Don’t be set in your ways – getting active, eating well and losing weight can help you stay healthy well into old age, as two experts tell Rachael Healy.
“A healthy lifestyle matters at all ages,” says Professor Goya Wannamethee, who has spent 32 years studying thousands of people to see how their habits affect their health.
This research, called the British Regional Heart Study, has been following nearly 8,000 men for the last 40 years. Funded by the BHF, it has shown that, from the age of 50, most people gradually become less active. But those who are active into older age see a reduced risk of developing heart and circulatory diseases.
As well as confirming the advantages of activity, many of the study’s findings show that stopping smoking, eating a healthy diet and avoiding obesity have heart-health benefits whatever your age. And these things can improve the quality of life for older people.
For older people, even light activity, such as daily walking, can have health benefits
“If you smoke, there’s no doubt that stopping would be the biggest thing you could do to reduce coronary heart disease risk. Obesity is another major risk factor, and the longer you’ve been obese, the worse it is. If you’re obese and you have a bad diet, your risk would go up even more,” Professor Wannamethee explains.
Why it's important to keep moving
Making healthy lifestyle changes as early as possible gives you the biggest health benefits, but taking action later in life still has a positive impact.
“Even if you’ve been inactive for much of your young adulthood and you suddenly take up activity much later in life, it improves life expectancy,” says Professor Wannamethee.
“The impact on your risk of a heart attack may not be as great as if you’d been active from a younger age, but you’re likely to have a better quality of life and maintain health and independence. Even if you can’t do a lot, just not being sedentary is beneficial. So keep moving!”
For older people, even light activity, such as daily walking, can have health benefits. A 2013 study led by BHF-funded researcher Dr Barbara Jefferis showed that walking for more than four hours per week, even at a slow pace, reduces risk of stroke in men aged 60–80. Light activity can also help maintain your muscles and even brain function.
How the Mediterranean diet can help your health
Eating a Mediterranean-style diet will always be good for your health. “We’ve shown that, in the 60–79-year-olds, diet does matter for coronary heart disease,” says Professor Wannamethee. “It’s really about diet quality – eating more vegetables, eating less red meat, eating more fish. We’re talking about a 50 per cent increase in death rates if you have an unhealthy diet compared with people who have a Mediterranean-style diet.”
Obesity raises blood pressure, raises cholesterol, and increases inflammation – all of these are linked to heart and circulatory diseases
What’s more, a Mediterranean diet could help you avoid obesity, or lose weight if you are already obese. “Obesity raises blood pressure, raises cholesterol, and increases inflammation – all of these are linked to heart and circulatory diseases,” says Professor Wannamethee. “If you become obese later in life, it is bad, particularly for your risk of illness and disability.”
You might have seen news headlines suggesting that older people who are overweight or obese tend to live longer, but Professor Wannamethee explains that this can be misleading. “In the elderly, factors such as malnutrition come into play,” she says. “So, in some of these studies, people who appear to weigh less have often lost muscle [due to malnutrition].” Malnutrition can reduce quality of life, making it harder to get around and hastening age-related illnesses.
Improving quality of life in your later years
As you move into your 70s, 80s and beyond, positive lifestyle changes can have a huge impact on your quality of life.
Professor Wannamethee has been looking at the relationship between frailty (which is classed as a combination of factors including exhaustion, slowness, loss of strength, low weight and low levels of activity) and heart health.
“What we’re seeing now is if you’re frail, you’re more likely to develop a heart or circulatory condition, and once you’ve had a heart attack, stroke or related condition, you’re more likely to become frail,” she says. “Lifestyle factors feed into both of them.”
Can you reverse diabetes?
Lifestyle changes play an important part in diabetes control. “Weight loss (if you’re overweight) coupled with physical exercise are vitally important,” says Dr Stephen Wheatcroft, who leads BHF-funded diabetes studies at the University of Leeds. “It may not reverse the diabetes, but it will certainly make
it much easier to control.”
Weight loss may not reverse the diabetes, but it will certainly make it much easier to control
Dr Stephen Wheatcroft
As people with diabetes get older, glucose control becomes increasingly difficult. But that’s no reason to give up eating a healthy diet or doing physical activity – these things can slow down the progression of your diabetes.
“What you can focus on is reversing the harmful effects of diabetes on health, and also trying to delay or prevent progression of the diabetes itself – so you avoid needing to take more medication or needing to move on to insulin,” says Dr Wheatcroft.
“It is possible to reverse the detrimental effects of diabetes on risk of heart disease, in particular. However, that’s probably a long-term aim, because the problems that diabetes causes to the cardiovascular system take years to develop.”
Taking this long-term outlook involves permanent lifestyle changes. Dr Wheatcroft suggests setting yourself “achievable goals”.