Frustrated at the idea of being stuck indoors for 12 weeks? Concerned about the days stretching ahead without seeing friends, family or doing your usual hobbies? You’re far from alone.
But, argues Sir Muir Gray, consultant in public health for the NHS and professor of primary healthcare at Oxford University, not only is staying in safer but it also offers an opportunity to, rethink, reboot and reset.
Starting on Monday, the Daily Mail brings you an exclusive series of pullouts that will help to provide a structure to your day, and will also put you on the path to create a healthier life for you to enjoy in the years to come.
Here Sir Muir explains his advice and why he knows it works.
At 75, my life is about as busy as it has been for the past 50 years. Although I did leave my post as director of an NHS programme at 65 I don’t really believe in retirement, except to create opportunities for younger people, so I carried on pursuing my two main missions.
The first of these is trying to enable the NHS to provide better value healthcare. As for the second, for 50 years I have been trying to help people live longer better by giving them the right knowledge.
Active as I am, I’m also someone with long-term health conditions. I have chronic bronchitis, most likely a legacy from growing up in the black fogs of Glasgow with my wonderful parents for whom, like many of their generation, a packet of Player’s cigarettes was never far away.
There are plenty of steps we can take to prevent the harmful effects of this period of physical isolation and relative inactivity
The other condition is heart disease, and six years ago I had a stent fitted following a heart attack. Because of my age and medical background, the Government has recommended that I, and around 7 million others, spend the next 12 weeks confined to home and have minimal contact with others.
It’s not the first time in my life that people have been encouraged to socially distance themselves for health reasons. Growing up in Glasgow in the Fifties I remember the polio epidemics, summers spent in fear of contracting this devastating virus before a vaccination was found.
In fact, I am sure I had it in 1951; I remember lying in front of a fire my mother had lit feeling unwell and when I went back out to play, I found that one of my closest playmates had died of the disease.
Sir Muir Gray, author of The Antidote To Ageing
Just, as then, when we were urged to stay away from swimming pools and crowded places, now, we members of the same generation, again need to keep a safe distance from others.
Of course, like so many other over 70s in a similar situation, it is a challenge to have my normally active life constrained.
While staying at home will reduce the likelihood of contracting Covid-19, I am concerned how inactivity and reduced social contact will impair our physical and mental fitness. It could affect how clearly we think and how well we feel in ourselves.
Fortunately, thanks to all the research I’ve become aware of as director of my company, The Optimal Ageing Programme, and as the author of books on the prevention of issues we once blamed on ageing, I know there are plenty of steps we can take to prevent the harmful effects of this period of physical isolation and relative inactivity.
In fact, we could look at it as a 12-week stay in a health farm, removed from the pressures of daily life — whether that’s caring for grandchildren, work or juggling volunteering commitments — which will give us all a rare time to rethink how we plan to live the next 10, 20 or 30 years.
It is very important to regard this 12-week spell in quarantine as an opportunity rather than as a jail sentence. This is a chance to change the way we behave, not only to reduce the risk of Covid-19, but also the risk of dementia and frailty in the future.
In the past ten years, we have learned that the process of ageing is not the main cause of the problems we face as we live longer, and we can delay or prevent the conditions we tend to fear most.
These problems shorten what we call ‘healthspan’ and increase the time we spend receiving social care, meaning reduced quality of life and more pressure on family and public resources.
To live longer better we need to change gear and the 12 weeks away from the hurly burly of the supermarket, the workplace, the bridge club, the bingo club and the grandchildren offers not a reason for sadness, but a gift of time. Today, and over five days next week, I’ll be helping you with ways to exercise the body and brain, to build physical strength and agility, mental acuity and encourage a sense of positivity and calm that will help you cope better with this unsettling time.
Still not convinced? Let me explain some of the background about the ageing process, and some of the myths that still surround it.
The Ageing Myth
It is very important to regard this 12-week spell in quarantine as an opportunity rather than as a jail sentence
Too many people, young and old, still assume that everything that happens to people as they live longer is the result of the biological process of ageing. The good news is that this is not the case.
We now know that ageing by itself does not cause major problems until the 90s. You only have to look at the Queen or David Attenborough to see that even then many nonagenarians are still active.
You need a bit of luck to avoid the diseases we cannot prevent such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, but ageing alone is not the main problem. It’s other issues such as loss of mental and physical fitness and a negative mindset about your age and capabilities.
Never mind the search for the elixir of life, in which hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested, what people want is to live longer better.
Fortunately, there is now scientific evidence that we can achieve this. And over the next week I’ll be giving you the knowledge to put it into practice.
What’s important to remember is that this knowledge can be still be applied even if you are spending three months at home.
In the Seventies, research highlighted the fact that isolation was one technique used to break the will of young prisoners in wartime, but many older people were isolated for the same length of time.
Our brain alone does not nourish our mind, interaction with other people is vital. Obviously face-to-face contact will be very limited in the months to come.
Even if you aren’t online, you still have the telephone – stay connected
While it’s not possible for everyone over 70 to be online, if you do have access to the internet then now is the time to embrace it, and the opportunities it offers for interaction, learning and communication.
Whether that’s learning a new skill, joining a virtual book club or listening to an online concert. Even if you aren’t online, you still have the telephone.
Work on fitness
Loss of fitness is more of an issue than the passing of the years. While professional sports men and sports women notice that their fitness really starts to drop off around the age of 40 — as Roger Federer and Serena Williams are finding out in their late 30s — most of us start to decline much earlier.
In fact, many people start declining from their early 20s, not because of ageing but because of modern lifestyles. This is when they get their first job and car. The car, the computer and the desk job have all combined to create an environment in which we lose fitness progressively and this not only reduces our physical abilities, it makes us even more susceptible to other challenges such as weight gain and heart disease.
Inactivity increases anxiety and can also lead to depression
For years we have assumed that fitness was relevant only to athletes, but it is clear now that the longer you live the more important fitness becomes, in part because loss of fitness affects the brain and the mind as well as the body.
Inactivity increases anxiety and can also lead to depression.
Some studies suggest that regular aerobic exercise may boost the area of the brain associated with verbal memory and learning.
Exercise may also stimulate the growth of new blood vessels in the brain as well as new brain cells.
Of course, now we’re confined to home our ability to stay fit is more limited — as gyms and fitness centres have all been closed. But, as I’ll be showing you next week, it is still possible to maintain fitness and activity at home.
This is important because we also fail to appreciate that the effects of disease are often greatly complicated by accelerated loss of fitness. This is not so much because of the direct effects of the disease, but because the onset of the disease makes other people want to do something for the affected person.
Struggling is good
Children in mid-life often find it difficult to observe a parent struggling to reach the shops, and so they rush to arrange delivery of food to the parent’s home.
They fail to recognise that ‘struggling’ is what’s called ‘training’ when they go to the gym, and that by removing the training effect of going to the shops they accelerate a decline in ability.
Being creative with your dinner menu and cooking it from scratch rather than resorting to ready meals contributes to a sense of what you can do rather than what you can’t
For those of us who will have to spend the next 12 weeks at home, food delivery will most likely be a necessity. The struggle will be a different one. However, nurturing a ‘can do’ attitude and making efforts not to give up activity at home will have a similar impact.
That might be physical activity or learning something new or even just being creative with your dinner menu and cooking it from scratch rather than resorting to ready meals.
These all contribute to a sense of what you can do rather than what you can’t.
Avoid ageism trap
While the over 70s are a key group who are being encouraged to stay at home right now, I would urge you not to give in to feelings that you are being written off as ‘past it.’
In fact, a positive attitude is key to staying youthful, and I’ll be showing you ways to retrain your brain to nurture a sense of optimism about yourself.
In any case, sweeping generalisations about ‘the elderly’, which I think is a terrible term, have to be taken with great caution.
People aged 70 differ from one another in many ways more than they resemble others of the same chronological age.
Remember, the way age limits are set is often arbitrary.
The pension age, for example, is chosen by actuaries on the basis of the sums they have done to ensure that the pension fund does not go bust because people live longer than expected. There’s no rule that says the moment you hit that age you are not capable of working.
Too many people have the wrong belief that people over 60 can’t get stronger, more supple or improve the way their brain works.
There’s a common attitude that there is no point in encouraging people over 60 to try new activities. It is up to us, people over 60, to change these beliefs and attitudes — and this is something I’ll also be showing you how to achieve.
Your brain needs regular exercise too
Memory loss is experienced by almost all of us as we get older, particularly the loss of our short-term memory.
While we are still able to remember much of what was learned in geography and chemistry 50 years before, or the names of the players in our favourite football team of that era, recently acquired information is not so well retained — names, for example. This can be frustrating, but it is not a big problem and can be overcome.
On top of this, reasoning and decision-making processes are slower as a result of ageing. But again, the actual size of the problem has been exaggerated, as indeed have the benefits of quick decision-making. I think we should reframe this as a positive, and re-claim our right to make decisions more carefully!
I will concede that in certain situations (taking part in a quiz, for example), speed of thought is important, but most decisions, and certainly almost all serious decisions, do not need to be taken at speed.
Young people who make decisions quickly may make the wrong decision!
One reason for this, as outlined by Daniel Kahneman (winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics), is that people tend to think they are making decisions quickly and rationally when, in fact, the quick decision is often based on a rule of thumb that they have developed unconsciously and which can lead them down the wrong path.
So it is not all about speed. The criticism that we older people are slow can be countered by saying that we are reflective decision-makers.
There are many techniques that can be used to compensate for the loss of short-term memory. If you’ve forgotten someone’s name, ask for their email address as that often is based on their name.
If they have an usual sounding surname, ask them if they know the history of the family name. Your brain will then make new links that will jog your memory next time. Don’t rely on a smartphone to record diary dates for you. Write them down instead and create a daily ‘to-do’ list which you can check each day to help jog your memory.
If you keep losing things, get into the habit of always keeping those things— it’s often spectacles and keys! — in the same place.
Take steps to prevent the loss of other cognitive functions, such as decision-making, by giving your brain a daily workout. Include intellectual games such as sudoku and do a crossword every day. As soon as you feel it is less of a challenge move to the next level.
Every day, challenge yourself to learn something new, such as researching your family history — it’s all about avoiding standing still and letting your brain atrophy.
In the long term, consider volunteering to help children learn to read in understaffed school libraries. They are crying out for extra help, and studies have shown that depression is reduced when people feel valued and appreciated for their formal volunteering roles.
For now, ask your family if you can set up a regular time to listen to your grandchild read using a tablet or smartphone. The more you do, the better.
- Memory quiz taken from Keep Your Brain Stronger For Longer by Tonia Vojtkofsky (Short Books, £9.99)
We can’t go out, but creating our own entertainment boosts brain power and lifts mood, so…Make some music!
Picture the roads around your house and you might recall having seen one of those unassuming dark green boxes that seem to have sprung up everywhere.
These cabinets contain the wires that bring broadband and phone lines to your area. If you look inside there is a mass of multi-coloured wires that are all connected.
This is what the brain looks like, too — a mass of wires called neurons connecting with one another. It is possible to create new circuits in the brain at any age. This is known as neuroplasticity.
By increasing the brain’s activity we can increase its ability, just as much as we can improve strength and suppleness by increasing the body’s activity
What’s becoming increasingly clear is the importance of learning new things and seeing the world in a fresh way. This could include learning to play the piano or challenging long-held beliefs.
It’s also important to challenge yourself, too — and not just to reinforce a sense of capability.
A study published in Psychological Science found that adults aged 60 to 90 who were given a complex skill to learn, such as digital photography or quilting, significantly improved their memory after three months, whereas those who did simple crossword puzzles did not.
By increasing the brain’s activity we can increase its ability, just as much as we can improve strength and suppleness by increasing the body’s activity.
If you need some inspiration, here are some of the hobbies you can take on, and how they will help rejuvenate your mental acuity…
A MUSICAL BRAIN BOOST
NOW is the time to dust off the piano, or another musical instrument. Research suggests playing music improves reaction times, and may help age-related decline in hearing, as well as strengthen memory and increase blood flow to the brain.
If you don’t have access to an instrument, there are online programmes where you can teach yourself to read music and play the keyboard on the computer. Or you might consider phoning a local teacher to get a virtual lesson.
A LANGUAGE LIFT
MANY of us mean to learn a second language, but few of us find the time or motivation to actually do it. Well, now is your chance. You can learn online on platforms such as Duolingo and Babbel.
An experiment for the BBC programme Trust Me, I’m A Doctor found that those who attended a language class three times a week for four weeks performed better in cognitive tests that measured attention, memory and mental flexibility. The results were better in older participants aged over 56.
An extended period at home is also a chance to develop your crafting skills — whether that’s knitting or embroidery.
A study of people over 70 found that those who knit had a ‘diminished chance of developing mild cognitive impairment and memory loss’.
JIGSAWS are something we often have at home but only get out at Christmas, if that.
Now is the perfect time to dig them out and improve your puzzling skills. A 2018 study found that doing puzzles may help to slow down cognitive ageing as they require skills of memory and visuo- spatial cognition.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
ENGAGE all your senses and challenge yourself to bake something new, or try out a different cuisine at home.
Following a recipe requires concentration and the ability to juggle lots of skills.
Try online learning at learning withexperts.com, which offers group classes in mastering sourdough bread, vegan cookery and essential skills for home cooks for under £30.
This could also be the chance to connect with new people without leaving home.
Life-long learning, particularly if it involves interaction with others, improves both cognitive and emotional wellbeing
FOR other online learning opportunities, look at the Open University website (open.edu/openlearn) for free courses, or the University of the Third Age (u3a.org.uk).
Life-long learning, particularly if it involves interaction with others, improves both cognitive and emotional wellbeing.
WORK ON BALANCE
Tai chi, Pilates, yoga or the Alexander Technique will help rewire your brain and improve your balance, reducing your risk of falling. Although a face-to-face class is ideal, online routines are also very good. Look at the mindbody.io app to find a virtual class near you.