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How to add 5 years to your healthspan
Here's five changes you can make to your everyday living to live a longer, healthier life, all of which are backed up by vigorous scientific research.
As we look towards our modern, 25-30+ year retirements, an increasing, and very appropriate goal for many people, me included, is to look for ways to lengthen our ‘healthspan’, the length of your life that we live in good health. It’s a much more important priority than lengthening our lifespans - because living a high quality, adventurous life is much more desirable than just existing. So today I’m excited to be able to point you to five very sensible ways we can lengthen our healthy years by five years or more, each of which are backed up by a host of scientific studies and evidence.
But first, let me put it all in perspective.
In the second half of our lives there are four leading causes of death, and they are commonly referred to in modern medicine as the “Four Horses of the Apocalypse” or, let’s call them the four horsemen for short. They are:
Cardiovascular disease: This includes conditions that affect the heart and blood vessels, such as coronary artery disease, heart failure, and stroke, the number one leading cause of death in Australia and the US.
Cancer: This includes a broad range of diseases that involve the uncontrolled growth and spread of abnormal cells in the body. And, while we’ve made great progress in recent decades in early detection, bringing down the mortality rates of cancer, we still see more than 80% of all cancers affecting people over the age of 50.
Chronic respiratory disease: This includes conditions that affect the lungs and airways, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma. They are the third leading cause of death, and can significantly limit an individual's ability to perform daily activities.
Diabetes: Diabetes is a metabolic disorder that occurs when the body is unable to produce or properly use insulin, a hormone that regulates blood sugar levels. It is a leading cause of death worldwide, and it significantly heightens the risk of heart disease and stroke. The prevalence of diabetes is growing rapidly, due to the high sugar diets in the western world with no sign of reversal.
These four diseases are responsible for a significant proportion of deaths globally and are the major contributors to the burden of chronic illness and disability throughout the world - and shorter healthspans! If you want to live a longer, higher quality of life when you get older and have an epic retirement, your main job in the middle and later years of your life is to take steps to avoid the onset of these diseases. And here’s five of the most proven steps you can start today.
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Prioritise regular exercise for leisure
The 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommended 75 vigorous intensity minutes or 150 moderate intensity minutes of aerobic activity per week for substantive health benefits (or 7.5 metabolic-equivalent hours scientifically). And a study taking in data from more than 661,137 people with a median age of 62, confirmed in 2015 that the maximum longevity benefits of exercise were achieved if you undertook anywhere from 1X to 3-5X this amount of exercise, not more (or 22.5-40 metabolic-equivalent hours scientifically). So, to simplify that, anywhere from 75-375 minutes of vigorous exercise per week or 150-750 minutes of moderate intensity exercise minutes per week will achieve the maximum mortality benefits. It’s a wide range, and as you can see in the below table, once you’re over 3X the improvements to longevity are incremental.
Eat a healthy, whole food diet
A healthy diet is also key to staying healthy, and improving your healthspan in the second half of your life. Many scientific studies recommend the mediterranean diet, which suggests people should have a high intake of olive oil, fruit, nuts, vegetables, and cereals; a moderate intake of fish and poultry; a low intake of dairy products, red meat, processed meats, and sweets; and wine in moderation, consumed with meals.
And this recommendation is supported elegantly by a 2013 randomised trial of 7447 people who were considered at risk, but not diagnosed with cardiovascular disease. They were studied consuming a Mediterranean diet, with cohorts offered increased olive oils and increased nuts. The cohorts who consumed the diet saw a substantial reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, and reduced incidence of major cardiovascular events.
“The results support the benefits of the Mediterranean diet for the primary prevention of cardiovascular disease.” The New England Journal of Medicine
Reduce your stress levels
Stress can take a toll on both your physical and mental health. And scientific studies show that psychological stress— both perceived stress and chronic stress—is significantly associated with a reduction in your longevity. Women with the highest levels of perceived stress show signs of ageing equivalent to at least one additional decade compared to low stress women. These findings have implications for understanding how, at the cellular level, stress can promote earlier onset of age-related diseases, or the four horsemen.
To manage your stress you could try:
Breathing exercises: Slow, deep breathing can help reduce stress and anxiety. Practising breathing exercises for even just a few minutes a day can help promote relaxation.
Mind-body practices: Tai chi, qigong, and other mind-body practices can be particularly beneficial for older adults as they are gentle and low-impact. These practices help improve balance, flexibility, and posture while also promoting relaxation.
Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT): This type of therapy can help you learn techniques for managing stress and reducing negative thought patterns that can contribute to anxiety.
Build a social network: Having a strong support network of family, friends, and community can help you manage stress and promote overall well-being in the second half of your life.
Take up hobbies and epic pursuits: Find some hobbies and epic pursuits that promote relaxation for your leisure times and make it fun to reduce your stress levels. This might include things like reading, gardening, or spending time with pets.
Make sure you’re getting enough sleep
Quality sleep is essential for overall health and well-being. I mean it! And its importance is reflected in two studies that I think are important. A study published in Diabetes Care found that individuals who slept less than six hours per night had a 60% increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes over a 10-year period compared to those who slept between seven and eight hours per night. The study also found that individuals who slept more than nine hours per night had a 50% increased risk of developing diabetes. And a study published in the European Heart Journal found that people who slept less than six hours per night had a 48% increased risk of developing or dying from coronary heart disease over a 14-year period compared to those who slept seven to eight hours per night. The study also found that individuals who slept more than eight hours per night had a 38% increased risk of developing or dying from heart disease. Frightening isn’t it!
So what can you do?
Stick to a regular sleep schedule: Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even on weekends. This helps regulate your body's internal clock and improve the quality of your sleep.
Create a relaxing bedtime routine: Establish a routine before bed that helps you relax and wind down. This could include taking a warm bath or shower, reading a book, or practicing relaxation techniques such as deep breathing or meditation.
Create a sleep-conducive environment: Make sure your bedroom is cool, quiet, and dark. Invest in comfortable bedding and a supportive mattress and pillow.
Limit exposure to screens before bed: The blue light emitted by electronic devices such as phones, tablets, and televisions can interfere with your sleep by suppressing the production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin. Try to avoid using these devices for at least an hour before bed.
Avoid caffeine and alcohol before bedtime: Caffeine can interfere with sleep by blocking the effects of adenosine, a chemical that promotes sleep. Alcohol may help you fall asleep faster, but it can disrupt the quality of your sleep and cause you to wake up frequently during the night.
Exercise regularly: Ahhh, and we’re back to #1. Regular exercise can improve your sleep quality by helping you fall asleep faster and promoting a deeper type of sleep. However, it's best to avoid vigorous exercise for at least a few hours before bed, as it can stimulate your body and make it harder to fall asleep.
Ensure you are getting enough social connection
Social connections are important for mental and emotional health, and have been shown in many studies to contribute to a longer and healthier life. A widespread scientific review in 2016 published in the journal Heart analysed data from 23 studies involving over 181,000 participants and found that social isolation increased the risk of developing heart disease by 29% and the risk of stroke by 32%. And they confidently concluded that you need regular and health social interaction if you want to increase your healthspan.
How can you get this?
Find some social communities: Join a social club or group that interests you, such as a book club, hiking group, or volunteer organisation. This will give you the opportunity to meet new people and engage in activities you enjoy.
Get out into your community: Attend community events and festivals, such as farmers' markets, concerts, or art shows. These events often provide opportunities for socialising and meeting new people.
Volunteer: This can be a great way to give back and connect with others who share your interests and values.
Embrace technology to stay close to those far away: Use technology to stay connected with friends and family who live far away. This can include video chats, phone calls, and social media.
Engage at work: Take advantage of opportunities to connect with others at work or school. This can include joining committees or clubs, attending social events, or simply chatting with colleagues or classmates.
Think about it - you can chat your way to keep the four horsemen at bay!
And there you have it - the five most sensible and significant ways you can add five years to your healthspan. How do you put this into practice in your everyday life? Are you already focussed on your healthspan? Let me know by leaving a comment on the article. And if you have feedback, ideas or you want to be more actively involved in Epic Retirement, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Until next week, make it epic!
Bec Wilson Xx
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