Imagine, for a moment, that you have been given a brand new car; whatever model you like. It has zero miles on the clock, and it’s a shiny, pristine hunk of metal and rubber.
Not interested? OK, imagine I’ve just given you a house. It doesn’t have to be brand new – it can be full of period charm, for all it matters – but whatever palace you imagine, the house has to be in perfect condition, maintained to the nth degree.
Next, fast forward 50 years, and imagine the condition of the car and the house if not one bit of maintenance had been done on them. Will they still be as pristine and perfect? No, they will not.
We know that to maintain our possessions in good working order we have to look after them. That means regular services and attention to bodywork in the case of the car, and ongoing maintenance to the fabric of our homes, inside and out. It’s a never-ending cycle.
All of which is a rather roundabout way of pointing out that, when it comes to looking after important possessions, we’re on it. But what about the most important thing of all, our health?
A new approach to wellbeing
In their new book, The 10 Secrets of Healthy Ageing, high50’s medical correspondent, the author Jerome Burne, and nutritionist Patrick Holford say it is time to adopt a new approach to our wellbeing. Instead of waiting until we fall to bits, we should give our bodies regular MOTs and maintenance.
“As part of grown-up life, there are various things you learn, whether it’s looking after your finances, learning to cook, or becoming a parent,” says Burne. “We’re suggesting that maintaining your health and preparing for a healthy old age should be a similar life skill that you learn. For that, you have to become aware of what’s ahead.
“In previous generations, there was an attitude among people when they were in their fifties and sixties, the time when things start to go wrong, that said ‘Oh well, I’ve had a good innings’. Of course you can take that attitude, but wouldn’t it be better to be functioning well than not?”
Twenty-five years ago, there were 660,000 people aged over 85 in the UK. Now there are 1.4 million, and the number is projected to increase to 3.6 million by 2035. On average, we are living longer than previous generations, but with fewer healthy years at the end. The science of ageing, as explained in Burne and Holford’s book, shows that how you age isn’t just down to genes or luck: it’s up to you. There is a lot you can do to influence how well you age and stay healthy and productive throughout your life.
“Our book contrasts the medical approach to people getting older with the nutritional lifestyle approach, which is more effective,” says Burne.
Five (drugs) a day
“Things start to change around the time you get to 65. At this age, on average, 50 per cent of the population is on five or more drugs a day, rather than the important five a day of fruit and veg. Our immune systems become weaker, and we develop more conditions that the medical profession wants to treat with drugs.
“By the time you are 70 or 75, it’s easy to be on 12 or more drugs. And problems arise because no one can be 100 per cent sure how these drugs will interact and how you will react. This really isn’t ideal as you get older. So, the longer you can keep yourself in a really good state, the better.”
Good nutrition keeps your entire system working well, which is precisely what we need as we get on. The 10 Secrets of Healthy Ageing presents a new vision whereby we re-invent what it means to grow old.
As well as explaining why the ‘drug-cocktail’ approach doesn’t work, the book teaches readers how to keep their mind and memory sharp to avoid Alzheimer’s; how to keep their heart healthy; how to cut the risk of cancer and infections; and what to eat to prevent diabetes and boost your energy. Its message is clear: do the work now, in our fifties, and we will reap the rewards in 20 years’ time.
Where the medical profession fails
“The idea of the book is not to launch an attack on doctors,” says Burne. “There are times when their expertise is very valuable.
“But the medical profession is not interested in preventative medicine. Doctors receive a minimum amount of training in it. Look at the areas the medical profession fails where nutrition is key, such as diabetes or the obesity epidemic. They do not have a good track record. Instead, they just put patients on drugs.
“Drugs certainly have a part to play but nutritional and lifestyle factors need to be taken much more seriously. The complaint is that they don’t have enough evidence. I agree. I’m hugely in favour of evidence-based medicine but we’ve got a system that doesn’t spend nearly enough on gathering this evidence. As a result, nutritional supplements are still regarded by many in the medical profession as something charlatans promote to make money out of you.
“Rejecting the whole idea of supplements is kind of odd when we know there are optimum levels for all sorts of hormones and enzymes and fats in our bodies. The medical profession is very keen to keep our levels of cholesterol, thyroid hormones, insulin within a certain range and increase or decrease these hormones if there is a pill to do it.
“But hormones and enzymes and all the rest need vitamins to work well, so what is so strange about ensuring you are in the right range for them too? However, you’re regarded with suspicion and scepticism if you take supplements.
“Research showing that levels of minerals and vitamins in your body start to drop off as you age and your performance falls off along with it. So it makes sense to keep up those levels with supplements to slow down the decline.”
In the future, nutritional medicine – tailoring your diet and supplementing it with minerals and vitamins – will become commonplace. As well as the workplace nurse, there might even be the office nutritionist.
“It’s not beyond the realms of possibility,” says Burne. “If you look at what goes on with high-level CEOs, they are treated like racehorses by their employers. It is now quite normal to look after their health. It’s known as caretaker medicine. They get far more regular check-ups, petted and pampered into the best of health, so they can make more bucks for the company.
“There’s no reason why an individual can’t take a leaf out of that book. The 10 Secrets of Healthy Ageing is one of the first handbooks to show you how to do that.
“We are the first generation to look ahead. We know what getting old looks like. We read about it in the papers and we know that older people don’t get treated very well. And we could be facing a future that is grim. No one wants to go down that route.
“The single most important thing we can do is recognise we have an amazing opportunity. We need to wake up to the fact that our future isn’t mapped out for us. We can make it better or worse depending upon what we do. We can start to make a difference to how our old age is going to turn out.
“Get good at getting older!”
Read part two: the drugs don’t work
The 10 Secrets of Healthy Ageing: How to Live Longer, Look Younger and Feel Great, by Patrick Holford and Jerome Burne (Piaktus, £14.99) will be published in April
Further reading Nutraceuticals: the natural high-performance drugs