The way you live your younger days can have a lot of sway in how well you age.
Research shows a life rich in social connections, physical activity, healthy eating habits and limited exposure to smoke and alcohol can put you in good stead for healthy ageing.
Professor Julie Byles, Director of the Priority Research Centre for Generational Health and Ageing at the University of Newcastle, says the more healthy interventions we make throughout our lives, the better our ageing experience will be.
“You don’t just get to old age, wherever you draw that line, and say ‘well now I’m going to be healthy’. You get to that line already with deficit or capacity; strengths or limitations,” she explains.
But that shouldn’t be reason to feel discouraged. “No one is perfect, and nor do we want to be all the time. It’s about making sure you eat well, get some exercise and maintain healthy social relationships as well. Being able to enjoy life is the really important part.”
Old age is becoming less about frailness and more about fulfilment. Australians are living longer and enjoying one of the world’s highest life expectancies. A boy born in 2013–2015 can expect to live to the age of 80.4 years and a girl to 84.5 years.
This means that as a population group, ‘older Australians’ are making up a growing demographic. In 1901 only four percent of Australians were aged 65 years or older, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. By June 2010, this had risen to 13.5 percent, and is projected to increase to between 21 percent and 23 percent by 2041.
We might be living longer but what does it mean to age well?
The Melbourne Longitudinal Studies on Healthy Ageing Program defined ‘ageing well’ as living independently in the community and being in good physical and psychological health.
Threats to wellness in later life included perceived strain, restless sleep, physical inactivity, poor nutrition and smoking as well as perceived social isolation.
Medical conditions, such as incontinence or cognitive issues, or functional impairment was also a concern, risking independence and opening the door to the possibility of aged care.
The gender divide
Professor Byles has been involved in tracking a large population of women for the past 20 years, as part of The Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health. Some 75,000 women have been recruited, with the oldest cohort now aged in their 90s.
She says that while women are living longer, they experience more chronic disease, illness and disability, and they often outlive their life partners which can take an emotional toll.
Men on the other hand, start with bigger muscle mass and tend to spend their life maintaining that, which brings them to old age with more physical strength and fitness. However, traditionally speaking, they have been exposed to more smoking, alcohol and high-risk occupations.
Despite the challenges for both genders, Professor Byles has discovered a resounding quality in her research population: adaptability.
“A lot of people have chronic illnesses to manage when they are older and some level of disability which they need to get around, but they do what they need to. The story that comes though consistently is, ‘yes I have these problems but I adapt to them’,” she says.
“Women tend to spend a large portion of their later years as widows.
“How those women have been coping and managing what is a really big life change, is through adapting. It’s not that they get over it; they just find ways to get on with life, creating friendships and finding new activities to stay busy.”
Men are also champions at adapting. While they are less likely to be widowed, some still need to adapt to the loss of a partner or changes to their life partner’s capacity to carry out their traditional gender role in the home.
An initiative Professor Byles has been involved in is the ‘Cooking for One or Two Programme’ through the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“It’s a 12-week program designed to develop cooking skills. That’s the reason people come. But the reason they stay is that there is a tremendous amount of social interaction. We’ve known men to do that program three times – the same course; the same 12 recipes.
“One of the things we’ve done for them is to extend the program so that they have masterclasses.
“It’s a really good example of how people are adapting to something new, how exciting it can be and the opportunities it can open up.”
Planning for the good life
Is one gender better than the other when it comes to ageing? There’s probably a little we can learn from each other. But the biggest lesson is to keep looking forwards and plan for a fulfilling life.
“We need to look at how we will keep growing and how to develop our skills and personalities,” Professor Byles says.
“[Financial planning] is one aspect but planning for what you will do in the next five, 10, 15, 20 years is a very good strategy. Obviously you can’t plan for everything but it’s worth having some idea of what your life might look like, how you will get
there, what your goals might be and how to achieve them.
“Then relax, adapt and change those goals if something happens.”
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