How old are you? What a stupid question I hear you cry - I'm X years old because I was born on (here insert your birthdate). Have you ever thought that the answer might not only be very different but, alarmingly, might actually be many years older than your chronological age?
I have been watching three programmes on BBC 1 called "How to Stay Young", which was a misnomer if ever there was one! It should have been called "How not to be years older than your actual age" - which is admittedly much less catchy but far more accurate given the people featured in the programmes. People like Harminder who was an overweight, inactive and stressed 54 year old with a body age of 74. Or Tina who was a 47 year old diabetic obsessed by how old her face looked who was actually heading towards multiple health issues with a body age of 67. The most jaw-dropping of all was Rich, a retired policeman of 49 who had a young son. Rich was heavily overweight, working in a sedentary job and eating a poor diet, whose body age was calculated at 92.
When shown all the results of the various tests on his physical and mental state, Rich tearfully exclaimed 'I'm older than my own parents!'
We are all living longer thanks to advances in medical science, but many people are not doing so in very good shape. I don't know about you, but I have little desire to live to 100 as an end in itself. However I have a great desire to live to 100 if I can do so as an active, independent and energetic old lady with all my marbles! Programmes like these are really helpful because they show how its possible to take control over your own destiny and dramatically improve your chances of having a healthy old age. Apart from Tina who was diabetic, none of the volunteers was ill.
However they all felt under par and knew in their heart of hearts that their lifestyle choices were likely to be damaging in some way.
After just three months following a plan to tackle various things which were impacting their health, all the volunteers were feeling and looking very much better- and Tina was officially declared free of diabetes. So this week I thought Id share the stories of a couple of the female volunteers, Kamini and Bella. I have chosen them because they illustrate two things which bother a lot of people about the ageing process: becoming physically feeble and becoming mentally sluggish.
Case Study 1: Kamini - 57 years old with a body age of 78.
The Problem: Physical weakness due to low muscle mass
Kamini (see above) is a slim looking and attractive woman who on first appearance would appear to be ageing well. Her test results showed a very different story. Her grip strength was in the bottom 3% of what it should have been. This was due to her severely depleted muscle mass - her body's strength was wasting away due to her extreme inactivity. She literally drove to her nearest shop which would have taken her 1 minute 30 seconds to reach on foot! An MRI scan of a cross section of her thighs showed little muscle and lots of fat - a fatal combination.
Kamini's body was composed of nearly 45% of fat - way above the healthy 25% it should be.
So at 57, Kamini was already physically frail and at much higher risk of falling, which we all know is a major cause of hospitalisation for many older people. The Solution: Decline in muscle mass is not inevitable as we age. A fit and physically active 70 year old can have the equivalent muscle mass of someone much younger. The good news for all you gym phobics is that you don't need lots of equipment to improve muscle strength. Push-ups, step-ups, squats and lunges will all help to maintain and improve muscle mass. If you don't want to invest in some weights then get a couple of bottles of water and use them!
I have written in other blogs about my late arrival at the exercise party but I have now spent a year working with a personal trainer. I would have rivalled Kamini for inactivity before I started but am proud to tell you that my core strength is now so improved that I managed to hold myself in a 'plank' for 30 seconds longer than my 42 year old son in law on holiday! He was mightily impressed - and, honestly, so was I! And for Kamini after 12 weeks of increased activity, an improved diet and some strength training in the gym, her body fat percentage was down to 40%, her grip strength had gone up from 3% to 30% - a dramatic improvement and the overall result was that her body age had gone down to 66. A whopping improvement!
Case Study 2: Bella - 68 years old with a body age of 77.
The Problem: Poor memory and mental and physical sluggishness.
Bella is a youthful looking 68 year old. Like Kamini, she also had a poor grip strength and too much body fat. The main concern was that she felt constantly tired - falling asleep for an hour if she sat down for a cup of tea. Bella was widowed a year ago, when the husband she had nursed for a year, died. She described how she had hit rock bottom and felt sluggish both physically and mentally. On the cognition tests for memory, fluency and attention Bella scored poorly. She was also doing 98 minutes of moderate exercise a week compared with the recommended 150 minutes minimum. Bella was also in the overweight range in terms of BMI and had high blood pressure - both red flags for cardio-vascular disease.
The Solution: The team on the programme decided to tackle Bella's mental sluggishness by challenging her brain to learn a new skill.
As she had never learned to drive this was the perfect solution to get her brain firing as it needs to for increased mental agility. To improve Bella's physical fitness it was suggested that she try High Intensity Training. This involves short bursts (6 seconds at a time) of very intense exercise. It was thought that this would be too dangerous for older hearts, risking spikes in blood pressure. However, research shows the opposite effect with beneficial consequences both in heart function and lowered blood pressure. It also means that as little as 15 minutes of this kind of training a week can have significant benefits. Obviously this should only be done under expert supervision - but the results for Bella were impressive. After 3 months she said she felt lighter, happier, was socialising more and now felt 'so good within myself.' Her test results were also much improved, she had lost weight, changed shape and performed better in all the cognitive tests - showing that older brains are perfectly capable of reversing decline.
Bella's body age was down to 72 after 12 weeks and was likely to fall further the more she challenged herself mentally and physically.
I do hope you have found this blog post useful. The three programmes threw up lots of surprising and interesting information and helpful guidance. They are still available on BBC iPlayer - so do catch them if you can. They are full of the latest research on the science of ageing and certainly gave me pause for thought about several of my own lifestyle choices.
There is an expression that some people seem to be 'old before their time' and that's what this research shows. All nine of the people featured were exactly that - old before their time - and were heading towards a longish period of disease and ill health. What inspired me was the fact that all their physical and mental issues were reversible - it literally is never too late! It's stimulated me to get an exercise bike at home because I know that I don't do enough aerobic exercise. I now know that the kind of old age that I will have is largely down to me. The buck really does stop here!
Have you made some significant lifestyle changes in your life? Are you planning to? Leave us a comment below.