Health – Years of life or life in your years?

There is no question that the global population is ageing. In most developed countries the percentage of the population over the age of 60 years is steadily increasing and outnumbers children under 5yrs old. However interestingly, the amount of time over a lifespan with ‘good health’ has remained relatively stable. This implies that the extra years lived may in fact be with a greater number of health conditions or increased disability. The last two years navigating a pandemic has been even more challenging given Covid-19 has a bigger impact on the elderly.  

My wife and I recently watched the Netflix series Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds. This documentary and observational experiment brought children from an Australian childcare centre into a local residential care facility over a few months. Loneliness, depression and social isolation are widespread in the elderly community. The results of the experimental tests in the series were astounding. By facilitating a multi-generational environment the elderly participants experienced improvements in happiness, mental wellbeing, physical fitness and cognitive function. 

With greater understanding of holistic wellbeing and quality of life, there are simple ways that we can improve health in our sixth, seventh, eight or even nineth decades! See how many of them you can turn the dial up on (or help older family members with) over the coming months.

• Physical activity: this improves cardiovascular health, mental wellbeing, improves immune response and even reduces the risk of a bad outcome with Covid-19 (see my previous column on this!) 

• Drink water: adequate hydration ensures that our body can get all the necessary nutrients to where they need to be. Hydration is also crucial for healthy brain function. Remember we are 60% water!

• Social connection: as shown in the Netflix series, we are social mammals and maintaining a network of family and friends is crucial for wellbeing. A ‘loneliness’ epidemic is often described in elderly groups so both for elderly and young alike – keep your connections, and preferably in person (not via phone or Zoom). 

• Mental stimulation: the old ‘use it or lose it’ catchphrase. Cognitive function does decline in response to ageing however humans have exceptional ability to rewire the brain, a process called neuroplasticity. Reading, crosswords, sudoku, chess, a new language and musical instruments are all ways to keep the most important organ in your body healthy and active.

At times in physiotherapy land, we encounter individuals who feel a sense of hopelessness, that they couldn’t possibly improve their wellbeing at an elderly age. I strive to encourage the opposite. We have far more control over our own personal wellbeing than you might think. Small but regular changes over time can have a huge impact.