The latest science on how you can achieve optimum health, fitness and brain power in your sixties, seventies and beyond
Do you look young for your age or do you feel old before your time? A new study has found that in memory tests some people — dubbed super-agers — can perform as well as people four to five decades younger. Researchers at the Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital looked at the brains of a group of 60 to 80-year-olds with extraordinary memory powers and found that key areas were similar to the brains of young adults. Analysis showed their brains displayed far less of the shrinkage that typically occurs as we age. The researchers are keen to understand the reasons for this — and they are not alone. We all know about that 70-year-old with glowing skin who could pass for 50. Yes, genes play a part, but why some people are able to defy the ageing process while others are less successful is a mystery that scientists are only now starting to unlock. The good news is that there is a lot we can do to help ourselves.
From your sixties eat more fish and nuts and cut back on red meat
What you eat can help you to be as fit and healthy as a 30-year-old when you reach your seventies. Earlier this year an EU-funded study confirmed that consuming plenty of oily fish (tuna, salmon, mackerel, sardines), fresh fruit, vegetables and olive oil — a Mediterranean-style approach to eating — significantly decreased the levels of the protein known as C-reactive protein, one of the main inflammatory markers linked with the ageing process. It also slowed the rate of bone loss, lowering the risk of the bone-thinning disease osteoporosis that affects one in three older women. Ian Marber, a nutrition expert, says healthy oils are a tremendous addition to the diet. “Lots of studies have shown that higher intakes of omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial for the ageing brain, helping to boost the volume of grey matter and improve performance in neurological tests,” he says. Two years ago research from the University of South Dakota linked omega-3 acids to increased brain volume, while one University of California study suggested omega-3s — whether from supplements or fish — helped cells in the body to live longer by slowing the damage to DNA.
You are never too old to increase your level of physical activity
Protein is also vital to sustain muscles. “Protein is important for our health as we age, but many older people don’t consume enough,” says Professor Katherine Appleton, a psychologist at Bournemouth University who has recently investigated the protein shortfall for a study in the journal Nutrients. In the UK, adults are generally advised to eat 0.75g of protein for each kilogram they weigh — on average, men need 55g and women 45g of protein daily, or about two palm-sized portions of meat, fish, tofu, nuts or pulses. However, some studies have suggested that adults aged 65 and older need more than that — between 1 and 1.2g for each kilogram they weigh.
However, make sure protein is from healthy sources — fish, chicken, pulses — and cut down on processed meats such as sausages, bacon, pork pies and salami. When scientists from Massachusetts General Hospital analysed the diet records of 131,342 people gathered over three decades, they found that there was a 32 per cent drop in death rates among those who had replaced processed red meat with vegetables, nuts and cereals.
Keep sugar to a minimum
Emerging evidence links sugar consumption not only with an ageing body — too much of it creates more inflammation in the body, which can increase the risk of heart disease and cancer, and affects the control of blood sugar, which means a greater risk of diabetes — but also with an aged appearance. Scientists from the Leiden University Medical Center, in the Netherlands, and Unilever in the UK measured the blood sugar levels of 602 men and women aged between 50 and 70. Photographs of these subjects were then shown to a panel of independent assessors who were asked to comment on their appearance. Results showed that those with higher blood sugar were judged to look much older than those with lower blood sugar and that for every 1mm/litre increase in blood sugar, the perceived age of the person in the photograph rose by five months. Healthy people with low blood sugar levels typically looked a year younger than those with high readings, according to the study, which was published in the Age journal.
Greens slow mental deterioration
Make sure you eat plenty of leafy green vegetables, a single daily serving of which can slow mental decline and help to stave off dementia. According to scientists at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, people in their seventies and eighties who ate one or two servings a day of kale, spring greens, savoy cabbage, broccoli or spinach experienced slower mental deterioration than those who ate no leafy greens at all. “Leafy greens are hugely beneficial in every sense,” says Marber. “They are packed with nutrients that help with every aspect of ageing, including antioxidant vitamins that could be beneficial for the skin and protecting the eyes.”
The supplements to take after 60
Scientists at McMaster University in Canada have shown in numerous trials that a multinutrient pill containing 30 vitamins and minerals — including widely available ingredients such as vitamins B, C and D, folic acid, green tea extract and cod liver oil — has remarkable anti-ageing properties and may even reverse brain cell loss. In the latest findings, published in June, it was reported that the cocktail also enhanced vision and the sense of smell. “The findings are dramatic,” said Jennifer Lemon, a research associate in the department of biology and a lead author of the study. The pill is only at the trial stage but, according to Marber, supplements that might help to slow down the ageing process include “vitamin D and antioxidant vitamins A, C and E, which can help to keep mind and body young”.
A team of scientists from King’s College London has found that healthy levels of vitamin D may help to slow the ageing process and protect against age-related diseases, such as heart disease and cancer.
It’s not too late to start exercising, even in your sixties
Staying fit as you get older is the key to defying the ageing process. A new report from Yale School of Medicine shows that of the 1,660 older people aged 70-89 studied, those who exercised eventually spent 25 per cent less time being disabled or injured than those who did not.
And the good news is that you can start at any age.“You are never too old to increase your levels of physical activity,” says the celebrity fitness trainer Matt Roberts. “In fact the older you get the more important regular activity becomes.”
A study published three years ago that tracked the exercise habits of 64-year-olds found that those who exercised managed to achieve “healthy” ageing, staving off serious illnesses up to seven times more than counterparts who weren’t working out. According to the team from University College London, four consecutive years of regular exercise is enough to reap the benefits of keeping away depression, disability and cognitive health problems — no matter when you start.
Drop the one-hour sessions and focus on short bursts of exercise
The duration of a workout matters less as we get older, but the intensity matters more. Add bursts of speed to your regular walk, run, swim or cycle — alternatively try ultra-short interval sessions. The beauty of interval training (exercise that involves short bursts of extreme exertion) is that it is short. And, encouragingly, John Babraj, an exercise scientist at Abertay University, has shown that going all out when you exercise, even if only for a few seconds, can reduce blood pressure and improve general fitness in the middle aged and older.
Babraj has completed several papers on the effects of two weekly 60-second “efforts” on a bike in people aged 35-58. The results showed that, on average, the group lost 1kg of fat over two months without changing anything else in their diet or activity habits. Blood sugar control also improved, almost matching that of younger people doing a similar interval session, and the group had better cardiovascular function after eight weeks.
You can and should build muscle in your sixties
After the age of 50, the natural rate of decline of our bodies’ muscle mass can be as much as 8 per cent a year. We can’t stop it happening altogether, but we can slow the process down. And the best way is with weight training. “Muscles need extra work from the age of about 40 because of the natural losses that occur,” says Roberts. “You need to lift heavy weights for the big muscle groups three times each week.”
There are many studies showing the benefits of weight training well into old age, with one of the most recent suggesting that twice-weekly strength sessions almost halved the risk of dying early in a group of adults in their sixties and seventies. In September a study in the American Journal of Physiology revealed that resistance training improved blood flow and reduced the risk of diabetes in adults in their mid-fifties, while researchers at Harvard University found that men aged 40 and over who did 20 minutes of weight training a day had less of an increase in age-related abdominal fat than men who spent the same length of time doing activities such as jogging, swimming or cycling.
If you do nothing else, take a daily walk and don’t miss an opportunity to take the stairs
Scientists believe it is possible that our brains can defy ageing in the same way that our bodies can. Last year, Japanese scientists compared the brain activity of a group of people in their mid to late-sixties with those of a group in their early to mid-forties. The researchers from the University of Tsukuba found that the fitter an older person was, the less effort was needed by their brains to complete tasks compared with peers who were physically out of shape.
Two years ago, Arthur Kramer, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Illinois, showed that daily walking boosts the connectivity within brain circuits, which tend to diminish as the years go by. Walkers aged 60-80 displayed better brain function when assessed using functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), even compared with a control group who were up to six decades younger. As the older people in the walking group became more fit, the connectivity between regions in the networks increased and became similar to those of 20-year-olds, according to Kramer.
One way to boost your brainpower is to take the stairs more often. It sounds simple but in a recent study published in the journal Neurobiology of Ageing, researchers at Concordia University showed that the more flights of stairs a person climbs, the “younger” their brain. Jason Steffener, the lead researcher, used MRI to examine the brains of 331 healthy adults who ranged in age from 19 to 79. His results showed that brain age decreases by 0.58 years for every daily flight of stairs climbed.
Challenging your brain on a regular basis is the best way to prevent it ageing rapidly, according to a Canadian review conducted three years ago by researchers at Toronto’s St Michael’s Hospital. The “use it or lose it” approach involves simple mental strategies such as crossword puzzles and sudoku.
Staying slim is good for your brain as well as your body
Our brains naturally shrink with age, but scientists now believe that obesity may accelerate the brain’s ageing. Having a BMI over 30 after the age of 40 can age your brain by ten years, according to scientists at the University of Cambridge. Reporting in the journal Neurobiology of Aging this year, they revealed that the brains of obese people displayed key differences in white matter — the tissue that connects areas of the brain and allows for information processing — that were similar to those seen in individuals a decade older. “As our brains age, they naturally shrink in size, but it isn’t clear why people who are overweight have a greater reduction in the amount of white matter,” said the lead author, Dr Lisa Ronan from the department of psychiatry at the University of Cambridge.
Cutting your calorie intake by anything from 12 to 40 per cent has been shown in numerous studies to extend the lifespan of laboratory animals and scientists think that so-called caloric restriction could work in humans too. As we age we burn fewer calories due to diminishing muscle mass. The Department of Health advises that men need 2,500 calories a day until the age of 50, when their requirement drops to 2,400 and to 2,310 at 75. For women it is 2,000 calories a day until 50, when the amount needed drops to 1,900 and then to 1,810 at 75.
Meet the super-agers
Linda Rodin, 68, stylist
‘I take vitamin D and magnesium every day, and I walk everywhere’
I sleep for nine hours a night and walk everywhere. I eat organic fruits and vegetables, and fresh fish — and only drink organic white wine. Every day I take a vitamin D tablet and a magnesium tablet. My beauty routine is simple: I cleanse at night and use my own brand of facial oil in the morning and evening. The most important thing I do for my face is to stay hydrated all day. I don’t do anything like Botox, facial peels, or anything surgical. The only make-up I wear is lipstick apart from very occasional mascara.
Rodin products are sold at Liberty
Joe Friel, 72, triathlete
‘I don’t eat carbs — but I have a glass of red wine every night’
As a triathlon and cycling instructor, and America’s leading endurance-sports coach, Joe Friel, 72, trains every day at a pace that would shame many younger athletes. Most days he lifts weights and goes out on his bike for two hours, making sure to get in some hills. Of ageing, he says: “I see it as a battle. I don’t want my body to get weak and fat.”
Friel says that older athletes can go on working out vigorously, provided they adjust their lifestyles and training regimens.“If you start young and stay fit your entire life, you can maintain it quite well,” he says. “It’s also never too late to start because you can always get fitter.”
Most people in their later years are capable of achieving far more than they think is physically possible, says Friel. He believes that everyone over 50 should be doing higher-intensity workouts, lifting weights, sleeping a lot and eating well.
Friel plays golf and always walks the course and carries his own bag. “I’ve been playing golf since the Sixties and I’ve always walked it, I don’t see why I should do anything different today,” he says. “It’s normal in our society to be overweight and to lose muscle, but I don’t see the world that way.”
What we eat also plays an important role, Friel says. “I eat less than I used to and I’m eating a much higher-fat diet. It keeps the hunger from cropping up as much as it did when I was on carbohydrates.” In a typical day he has scrambled eggs and bacon for breakfast with two cups of coffee, another coffee and a piece of cheese for lunch, and dinner is fish and a salad. “I don’t eat sugar unless it’s built into fruit — and I don’t eat much fruit. Every evening my wife and I sit on the patio and we each have a glass of red wine,” he says.
Joe Friel is the author of Fast After 50.
By Barbara McMahon
Diana Nyad, 67, endurance swimmer
‘I do daily military-style workouts that include burpees, chin-ups and jumping jacks’
At the age of 64, Diana Nyad fulfilled her life-long goal and swam 111 miles from Cuba to Florida nonstop and without the aid of a shark cage. Now, aged 67, she is planning new challenges.
“It’s a waste of time to stand in front of the mirror and ponder how those wrinkles got there or how those breasts are a bit lower than they once were,” Nyad says. “The clock is ticking and I’m going to live this life as large as I can live it for whatever time I’ve got left.”
She has set up an exercise initiative called EverWalk, encouraging Americans to walk more. Nyad walks 20 miles a day, which has strengthened her core and legs, and does daily military-style workouts that include burpees, chin-ups and jumping jacks. “I’m pretty powerful. I feel like a cheetah when I’m walking down the street,” she says. “At the end of the day there’s not an ounce of my energy left unused.”
A world champion swimmer in her youth, Nyad first attempted — and failed — the Havana to Key West swim in 1978 at the age of 28. Aged 30, she gave up swimming. Then, at 60, she decided to start training again. At the time, she explained, “I’d like to prove to the other 60-year-olds that it’s never too late to start your dreams.”
In 2013 she made it. Looking back, she says she was a faster and stronger swimmer in her twenties but her mental determination is stronger now. Nyad, who lives in California, says she feels in good shape. “You can eat a couple of doughnuts or you can eat an apple and a banana and drink some cranberry juice — what’s the better fuel for your body?” She plans to walk across America in 2020, when she’ll be in her seventies.
By Barbara McMahon
Ray Matthews, 75, ultra-marathon runner
‘I eat four Weetabix and a protein shake for breakfast every day’
In July 2016 Ray Matthews, 75, who is from Maltby in South Yorkshire, completed 75 marathons in 75 days. What’s more, he had a 35-year layoff from running and only picked it up again in his fifties. “I was a boxer as a child and we had to run up to 14 miles a day,” Matthews says. “I hated it. By the time I was a teenager I couldn’t wait to give it up.” Three decades later he was watching the London marathon on television and thought: “I bet I could run that far.”
As the years went by, his running increased. “I saw retirement as having more freedom to take on bigger and better challenges,” Matthews says. “I’ve run 50-mile races, the Sahara 100km race and 150 miles in 36 hours.”
So how does his body cope? “I have a fantastic recovery system that means a couple of hours after running a marathon I am up on my feet again,” he says. “I have a great physio, who helps with massage and exercises, but listening to your own body is very important.”
Matthews swears by a solid three meals a day comprising four Weetabix and a protein shake for breakfast, a lunch of a sandwich or soup and an evening meal of meat and three veg. During extreme running challenges he needs to consume 6,000 calories a day to maintain his 10st body weight, which he does with the aid of additional protein and carbohydrate drinks. He also sips isotonic sports drinks, containing tiny particles of carbohydrate, during a run. “But when I’m not doing daily marathons, it’s just plain water.
“It’s no good giving in to age,” Matthews says. “Don’t listen to your body when it’s telling you to pack it all in. When your legs and muscles are screaming to stop, you can override it.”
By Peta Bee
Jacky O’Shaughnessy, 64, model
‘Every day I take six different supplements and I only drink filtered water’
I only eat organic food and drink filtered water. Every day I take the following supplements: vitamin C, liquid calcium, vitamin E and D, desiccated liver pills and brewer’s yeast. I eat a lot of vegetables and fish, have fresh almond butter every day, and drink green tea. Exercise is really important too. I avoid the elevator and walk three flights of stairs. If I’m at the computer or watching TV, I get up every hour to go for a walk or do some stretches. I get a lot of benefit from using the weight machines at the gym, and try to do a 20-minute Pilates workout DVD every morning before eating breakfast. When I did it consistently for six weeks, it really tightened and shrunk my hips and thighs. Fitness and flexibility are a lifelong process; I still intend to become stronger and more flexible, to go to the gym more, walk more and stretch more.
I stop eating at the moment I feel sated — I won’t even put a last bite in my mouth to finish off the plate. Instead I’ll save it in a little container to have later as a snack if I need. In my thirties I didn’t love my body — it’s mad that I spent my youth wearing baggy dresses to hide my body, then aged 62 I posed in my underwear for an American Apparel advertisement.
My beauty routine now is the same as it was in my twenties. I clean my face morning and night, never go to bed with make-up on, have my teeth professionally cleaned once a year, and I use an organic serum called Vibriance Super C every morning and night. As I have got older, I’ve found that alcohol dries my skin out, so I watch my wine consumption carefully.