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As life expectancy increases, many of us are living longer – but are we living healthier?

There are over 11 million people in the UK aged 65 and over – 19% of the overall population. As the average age of the population increases, it’s never been more important to understand what helps us not only live longer, but live well for longer. But what does it mean to age well? 

In this article, we’ll ask what ageing well looks like, what helps us to stay healthy as we grow older, and outline some healthy habits that research tells us have the maximum impact on longevity. 

What is healthy ageing?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines healthy ageing as “the process of developing and maintaining the functional ability that enables wellbeing in older age.” 

This is quite a technical definition, so let’s take a look at what it would look like in practice. From this definition, we can see that healthy ageing: 

  • Is an ongoing process
  • That both develops and maintains functional ability
  • To encourage wellbeing in older age

When we talk about functional ability, we’re talking about our ability to perform and enjoy the basic activities of daily living, without excessive pain or fatigue. This includes to:

  • Meet basic needs
  • Learn, grow, and make decisions
  • Be mobile
  • Build and maintain relationships
  • Contribute to society 

As we age, factors such as chronic disease, pain, fatigue, or isolation can affect our functional ability, impact our physical and mental health, and have a significant effect on our experience of ageing. 

Healthy ageing is about how we can remain active, mobile, and connected in later life. This is closely linked to the concept of longevity. 

What is longevity? 

Longevity describes how long and how well a person lives. There are a few different definitions, but longevity research is concerned with promoting an active, independent, and purposeful life throughout the lifespan, including into older age. The number of years a person spends in good health and free of chronic disease is known as their health span. 

Longevity vs. lifespan

While they’re related terms, longevity is not the same as life span. Lifespan refers to the length of a life, longevity refers to the length and health of a life. Research in the field of longevity asks questions not only about how we can live longer, but how we can live healthier, and how to control (or even reverse) the marks of ageing. 

What does ageing well look like?

Ageing well can look different for different people. Some common markers of healthy ageing include: 

  • The absence of chronic disease
  • Mobility
  • Independence
  • Mental capacity
  • Financial security
  • Social connections
  • A sense of purpose
  • Resilience in the face of difficulties
  • Life satisfaction and enjoyment 

Overall, ageing well “promotes personal behaviors and life-course environments that limit functional declines, especially those caused by chronic conditions, to help older adults maintain their independence and health. Ageing well emphasizes the idea that people can maintain satisfying and healthy lives as they age by exercising the choices that optimize healthy, active, and secure lives.”

4 factors affecting healthy ageing 

How long we live – and what our experience of ageing is – is affected by a variety of intersecting factors, some of which fall within or outside of our control. Understanding these factors can help us to prioritize the habits that will have the maximum impact on longevity within our specific circumstances. 

Genetics

The first factor that affects healthy ageing is our genetics. It’s estimated that approximately 25% of the variation in human longevity is determined by genetic factors. Some of the ways genetics affect how long we live is via effects on cell maintenance and metabolism, as well as genes specifically affecting: 

  • DNA repair
  • Telomere conservation
  • Free radical management
  • Nutrient-sensing signaling
  • Lipoprotein metabolism
  • Cardiovascular homeostasis
  • Immunity
  • Inflammation

Genetic factors are largely outside of our control, but thankfully aren’t the whole story when it comes to how long we live. Other factors include our environment, health behaviours, the medical care we have access to, and various other social factors.

Environment

Environment plays a significant role in longevity. Environmental factors can relate to the large scale (such as geographical location) or the small scale (such as pollution, air quality, or access to nature). For example, living in a heavily polluted area negatively impacts several aspects of ageing, including how well our mitochondria function, inflammation levels, and the number of senescent (damaged) cells in our bodies. 

Some environmental factors that affect longevity include:

  • Air quality
  • Atmospheric pressure
  • Temperature
  • Humidity
  • Presence of pollutants 
  • Access to clean water

Medical care and social factors 

Access to medical care, which is largely dictated by geographical location and economic status, affects longevity. Similarly, social factors such as financial security, safe housing, education, access to an integrated healthcare system, social care provisions, and access to transportation also affect how long (and well) we live. This also includes our social systems – whether we’re socially isolated or can participate in meaningful social relationships. Research has found that loneliness is detrimental to human health. One study found that loneliness in people over the age of 60 was associated with a higher risk of functional decline and death by all causes.  

Health behaviours 

Finally, the behaviours we do or don’t engage in significantly impact how we age. This factor is the easiest to control and plays a vital role in how well and long we live. While individual behaviour doesn’t form the entire picture of longevity, there is thankfully plenty we can do to positively influence our lifespan and prioritise ageing well. 

 

Healthy habits to outlive your years

An older man and woman run together alongside a river. The sun is shining and a metal barrier separates the path from the water. Both runners are wearing workout clothing, and are smiling as they complete the workout.

There’s a lot of research on individual behaviours that promote or decrease longevity. We’ve sifted through the data to round up the top 9 actions for healthy ageing – let’s get into them. 

Stop smoking

One of the most impactful choices you can make to promote healthy ageing – and healthy living at any age – is to quit smoking. 

After the age of 35-40, a year of smoking reduces a person’s lifespan by approximately 3 months. Smoking is an established mortality risk, increasing the chance of death from all causes, and is linked to the development of over 50 health conditions. Not only is smoking one of the biggest causes of death and illness in the UK but it is specifically linked to lower well-being for older adults, with current smokers experiencing higher rates of depression than ex-smokers or those who have never smoked. 

Quitting smoking can be a challenge when done on willpower alone, but help is available. Reach out to your GP for more advice on how to quit successfully, or check out NHS Smokefree for more information. 

Eat a varied, healthy diet that promotes longevity 

It’s no secret that the food we eat has a huge impact on our overall health, and it can also work to promote – our limit – our longevity.

Eating healthily to promote ageing well doesn’t need to be overly restrictive, either in terms of caloric intake or the omission of specific foods. Rather, focus on creating colour and variety in your meals, and eating regularly. 

Research suggests it can be beneficial for longevity to base your diet around the following food types:

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Whole grains 
  • Nuts
  • Legumes
  • Fish
  • White meat
  • Eggs and dairy products 

And limit consumption of the following food types: 

  • Processed meat
  • Red meat
  • Refined grains
  • Sugar-sweetened beverages

A Mediterranean diet, high in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, pulses, and healthy fats, remains a great dietary option for many people. The “diet” (which focuses on an overall style of eating without restricting food groups entirely) has been shown to protect against various cancers and cardiovascular disease while improving longevity. 

Other diets, including those that feature caloric restriction, intermittent fasting (IF), or periodic fasting (PF) have been shown to have a positive effect on lifespan extension in animal studies. More research is needed to establish whether these eating patterns show the same effects in humans. 

Stay physically active – or create new opportunities for movement

Being physically active is a crucial factor in ageing well, and a habit that is well worth establishing early.

Staying active can lower our risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer,  boost self-esteem and overall well-being, improve sleep, and increase energy. Moderate to vigorous physical activity has the wide-reaching benefit of improving cardiovascular health, improving the body’s ability to circulate blood and supply muscles with oxygen. The best way to assess cardiovascular fitness and aerobic endurance is through a VO2 Max test. Not only is the VO2 Max the gold standard measurement of aerobic fitness, but it’s also a metric that has been closely linked to longevity. 

Physical activity in older adults is linked to independent living, access to social support, improved immunity, and resistance to illness. If you’re already active, then maintaining this is one of the best things you can do to maintain mobility and independence. If you’re not active, then creating new opportunities for movement – even if that’s as small as a short walk or time spent stretching – can help pave the way to a healthier future. 

Keep your brain active

Just as staying physically active is important to healthy ageing, so is staying mentally active. Cognitive stimulation plays an important role in staying sharp as we age, as cognitive decline becomes more likely. Cognitive decline can involve changes to working memory, decision-making, processing speed, and executive function, and have a significant negative impact on quality of life in later years. 

Taking care of our physical health can help to prevent cognitive decline, as can engaging in intellectually stimulating activities, maintaining social connections, and learning new things. The phrase “use it or lose it” applies to our cognitive capacities as well as muscles! From engaging in meaningful activities or hobbies, volunteering, or spending time with others, to completing brainteasers or puzzles, reading, or learning a new skill or language, there are endless ways to stay active and engaged as we age.  

Reduce alcohol consumption  

The effects, benefits, and risks of alcohol consumption are heavily researched. Research consistently finds that heavy alcohol consumption is linked to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD). However, there is wide debate over the effects of moderate alcohol consumption, with some studies suggesting moderate consumption might even be beneficial to our health and longevity. 

Dr. Peter Attia recently drew attention to this topic, highlighting the role reduction of alcohol consumption can play for cardiovascular health. A cohort study of 371,463 individuals found that all levels of alcohol consumption had a negative impact on cardiovascular health and that this was a linear relationship that saw heavier alcohol consumption linked to a higher risk of CVD. This means that any reduction in alcohol consumption has the potential to be beneficial for our health, whether or not total abstinence is the goal.

Stay well hydrated

Staying hydrated might sound obvious as a healthy habit, but it’s estimated that only 53% of the UK population is optimally hydrating each day! Dehydration can lead to serious health outcomes and can be exacerbated in the elderly. 

A 2023 study found that dehydration – leading to increased serum sodium – was associated with increased biological age, the development of chronic disease, and death at a younger age. To stay well hydrated, aim to drink 6-8 glasses of plain water per day. The NHS notes that lower-fat milk and sugar-free drinks can also be good options for staying hydrated.

Make sleep a priority 

Sleep is essential for bodily growth, healing, and repair. As we age, sleep can become harder to come by – sometimes due to pain, nausea, medication, or an existing sleep disorder, and sometimes for no discernible reason. Our circadian rhythms can change with age, and insufficient exposure to daylight can exacerbate this. Poor sleep is linked to a variety of negative health outcomes in older age and can contribute to cognitive decline. 

Sticking to a regular sleep schedule and setting yourself up for quality, restorative sleep can help to minimise the negative impact of ageing on your sleep. Identifying any root causes of sleep difficulties (such as pain, insomnia, stress, or sleep apnea) can help tackle these head on. Maintain social connections 

Take care of your mental health 

Around 14% of adults over 60 live with at least one mental health condition, with anxiety and depression being the most common. Taking care of our mental health is a key part of ageing well, and there are a variety of ways to do so. Managing stress, maintaining social connections, engaging in meaningful activities, getting time outside in nature, and staying active are all great ways to prioritise taking care of our mental health. 

Many of the healthy habits on our list have intersecting effects and benefits. For example, maintaining mobility can open up avenues for greater social interaction and independence, and have a positive knock-on effect on mental health.

What else can we do?

In his book, Outlive: The Science and Art of Longevity, Dr. Peter Attia addresses the ‘4 horsemen of chronic disease’’ – cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and dementia (and other neurodegenerative diseases). These four disease areas account for 80% of deaths in non-smokers over the age of 50, and working to prevent them is one of the best actions we can take to live well for longer.

Many of the healthy ageing tips shown in this article will help to reduce the incidence of these diseases or protect from them, but Dr. Attia advocates there is nothing that can substitute getting tested. 

Knowing your risk factors and addressing them is hugely important. This means knowing your cholesterol figures, and getting appropriate treatment if necessary to manage this, knowing your blood sugars and managing this with lifestyle before it becomes an issue, knowing your body composition and muscle mass and working to build these into the most health-promoting composition for you, and where there is known incidence of cancer in the family, getting early screening for this.

This knowledge, arising from regular testing, will ensure that you are on the best path to ageing well.  

 

Ready to outlive your years?

A mature black woman smiles into the camera. Her grey hair is pulled back from her face, and she is wearing a black, turtleneck sweater. She stands in front of a blurred, urban background.

Hopefully, the recommendations in this article have offered some insights into the actions you can take to promote ageing well. If you’re looking for more personalised information to help you live longer and healthier, then health and fitness testing can help to check you’re on the right track. 

Here at My Vital Metrics, our Outlive Your Years Bundle is the ultimate healthy ageing package – a health MOT. Inspired by the work of the physician and best-selling author Dr. Peter Attia, our curated selection of tests is a comprehensive health and fitness checkup designed to give you the information you need to keep you living well for longer. 

To find out more, or to schedule a free health and fitness consultation, reach out to My Vital Metrics today.