Over the course of my career, I’ve met many old people who, despite their advanced years, seemed not to have aged much at all. They have wrinkles and grey hair, but there’s something about them that radiates youthfulness and life. You cannot imagine them ever actually dying.
Increasingly, scientists have started looking at these ‘super-agers’ — so-called because of their apparent resilience to the normal ageing process — to see if there is something that could be harnessed as a potential elixir of life.
Of course, longevity is not necessarily so desirable if your old age is dogged with ill-health and discomfort. Many of us would rather live a shorter, healthy life than a long one cursed by debilitating disease. Yet medicine constantly intervenes when sometimes it would do much better to just step back and let nature take its course.
What’s interesting, though, is these super- agers seem to have it all: they remain fit as a fiddle despite advancing age, and live long and healthy lives.
There’s no doubt that genetics plays a big part, but it’s not the only factor here. This week, scientists from Northwestern University in Chicago presented their findings about super-agers based on years of research.
Though they all had quite unique takes on life, with no clear common pattern of behaviour, they all share two things, as Professor Emily Rogalski, who led the research, explained.
These were: a ‘unique personality profile, highlighting optimism, resilience and perseverance’, and an active lifestyle.
So what else can super-agers teach us about how to age successfully? Diana Mackintosh, the 99-year-old mother of theatre impresario Sir Cameron Mackintosh, apparently never holidays with anyone over 65, saying: ‘All they want to do is eat and sleep. I can’t be doing with wasting time.’
One of those interviewed for this week’s U.S. study swore that her long, healthy life was down to martinis at noon with friends.
While there may be no sure-fire way of becoming a sprightly centenarian, here are some of the interesting tips my patients have taught me over the years.
From a daily G&T to simply brushing your hair – secrets of staying young I’ve learnt from my older patients
TRY TO STEER CLEAR OF DOCTORS
Once, when I was working in a hospital in Scotland, an elderly and wonderfully grumpy lady was brought in after she’d fallen while out shopping. She was adamant that she’d only fallen because someone had tripped her up and furious she’d been admitted.
‘A lot of fuss about nothing,’ she muttered, proudly telling everyone she never saw her GP, never took any medication and, in her 90s, wasn’t about to start now.
The social workers were in a panic that such an elderly woman was living alone in a flat up three flights of stairs: she needed to be in a care home, they told her.
‘I don’t care if I fall down the stairs and die,’ she shouted. ‘I’d rather die there than in an old people’s home.’ Eventually, a wise consultant intervened and discharged her back home.
What fascinated me about her — and many similar older people I’ve come across — is that they make it through life with only fleeting interaction with the medical profession. Of course, it could be that because they’re so healthy, they never need to see a doctor. But the other argument is that when you see doctors, they tend to interfere. They admit you to hospital, where you pick up infections; they prescribe medication that has side-effects and interactions.
One man I once saw in A&E, who was in his 80s and still working as a gardener, didn’t even have a GP. He’d last seen a doctor when he was in the Army, in his 20s.
I wonder if a lot of this comes down to temperament. You certainly never come across a superager who’s a hypochondriac. They are far too busy getting on with life to worry about common or garden aches and pains or ailments.
AVOID MEDICATION IF YOU CAN
Following on from avoiding doctors, it always surprises me how many of the really old people who are so sprightly take very little regular medication.
On my first ward round as a junior doctor in geriatric medicine, at nearly every patient’s bed the consultant took out his pen and, with a flourish, crossed off the medication they’d been taking prior to admission. I thought he was mad, but the truth is that many of the tablets we dish out cause as many problems as they solve. The consultant explained that often it would have been far better if the patient’s GP had waited to see if things resolved on their own rather than prescribing pills.
This was vividly illustrated by one old lady transferred to our team following a hip operation. About a year earlier, she had gone to her doctor because of problems sleeping. She was in her 80s, in good health and had never taken regular medication.
The GP prescribed a sedative — the side-effects of which included urinary incontinence, dry mouth, blurred vision, constipation and, as you woud expect, sedation.
And many times over the next few months, she returned to her doctor’s surgery complaining of these very symptoms.
She was then prescribed two types of laxative, a drug for her urinary problems and eye drops.
One morning, while over-sedated from the initial sleeping pill, she fell and fractured her hip. After it was fixed, she was given medication to strengthen her bones. These caused heartburn, for which she was prescribed still more drugs. From one simple complaint, she ended up on seven medications.
The consultant reviewed the history and crossed off every tablet she was on. ‘If you can’t sleep at night,’ he told her, ‘listen to the World Service. It’s a lot safer.’
DON’T FEEL GUILTY ABOUT THAT G&T
If you listen to some health reports, you could be forgiven for thinking that even a whiff of booze will send you to an early grave.
Sure, there’s good evidence that too much alcohol is associated with all manner of problems — but occasional, moderate drinking has been shown to be beneficial to health.
This was borne out by the study this week, with 83 per cent of the super-agers saying they regularly enjoyed a drink.
While it may be that the chemicals in alcohol have health- giving effects, I think it’s the socialising that goes along with the occasional drink that’s more important to mental alertness and staying young than the actual booze.
It’s telling that none of the super- agers drank to excess. An aunt of mine who lived into her late 90s always had a G&T (with a packet of crisps) at precisely 11am every day — and she swore this was the secret to her long, healthy life.
She always invited neighbours round to join her, and I suspect this was really the important bit.
I’ve also noticed that superagers tend to have friends from all age groups, and especially those much younger than them.
Surrounding yourself with younger people keeps you feeling more youthful.
I recall one patient in her late 80s with a best friend half her age. She said: ‘Why would I want to be friends with people my age? They’re so old and boring.’
EAT WHAT YOU LIKE — IN MODERATION
There is no magical food that all people who age well seem to eat. Instead, rather than what they eat, it’s the way that they eat that makes the difference.
Certainly, I’ve never met a super-ager who had a faddy diet. They’d eat a bit of cream when they felt like it, and they might have butter on their toast. They eat everything, but only — and this is the key — in moderation. They don’t over-indulge.
Despite what all these ‘clean eaters’ like to think, diets that cut out entire food groups aren’t healthy; they aren’t going to ensure you have a long and healthy life.
DON’T ‘EXERCISE’ — DO SOMETHING YOU LOVE
Asked if they exercise, healthy older people will often tell me they don’t. They then explain that although they don’t exercise, they swim every day, or play golf or walk the dog — all of which is, of course, exercise. What is interesting is that they never thought of it as exercise. Exercise is a chore — whereas they did things they enjoyed.
So find a form of exercise you love — and do it lots and lots!
TAKE PRIDE IN YOUR APPEARANCE
A WISE and brilliant professor I trained under was obsessed with his elderly patients brushing their hair. The first question he’d ask when assessing them was when they’d last done this.
In fact his question was based on years of observation that when people decline into old age, one of the first things to slip is taking care of their appearance, starting with brushing their hair.
This doesn’t mean brushing your hair will keep you young, but the central idea is an important one: take pride in your appearance. You rarely see a healthy older person enjoying life who doesn’t take care of how they look.
DEVELOP INTERESTS OUTSIDE WORK
MANY of us define ourselves by our work. When we retire and that goes, often we’re left bereft.
Rates of ill-health and death peak after retirement because, I think, people have lost the thing that used to define them. They cease to know who they really are, putting body and mind under huge strain.
A fulfilling job is important — but remember not to make this the sole focus in your life. Super-agers always have hobbies or interests that they are passionate about.
ALWAYS LOOK ON THE BRIGHT SIDE OF LIFE
The one thing that every super- ager I’ve met has in common is their relaxed attitude to life. They tend not to get stressed.
That’s not to say they can’t be bloody-minded at times, but overall they find life interesting and fun.
This was reflected in this week’s study. Super-agers tend to have sunny dispositions. They are interested in the world around them and have a purpose.
We might not be able to do anything about our genes, but we can try to adopt a positive attitude.