It is a joy to welcome author Susannah Marriott to the blog in this must-read guest blog inspired by her new book The Longevity Bible.
Susannah Marriott is an author who specialises in health and mindful living. She takes inspiration from her practice of yoga, her three daughters, and the countryside and sea near her home in Cornwall. She is the author of 24 books, which have been translated into 17 languages; they include Stay Young Naturally, Everyday Wisdom, Total Meditation and Beads of Faith. As an editor she has worked with BKS Iyengar, Swami Saradananda, Deborah Bull and Penelope Leach.
Her writing has appeared in newspapers and magazines including the Guardian, The Times, the Telegraph, Marie Claire, Zest, Shape, Top Sante, Healthy and She. She has broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and lectures on writing at universities and with her company, the Professional Writing Academy www.profwritingacademy.com.
In her 50s Susannah draws her youthful energy from her yoga practice and sea swimming, her organic vegetable garden and her massive love of jazz, dancing and dresses.
Over to Susannah for her wisdom:
Whatever our age we are ageing all the time. It’s part of the human condition. So being bombarded with anti-ageing advice is a bit depressing. Instead let’s celebrate all the good things about ageing – the wisdom, experience and confidence it brings, and the growing connection with our children. Here are some joyful tips for ways to live a long and abundant life:
Relish real bodies
What kind of body should we aspire to as we age? Not a set size or shape but one that’s agile and mobile – able to do all the things we want to do. With a balanced skeleton that keeps our frame upright, strong bones to support us securely, supple joints that help us bend and turn, and muscles that contract and extend happily to power us through the day. Sure there are changes in our muscles, bones and fitness capacity as we age – physically we peak before the age of 35 – but the more active we stay, the more we keep those changes in check. Exercise is the number one contributor to longevity.
Move like a child
Children move freely in all directions for hours at a time; this develops a strong vestibular, or balance and sensory, system. Once our movements become more restricted – as we age and settle into habitual patterns at school and work – the system stops working as well as it could. To sharpen our balance and senses, we should act more like children: go upside down, stand on one leg, hop, wobble board, balance on our hands, hang from bars. Moving in diverse directions (even leaning is good) ‘perturbs’ our centre of gravity, which teaches the body new ways to respond to bring us back into balance.
Feeling in the feet declines with age, making it harder to stay active, move quickly, and maintain good posture. Going barefoot over different terrain – grass, sand, pebbles, water – resensitises the feet to keep them agile, as does getting feet measured and wearing properly fitting shoes: by age 65, three-quarters of people wear shoes that are too small. It’s simple to get your size, gait and activity needs assessed at a running shop.
If we don’t put part of the body through its full range of movement most days, it loses flexibility at an accelerated rate. It’s known as ‘age decay’, but only 50–60 percent of variability in flexibility is explained by age. Staying active as a young person then increasing that activity into middle age and beyond helps maintain a full range of movement. So does primal exercise: movements that replicate the activities of our ancestors 40 generations ago and build all-over body strength – hanging, sprinting, squatting, crawling, rolling, twisting, jumping. Elemental movements based on child development are also good: crawling and pushing up to look over one shoulder (that cute thing babies do before rolling over) mobilise parts of the body we don’t habitually use, including stiff shoulders and hips.
Plenty of sleep and good rest seem as important as exercise in boosting longevity, giving body systems restorative time to recuperate, rebuild and re-energise. Older adults need as much sleep as younger people – 7-9 hours a night. REM dreaming sleep (which makes up about a quarter of our night’s sleep) is most restorative since it’s when growth hormone is produced to repair tissue, build muscle and restore areas of the brain linked to learning, information storage and consolidating memory.
Eat like your ancestors
Traditional diets low in manufactured foods, like those of the Mediterranean and Japan, are most often linked with a good long life around the world. (When people in these places eat fast food, health and longevity decline.) It’s about eating close to the bottom of the food chain – lots of plants including legumes, nuts and whole grains – and cooking from scratch choosing ingredients our great-great grandparents would have recognised as food. The most important part of a healthy diet is being able to stick to it forever, which is maybe why delicious traditional ways of eating pass healthy habits down the generations.
The other commonplace of long-lived communities around the globe is the way they eat – stopping to spend time around a table enjoying company. This ‘slow eating’ values ingredients, recipes and cooking as something worth talking about, sharing and spending time over. It’s food that carries our history, culture and memories and is deeply rooted in a place. Our job is to transfer our food culture, health knowledge and cooking skills down the generations counsels the World Health Organisation – to help our children, their children and the wider community live longer, healthier lives.
Keep thinking agile
A regular mental workout, like physical exercise, seems to improve memory and decision-making, quicken reaction times and improve reasoning, verbal-learning and problem-solving skills. The key word is ‘neuroplasticity’ – the ability of the brain to change in response to external stimulation. The ageing brain stays remarkably plastic – look at the many stroke patients who regain function as different parts of the brain take over the roles of damaged areas. Plasticity increases when we push things and maintain the flexibility to take risks (like navigating to a new place without using sat nav). Doing something outside our range of life experience creates positive changes in the brain. So activities that feel tricky are most beneficial, like learning a language, a new instrument or dance form or writing poetry.
Ask for hugs
Touch is the first sense to develop and is thought, alongside hearing, to be the final sense to leave us. Touch sensors extend right inside the body as well as responding to stimulus from outside. With age, this sensitivity declines and it takes longer for information to be conducted to the brain. So we need as much sensory stimulus as we can get as we get older. More light, more robust-tasting foods, and much more touch. Babies who are not touched fail to thrive, and so too do older people. Positive touch lessens anxiety and pain, lowers heart rate and blood pressure, improves lung function and immunity, increases alertness and brain performance. Above all it has a positive effect on mood, boosting levels of oxytocin, ‘love’ hormones.
Socialise outside your age group
Cross-generational relationships keep us acting young and reduce illness as we get older – yet the oldest and youngest of us are the least likely to be mixing. Around the globe people are fighting ‘age apartheid’: at care homes in the Netherlands students live rent-free alongside older people, cooking and shopping, playing football and partying alongside each other. Germany has multi-generational meeting houses, where everyone can spend time in ‘public living rooms’, and care homes from the UK to Tokyo are opening nurseries to share activities like meals and exercise classes. Older people benefit from the energy and spirit of the very young, while toddlers soak up the love and experience of elders, breaking down everyone’s stereotypes. Older people should be recognised as a resource for younger generations says the WHO.
The Longevity Bible by Susannah Marriott is published by Godsfield Press, £14.99.