother?", "I haven't accomplished nearly as much as I wanted to by this point in my life..."), I realised that, after calming down (thank you tequila), none of those questions were about how I looked or the fear of getting older. I love being my age. I don't want to fight it nor do I want to change it. In fact, I would never want to be in my 20s or 30s again because that would mean negating everything that I have worked so hard to have. What I do want to be is the best version of myself physically and mentally. Yet at times, it feels like an uphill battle against a multibillion dollar mindset (both beauty and media) that doesn't see my advanced age as an advantage. Instead, if I was to believe the ads for beauty products, I need to "fight" any signs of ageing instead of enhancing and embracing what I already have.
Like anything in life, we first have to look at ourselves and what we are doing (or not doing) to create a healthy and positive outlook so as not to reinforce that noise that surrounds us. Susan Saunders who, along with her writing partner Annabel Abbs, launched The Age Well Project in 2014. It's a blog that looks into the ways we can live a healthier life by analysing the factors that contribute to age-related illnesses. The authors explore ways for us to incorporate practices into our daily routines to either lessen the chances of those illnesses eventually taking over or to fight them altogether. They write in their blog, “healthy ageing is about taking control of your life, preparing your mind and body for what should be the best years of your life. We don’t want to be younger!“
For Saunders, it was an acute realisation that something had to be done in her life if she was to change the course of the way she aged, for herself and her for her family. Her mother was diagnosed with severe dementia at the age of 76, an illness Saunders' grandmother also battled. Her mother's diagnosis came at a time when Saunders had a toddler and a newborn. She found herself "sandwiched" between looking after her children and her mother. She tells me, "my life was just sort of a constant car crash, a juggling act trying to keep everything going at the same time...I realised I was accumulating a lot of knowledge most people my age didn't have as they weren't in my situation." As a journalist (Saunders is a tv producer), her natural reaction was to do a lot of research into dementia, some of which were confusing and contradictory. It was hers and Abbs' goal to create a resource where the most compelling research into age-related illnesses as well as ways on how to age healthily could be found in one place. A resource to help educate and empower people into well, ageing well.
Perhaps one of the first lessons in approaching mid life that Saunders learned, and it's a lesson that women particularly learn, was that we tend to take care of everyone else around us, but not ourselves. She says, "I think we have to get past the idea that a lot of us have, that paying attention to our health is a vanity project and realise that the longterm benefits for our own health are so profound. And it's not just about us. We are all part of a family and also part of a community. We have to think about the impact (of our health) on the people we love and the people around us. Not to mention the national and global impact of having a lot of unhealthy older people is really now playing out in the NHS (National Healthcare Service) and social care is massive issue (in Britain). So we have to take responsibility for ourselves and look after ourselves."
Abbs and Saunders embarked on a five year research project where they were the subjects. They tried and tested various medical studies, underwent genetic testing, examined lifestyle changes, and then recorded back into the blog their findings. Everything from specific foods & recipes, to physical and mental practices that could reduce our risk to illnesses like Alzheimer's and Dementia are on the blog. Some of the biggest lessons are being published in their book The Age Well Project.
Building our own "health portrait", as Saunders describes it, is a way for us to know ourselves inside out. Literally. She says, "knowledge is power when it comes to anything so the more you now about your own body, the risk factors, what your parents, grandparents, great grandparents, great aunts and uncles died of, the more you can build a sense of what's going to get you. And you can react accordingly." She goes on to say, "ageing is an inevitability so what can we do to make it as positive, purposeful, and healthy as possible rather than saying (ageing) is a disease we've got to treat? Because as soon as you say (the latter), you take the responsibility away from people. They think 'it's just this thing that's going to happen to me and someone will have to treat me when the time comes'. And that's absolutely the opposite to what we're about which is to take responsibility for your health. You can very easily and simply make changes that will have a profound long term effect on how you age."
While we know that regular exercise, a healthy diet, limiting alcohol, and routine check ups are the common sense contributors to ageing with vitality, there are some others that although sound simple, often get overlooked. Saunders said, for her, there were two things that stood out as she learned about her lifestyle and what she could do to ensure a healthier journey into the future. They were: getting quality sleep and the impact that our gut has on our overall wellbeing. Both are intrinsically linked. Both are affected by each other and both have a domino affect on the way we physiologically age.
It is safe to say, and many studies conclude, that getting a good night's sleep is the first step in taking control of our health and in how we age. Everything from our immune system, cardiovascular health, blood sugar, weight, our cognitive abilities, our mental health, all depend on how we sleep. According to Healthy Sleep Texas, a clinic specialising in our slumber, "Sleep is a time when the body rests, rejuvenates, replenishes, and regenerates. Particularly in the second stage of sleep called Delta sleep, which accounts for approximately one-third of the night, hormone levels peak and at this point cell repair takes place. That means any damage that has been done to the skin that could contribute to premature ageing is repaired here. All stages of sleep are also responsible for dissolving free radicals – notorious for their contribution to early ageing." The clinic goes on to report, "the accelerated ageing associated with a lack of sleep goes beyond cosmetic changes. Not getting enough sleep can also increase your risk of contracting a range of diseases associated with ageing, such as diabetes and heart disease. The right quality and quantity of sleep trigger the production of human growth hormone, which builds muscle mass, thickens skin and strengthens bones."
Then there is our gut. Our gastrointestinal tract has often been described as our "second brain." We will feel it there when something isn't right both internally and externally. Its symbiotic relationship with the brain in our heads means our mental and emotional health are also affected by our gut and vice versa. What impact does the gut have on how we age? A study conducted at the University of Western Ontario found that "maintaining diversity of your gut as you age is a biomarker of healthy ageing, just like low-cholesterol is a biomarker of a healthy circulatory system." Basically, having a healthy digestive tract with balanced bacteria (85% probiotics--the good bacteria) has a multitude of benefits. According to Hyperbiotics, a company whose core belief is that "all health begins in the gut", outlines those benefits which include everything from protecting the health of our brain cells, memory and cognitive function to optimising our immune system, the health of our bones and giving us energy.
Sleep and taking care of our digestive tract are two ways where we can start to take control of our health and how our internal systems work and age. Taking relatively simple steps can have huge and long term benefits to us. Bottom line, the goal for me, has not been, and isn't going to be, to defy nature, rather it is to work with nature. I don't want to reverse time because time has given me experience, knowledge, and the understanding that ageing is a privilege. Ageing is not a bad word. Think about it, ageing is an active verb which means we are actively living. Ageing is a scientific process of how our bodies continue to progress. It is natural and normal. But we have to focus on how to keep that progression going as smoothly as possible, like a well oiled machine, and aid in its ability to heal as optimally as possible. We need to accept that ageing is a good thing because if we are lucky enough to continue to age it means we are lucky enough to take in more of what life has to offer us and in turn offer all that we have learned through our experiences. That is, like Saunders and Abbs say, if we age well. And it begins with changing the way we see ourselves and not how mainstream media has decided to see us.
Cameron Diaz once told Oprah, "We don't honour the journey, and who we are and how much we have to offer. It's almost as if we've failed if we don't remain 25 for the rest of our lives. It's (seen as) a personal failure." In 2016 Diaz co-wrote The Longevity Book: The Biology of Resilience, the Privilege of Time and the New Science of Age. It was her way of addressing the issue of ageing in Hollywood. She, like Susan Saunders and Annabel Apps, believes that through understanding how our bodies work on a forensic level we can change the conversation over how we age. That no matter how many botox or plastic surgery procedures we may get, it won't change what is happening to us beneath the surface of the skin, on a cellular level. And it isn't about criticising those who choose to undergo those procedures, it is more about appreciating the miraculous wonder that is the human system and doing whatever we can to optimise it at every age. Diaz writes in her book "I don't want you to live in fear of ageing...What I want for you...is to be able to approach this subject with knowledge and with confidence instead of sheer terror and a heavier hand with the foundation. And by "knowledge", I mean having the facts to live better, longer, and stronger."
By having resources like The Age Well Project available to us, we can contribute positively to our own ageing journey starting now. In doing so, we are also changing the conversation surrounding ageing. In a helpful move, here in Britain, The Royal Society for Public Health last year even called for a ban on the use of the term "anti-ageing" in the cosmetics and beauty industry. Its Chief Executive, Shirley Cramer, is quoted as saying "If we can begin to remove the stubborn barriers that reinforce societal ageism, we can expect many more to look forward to later life as a period of opportunity for growth and new experiences, rather than a set of mental and physical challenges."
Removing those "stubborn barriers" can only happen when we take control of the narrative and by taking control of how we see ourselves. We do this by not buying into the superficial fallacies of ageing. We do this by being realistic and maximising the possibilities of what's to come, the possibilities that come with the advantage of age. I see it as an advantage because with age, if we're self-aware, we accumulate experience and wisdom, the ability to see that life really is about the gratitude for all that we have, time with our family, friends, and the things that bring us joy. It's like what the singer songwriter Dido recently said, "I’m actually loving getting older, I have a confidence to enjoy life much more." And it starts from the inside, literally. Beneath the surface. Just ask my neighbour Charles.
The Age Well Project is available on Amazon from May 2nd, 2019. Click here to pre-order.