How two friends immersed themselves in medical research to transform their lives

We are two working mothers who met 12 years ago when our daughters were at the same London nursery school. One of us is a TV producer and the other a writer. We both have backgrounds in research and we both have family histories of age-related diseases that struck too soon and too savagely.

Five years ago we stumbled on some research suggesting that we could live longer and better than our ancestors and that our fates weren’t determined by the genes of our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. There was a proviso, of course. The research made it clear that we had to take action in our mid-life years – our forties and fifties. We were both in the latter half of our forties. We just had time. Our Age-Well project was born.

Authors Annabel Streets and Susan Saunders expanded their popular Age-Well Project blog into a book.

Both of us grew up in the shadow of disease, watching loved ones die too early from dementia, heart disease and cancer. Or worse, watching them live out their so-called golden years blighted by illness, crippled by arthritis or unable to recognise their own family. One of us had already inherited a chronic disease, and the other was struggling to care for her Alzheimer’s-stricken mother. Both of us were raising families, working full-time and paying scant attention to our own health.

Reading that report prompted us to take a good hard look at our lives. We knew our lifestyles were all wrong: irregular eating of the wrong things, sporadic exercise, sleepless nights, chronic stress. After a decade of juggling endless pregnancies and miscarriages, six children and 10 elderly parents and in-laws between us, not to mention hugely demanding work commitments, our own health had slipped to the bottom of the pile.

That report also gave us hope, however, making it clear that how we experienced our old age was our choice: that we – and nobody else – were responsible for our future health. That small epiphany was like a chink of bright-blue sky on a sluggish great day.

The Age Well Project: Easy Ways To A Longer, Healthier, Happier Life, by Annabel Streets and Susan Saunders.

We started reading more and more: medical books and journals, research reports, culinary histories, tomes on neuroscience. We followed the latest discoveries into ageing. We attended lectures. We spoke to doctors and researchers. We cooked and made time for exercise. And then we blogged. Each week we blogged about a new piece of research and how we were incorporating it into our lives (or not).

Our book explains the most significant changes we made to our everyday lives: there are over 90 short-cuts which research suggests could radically improve our chances of a healthier, happier old age. The results so far? Less stress, better sleep, better behaved guts, defined muscles, more energy, thicker hair, fewer coughs and colds, low blood pressure, consistent weight, and a greater sense of purpose. Will we avoid the diseases of our forebears? We don’t know. But we’re doing our damnedest. And we feel better than ever.

The Four Cornerstones of healthy ageing

Our research into a happier, healthier old age threw up four areas of our lives that needed addressing: what, when, and how we eat and drink; where, when and how we exercise; how best to stay engaged, socially, intellectually and with the right attitude; and how best to manage stress, sleep and the environment surrounding us.

Each area has its ardent advocates: researchers who believe that – be it sleep, diet, exercise or social engagement – their specialism is more important for longevity than anything else. But most scientists now realise how intimately connected each area is. The majority agree that these four facts are inextricably linked, that to disentangle them is difficult and that to elevate one above the others is dangerous. In particular, studies of SuperAgers (a group of elderly people with the cognitive abilities of much younger people) and Blue Zoners (very long-lived people from communities including Okinawa in Japan, the islands of Sardinia in Italy and Ikaria in Greece – now known as Blue Zones) make it clear that we should be improving not only how we eat, but how we move, sleep and behave. We call these our Four Cornerstones of healthy ageing.

1. Diet

Ageing bodies and brains benefit from a healthy diet, the authors found.Credit:Stocksy

Our Age-Well project began with food. We read study after study revealing that our ageing bodies and brains benefit from a healthy diet. We devoured every study – metaphorically, of course – before heading to the kitchen, and cooking.

We had to navigate our way, slowly and judiciously. Every diet, from veganism to high-fat-low-carb, has its advocates claiming only their way of eating can deliver a long and healthy life. But, as we sifted through the research, we realised that eating for longevity isn’t about fads or extreme diets. It’s about balance, moderation and adaptability.

Fresh vegatables are an important part of the Mediterranean diet.Credit:Shutterstock

One way of eating cropped up again and again: the Mediterranean diet. The Mediterranean approach to food bears little resemblance to the refined carbohydrates and processed fats of a typical UK or US diet. The term refers to the food traditionally eaten (which is not necessarily the same as the food currently eaten) in the communities of Southern Europe: locally grown vegetables and fruits, legumes, grains, olive oil, some fish, small amounts of meat and a little red wine. The diet includes almost no processed food or refined sugars.

Early research on the impact of diet on heart disease in the 1950s and 1960s showed that following the Mediterranean diet had a positive effect. More recently, a randomised control trial (the gold-standard of medical research) revealed that a Mediterranean diet, supplemented with olive oil or nuts, reduced the risk of cardiovascular events when compared to a low-fat diet.

Every expert we spoke to in the course of writing this book eats a Mediterranean diet. Meir Stampfer, Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, explained, “There’s bona fide, solid clinical evidence to support the benefits of this diet. There’s no such evidence to support diets like Paleo or keto. I go where the data is!”.

Key diet principles

  • Learn the basics of the Mediterranean diet.
  • Focus your diet on vegetables, fruit, whole grains, pulses and fish.
  • Remember that olive oil is liquid gold – use it for cooking and salad dressings.
  • Add vegetables to every meal. We incorporate them into breakfast, lunch and supper.
  • Be good to your gut. Understand how critically important your microbiome is for your health.
  • Cut heavily processed foods from your life: they won’t help you age well.

2. Exercise

“The magic bullet for good health is staying physically active”, says JoAnn Manson, professor of women’s health at Harvard Medical School.Credit:Janie Barrett

With sedentary careers like ours we knew that more movement was imperative. Reams of research showed that lack of exercise is an important predictor of death from any cause.

A study of the Blue Zone nonagenarians of Sardinia attributed their longevity, at least in part, to staying physically active as they aged. This was reflected in a US study of 6000 women over the age of 60. Their movement – particularly low-intensity physical activity – was measured for two years. The results were clear: the most active women had the lowest risk of dying.

The experts we interviewed were equally clear. JoAnn Manson, professor of women’s health at Harvard Medical School, told us, “The magic bullet for good health is staying physically active. It affects every other factor: blood pressure, insulin sensitivity, blood sugar, cholesterol levels, weight, inflammation levels. Everything is improved by regular physical activity.”

We took up the challenge and added brisk walking to our day. Every day. It’s very easy. Put on comfortable shoes and head out. Brisk walking has been found to reduce the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease by 24 per cent while increasing cognitive reserve.

Key exercise principles

  • Work movement into your life, every hour and every day. It doesn’t have to be power yoga or ballroom dancing. A stretch at your desk or a walk to the corner shop can make a difference.
  • Keep weights by the kettle, walk to the station, dust down your bike – think about how you can introduce exercise into your daily life.
  • Plan a variety of exercise: a walk one day, dancing with friends the next, a weights workout later in the week,
  • Exercise in nature. Walking in the woods or lifting weights in the garden is more beneficial than the same exercise done indoors.
  • Consider your constantly evolving bones. Exercise helps keep them strong.
  • Always consult your GP when starting a new routine, and stop if it feels too much.

3. Staying engaged

A creative hobby can help with mental engagement, a key predictor of how well we age.Credit:Max Mason-Hubers

Most studies of long-term health have found social interaction and continued mental engagement to be a key predictor of how well we age.

According to neurologist and SuperAger researcher Emily Rogalski, the very healthy elderly have unique personality profiles, which include high levels of resilience, optimism and perseverance. But they also have active, engaged lives involving plenty of stimulating social relationships, and brains continuously challenged by reading, travel, hobbies and learning.

Blue Zoners – the five clusters of exceptionally long-lived people from Okinawa (Japan), Sardinia, Ikaria (Greece), Nicoya (Costa Rica) and Loma Linda in California – are similarly engaged with brain-testing activities and with their communities. Dan Buettner, the original Blue Zone researcher, identified close social and familial bonds as an essential factor in longevity, along with a strong sense of purpose and faith, and a propensity to continue working for as long as possible.

Claudia Kawas, a geriatric neurologist at the University of California, studies SuperAgers and Blue Zoners. She uncovered several factors that both have in common, including attending weekly religious services, reading, and taking part in physical and non-physical leisure activities with other people.

Key principles of staying engaged

  • Cultivate a wide range of friendships, including new ones.
  • Learn something new, and when you’ve mastered it, try something else. Ideally learn in company rather than alone.
  • Read books, of all genres. Every day.
  • Stay working, paid or unpaid, full-time or part-time.
  • Adopt a hobby, creative if you can.
  • Develop a mindset that is optimistic, grateful and purposeful.
  • Care for someone: a partner, a dog, those in the local hospice. Someone needs you, and science suggests you might benefit too.

4. Creating the right environment for good sleep, lustrous looks and enhanced health

The emergence of new technology (laptops, email, social media) has played havoc with many people’s sleep.Credit:Shuttershock

Getting enough quality sleep has repeatedly been found to help us age better, both physically and cognitively. When we’re well-rested, we’re also able to enjoy a more robust social life, not to mention feeling more optimistic and empowered.

Looking good can help us feel better too, as can toxin-free air, a full set of pain-free teeth, eyes as sharp as pins and a vigorous immune system.

When we started our careers, sleep was frowned upon. In the heady days of the upwardly mobile 1990s, and beyond into the era of boom and bust, we worked long days and slept short nights. Sometimes we didn’t sleep at all.

The emergence of new technology (laptops, email, social media) and, for us, the arrival of babies, meant sleep became yet more elusive. Suddenly we were living in a 24/7 world.

Poor sleep has now been linked to many degenerative diseases. In 2007 the WHO categorised night shift work as a carcinogen due to its suspected impact on sleep. Neuroscientists at the University of California tracked the sleep patterns and memories of older people, hailing sleep as “the missing piece of the Alzheimer’s jigsaw”. Poor sleep, they explained, creates a channel through which beta-amyloid protein attacks the brain’s long-term memory.

Other studies have linked continuous poor sleep to obesity, depression, poor immunity, anxiety, and some cancers. Despite the deluge of studies linking poor sleep to disease, however, a new meta-study of data from 37 million people reveals that insomnia doesn’t mean an early death. Worse than not getting enough sleep is worrying about not getting enough sleep.

It’s not only too little sleep that can affect our health. A meta-analysis published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, found that sleeping more than needed could also reduce longevity, suggesting that longer sleep is possibly more detrimental to heart health than short sleep.

Key sleep principles

  • Exercise every day, outdoors if possible.
  • Embrace guilt-free afternoon naps.
  • Change how and what you eat and drink in the evening.
  • Allow time to unwind before bed.
  • Invest in a new mattress and pillow (if need be) and some essential oils.
  • Turn off sources of blue light an hour before you want to sleep.
  • Allow fresh air into your bedroom and keep the temperature down.
  • Keep regular hours.
  • Make time for seven to eight hours of sleep, but don’t fret if sleep eludes you. Instead get up or read a book.

The environment

Getting regular eye check-ups is one of the authors’ recommendations.Credit:Bloomberg

Our Fourth Cornerstone also examines other elements within our environment that can affect us as we age.

Environmental principles for ageing well

  • Pay special attention to your gums and teeth.
  • Build immunity.
  • Know the medications linked, by researchers, to Alzheimer’s.
  • Eat the right foods for your skin, eyes and hair.
  • Use an anti-pollution serum every day and sunscreen when the sun’s out.
  • Avoid chemical-laden personal care products – opt for organic where possible.
  • Forget supplements – except Vitamin D – and zinc for immunity.
  • Care for your eyes with regular check-ups.
  • Avoid pollution-heavy areas.
  • Counter pollution with the right food, the right house plants and an air purifier.
  • Avoid pesticides and other chemicals when gardening, eating and cleaning.

This is an edited extract from The Age Well Project: Easy Ways To A Longer, Healthier, Happier Life, by Annabel Streets and Susan Saunders, published by Hachette Australia (RRP $32.99).

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