When Dr Jitka Vseteckova, Senior Lecturer in Health and Social Care at The Open University in the UK, first started studying ageing she was a young 20-something. Now, several decades later she lives and breathes her work and wants to share it with everyone. The ‘Take Five To Age Well‘ campaign is the result of her future-facing research into the ageing process that has led her to develop 5 pillars of good health and longevity to help people live well and embrace the journey with more awareness. Taking place during the UN’s Decade of Healthy Ageing, the campaign invites you to join a community making small daily changes for better ageing.
Over the last 30 years, research into ageing has exploded. The quest for eternal youth is hotter than ever and the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos invest vast sums of money in anti-ageing technologies. The head of Facebook and his wife, Priscilla Chan, are co-founders of The Breakthrough Prize, which annually awards three million dollars to scientists who make “transformative advances toward understanding living systems and extending human life,” whilst Jeff Bezos reportedly made a significant investment in Altos Labs, a biotech startup focussed on “cellular rejuvenation programming”.
One striking fact that has emerged is that until we hit 80, over two-thirds (70-80%) of our ageing rate is determined by environmental factors – most of which are within our gift such as exercise, nutrition and cognitive stimulation. “This is a key piece of information that can motivate and empower people to take ownership over their health and well-being,” Dr Jitka Vseteckova says.
She, together with her colleagues from the Open University, has devised a new ageing well pledge, ‘Take Five to Age Well’. Akin to Dry January, which asks people to take up some actions for 30 days, throughout September this campaign will boost health and well-being in the short and longer term.
The ‘Take Five to Age Well’ all-expert-led campaign offers 5 simple steps to a longer, healthier and happier life in 5 key areas such as eating, drinking, moving, connecting, engaging and thinking. Evidence suggests that doing something every day for a month increases the chances of that behaviour becoming a habit and ‘Take Five to Age Well’ will use behavioural change science to support people over the challenge and encourage them to carry on.
“This campaign tackles an urgent national health challenge; we have an ageing population in a landscape of overwhelmed social care and NHS services”, Dr Vseteckova explains, hoping this will be impactful. “Through the Take Five to Age Well pledge, we want to build a healthy population for a happier society.”
On the same page is Dr Zoe Wyrko, a former geriatrician and now Well-Being Director at Riverstone (residential accommodation for older adults). “My motto is to die like the Queen; she lived a long, active life and stayed in good health until days before her death which was at home with family”, she says. “This is how I intend to go and I would want this for everyone around me. Being aware of what to do to age well and making small steps to taking responsibility for your health is crucial for people and society more generally.”
Dr Wyrko knows only too well the strain that the NHS (The British National Health Service) is under and with the number of over 65s set to increase over coming years, a move to preventative and proactive self-care is a priority.
The importance of challenging negative stereotypes
Research has also found that our attitude to our age has a direct impact on our health and well-being. People who see the ageing process as a potential for personal growth tend to enjoy better health into their twilight years than people who associate ageing with helplessness and decline.
These differences are reflected in their cells’ biological ageing as well as their overall life span. Research shows that people who endorse certain ageist beliefs, such as the idea that “old people are helpless”, even when in their mid-30s have poorer outcomes for risk of cardiovascular disease up to 38 years later.
There are further findings – age beliefs may play a key role in the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Tracking 4,765 participants over four years, the researchers found that positive expectations of ageing halved the risk of developing the disease, compared to those who saw old age as an inevitable period of decline.
Negative stereotypes about ageing, also have a direct impact on physiological health; elderly people who have been primed with negative age stereotypes tend to have higher systolic blood pressure in response to challenges, while those who have seen positive stereotypes demonstrate a more muted reaction. This makes sense: if you believe that you are frail and helpless, small difficulties will start to feel more threatening.
Fortunately, our mindsets can change; by learning to reject fatalistic beliefs and embrace some of the changes that come with age, we might mitigate increased stress responses that arise from exposure to negative ageing stereotypes and we could become more motivated to exercise our bodies and minds and to embrace new challenges.
Ageing well is an attitude
Evidence on attitude is growing and yet our culture is saturated with messages that reinforce the damaging age beliefs. Even birthday cards are laden with jokes about older people and boring clichés. What we often forget is that a positive mindset can improve our well-being in later years.
Alan C. has been following Dr Vseteckova’s work for over 3 years, and now at the age of 80, he is a shining example of healthy ageing. “I was a project manager and I treat my health like a project“, he says. “It’s important to me because I want to avoid being in the healthcare system for as long as possible.”
Alan, who has signed up for the ‘Take Five to Age Well‘ pledge encouraging everyone to do the same, regularly sees friends and family, keeps his diet in check (except on holiday) and has an exercise bike to get his heart rate up. He enjoys life and relishes his time post-retirement; his positive attitude to ageing as well as his adherence to healthy habits are a recipe for success.
Would you like to do the same? Here are Dr Vseteckova’s top tips to age well:
We all know exercise is good for us, it reduces our chances of heart disease, cancer, strokes and dementia. But it is also good for the skin; regular exercise boosts skin health by promoting collagen production and increasing blood flow to supply fresh nutrients and take away waste from cells keeping them healthy. As we age we lose muscle naturally and so strengthening exercises help us stay strong and stable reducing the chances of falls particularly in later years. Walk for at least 15 minutes, twice a day, do 3 short (6-10 min) bursts of cardio exercise every day, get up and move for 5 or more minutes every hour throughout the day and follow a free short (15-20 min) online exercise video once a day.
2) Eat well
You are what you eat – recent findings have shown the effects of ultra-processed foods which make up over 50% of the average UK diet. Have a nutritious breakfast every day and eat small portions more often across the day. Try making more homemade food and increasing the variety of plants in your diet; research suggests 30 plants a week is great for the gut microbiome.
Hydration is so important, as we get older our sensation of thirst diminishes and chronic dehydration (even if mild) is common. This can impact memory, affect the kidneys and cause muscle damage, so drink 6-8 cups of water every day, limit the number of cups of tea and coffee per day, reduce fruit juices and fizzy drinks to only special occasions and bust the booze.
Yes, “An old dog CAN learn new tricks!” Our brains are amazing and we can keep our brains flexible by continually learning music or languages, reading books, doing puzzles and playing games or taking up a hobby.
5) Connect and engage
Laughter is great for the body and mind. The dose of dopamine essentially gives the brain a workout by firing lots of synapses, it also reduces stress and boosts mood. The average 4-year-old laughs 300 times a day, whereas the average 40-year-old laughs 4. People laugh more with those they are close to so challenge yourself to get together with friends and laugh like a child or join a club or community to meet new people.
This is just a taster of the wealth of information the ‘Take Five to Age Well‘ campaign will provide those that sign up, so why not give your future self a gift? Starting from the 1st of September, reboot your midlife by committing to 30 days of healthy ageing habits. CrunchyTales, as one of the media partners of the campaign, has joined the challenge too!
Join the “Take Five To Age Well” campaign here: https://nquire.org.uk/mission/take-five-to-age-well/contribute