What are the secrets of the ‘super agers’?

Learning new skills can help you age well. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Learning new skills can help you age well. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Our columnist Christine Webber explores ways in which to age well.

When I look back to 2019, I hardly recognise the person I was then. I imagine you know the feeling. This has been a very odd year.

One thing hasn’t changed though – and that’s my passion for promoting ways in which we can live well for longer. So, as I haven’t written on the topic for a while, I decided to take a fresh look at the science of anti-ageing. And also, to see what we can learn from ‘super agers’– those individuals in their 80s, 90s and older whose health, looks and energy make them appear to be at least 20 years younger than their real age.

I’d like to begin with telomeres. Do you know what they are? I confess I didn’t, until I was invited to a lecture about them. Basically, they’re capsule-like structures, found at the end of our chromosomes, and their role is to protect our cells.

As we age, telomeres shorten to the point where they can no longer safeguard the cells, and this leads to various diseases of the mind and body.

So, strong and long telomeres are crucial to fitness and longevity, and many scientists believe that it’s possible to keep them healthy by a combination of regular, oxygenating exercise and a diet rich in good fats – such as those found in nuts and seeds – plus vegetables, fruit and whole grains. In a way, this should come as no surprise as it isn’t such a different health message from those we’re used to being given by specialists in cancer, heart disease, rheumatic conditions, stroke and diabetes. But it’s worth thinking about, because all these experts – from so many different areas of medicine – are unlikely to be wrong.

The gerontologists though (scientists who specialise in anti-ageing) go further than exercise and diet in their recommendations. They say that if we’re really serious about extending our lifespan, we should aim to leave the dining table long before we reach the point where we gasp: ‘Honestly, I’m stuffed. I couldn’t manage another morsel!’ Ideally, no more food should pass our lips once we’re 80% full.

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Researchers have known since the early 1930s that if mice or rats are fed a calorie-restricted diet, they live twice as long as normal. Of course, we’re not rodents, but it does seem possible that eating a bit less than we’d like, could keep us healthy and alive for longer than might otherwise be the case. This theory isn’t new by the way; it stems from an ancient Confucian teaching known as Hara Hachi Bu.

What about alcohol? The good news for those who like a tipple is that many anti-ageing studies claim drinking a little may be better for us than not drinking at all. But the emphasis here must be on the word ‘little’, so aim for not more than one unit of booze a day.

What else?

Adequate and restful sleep is key to good health throughout life and particularly so as we grow older. And the research also highlights the need to manage our stress so that it doesn’t become chronic. How to beat stress is a huge topic however, so I’ll return to that another time.

Additionally, for over 10 years now, long-term studies have emphasised that a strong social network is a must if we want to live as healthily as possible for as long as possible. Being sociable it seems is not only good for our mental health but is now thought to protect us against developing damaging inflammation in the body. So, keeping in touch with our families and friends, whether in reality or via Skype, Zoom, Facetime etc., is not just comforting, but good for us.

Finally, let’s look at attitude. Personally, I think this is the biggest factor of all. And if you look at the example of the super agers, it’s their ‘can-do’ outlook on life that marks them out.

These young-for-their-age oldies are fizzing with positivity and enthusiasm. Many of them continue in their careers well past retirement age, and they never seem to worry that they might be somewhat long in the tooth to achieve what they want to do. They tend to have enquiring and active minds and they always have a new project on the go. In fact, for many of them, their current aim of mastering the Moonlight Sonata by Christmas, or visiting the Northern Lights, or moving house, is what drives them on. They like targets and goals and are always looking for some new stimulus to engage with.

Last week, 96-year old Guiseppe Paterno graduated top of his class at Palermo University with a first-class honours degree in philosophy. He’s now considering tackling a Masters. Brought up in poverty, this signore has finally realised a dream that’s been on hold for decades. He’s a true super ager. Wouldn’t you like to be one? I know I would.