Getting Older, Staying Healthy

© Douglass Lea 2009

Just back from the magical island of Bequia. As in the UK, many of my friends there over 60 and some into their 80s. I find it really interesting to observe their different lifestyles and levels of health.

There is a lot we can do to keep active, alert and healthy in the ‘senior’ years. Some of my general observations are:

Exercise: The fittest, happiest seniors I know do regular exercise. This is not necessarily extreme (although I did meet an 80 year old marathon runner last year) but regular daily walking, swimming or dancing. To a lesser extent, gardening and other activities help a bit but 15-30 minutes sustained exercise, twice a day seems to be the minimum level. Also the most active and youthful looking seniors also do yoga, pilates, Tibetan exercises or tai chi – all which increase mobility through stretching and balance.

Climate: Harder to control I know, but the most active seniors seem to live in warmer climates. In a warm climate it is easy to get out and about, exercising as above. In a hot climate water intake is higher, and the palate naturally prefers lighter meals. Cold climates, especially dark, wet winters foster inactivity, preventing people being as mobile. Cold temperatures also encourage a higher carbohydrate and fat consumption.

Medications: A lot of people don’t realise that prescribed medicines can have a lot of side effects that contribute to feeling slower, tireder, irritable, muscle ache, lethargic and a host of other ‘non-critical’ symptoms. Meds are commonly prescribed for blood pressure and the heart, and once you are on them, you will routinely be kept on them. In some cases they are very important. After a heart attack the heart may be damaged and high blood pressure could be fatal. However, doctors rarely discuss how diet and exercise can play a huge role in keeping the amount of medication required to a minimum. Also, although each manufacturer has to test and monitor the drug they make, they can never predict in what combination doctors will prescribe them with other manufacturers’ drugs and so the ‘cocktail effect’ of taking 2,3 or more meds together, can end up making your last years a misery. Kept alive, but with a reduced quality of life. So read the small print inside the packet and if you feel you may have side-effects ask your doctor to review the dosage and brand of your medicine.

Diet: I really believe that diet makes all the difference, especially in later years. It is only partly about the basics: I.e. Plenty of 1. fruit and vegetables, 2. seeds, nuts and grains, 3. fish and chicken as proteins 4. wholegrain carbs (brown rice) 5. healthy fats e.g. olive oil.

What you avoid is also a major consideration. By the time we have lived through a few decades, food intolerances have often developed. Giving up wheat, for example, can revolutionise how you feel, especially if you have been feeling bloated, sluggish and constipated. Giving up dairy and red wine (it’s the sulphites!) can eliminate catarrh and blocked sinuses. Our bodies were designed for the diet of our Stone Age ancestors and have not really adapted to modern supermarkets! A Stone Age relative would have eaten mainly green leaves, fruit, seeds, nuts. They would have been on the move, gently active throughout the day and their diet would have changed frequently with location and season, so no one food was eaten constantly everyday in the way we consume bread or milk daily. Occasionally we would have foraged for shellfish, river fish, bird or small mammals – a red meat feast was a rarity. We never stayed in one place long enough to farm potatoes, wheat, pasta, or process cheeses and alcohol. So basically if you have a predominantly vegetarian diet and treat everything that was not naturally available as an occasional treat, you’re on the right track.

Food as medicine is also a really important subject. A lot of the ailments that start to afflict us can be dealt with through diet in the early stages, before (and often preventing them) from developing into illnesses where we need medication.

Food as Medicine

Circulation: Keep your circulation perked up by including spices in your diet. Ginger, cayenne (hot peppers), garlic and cinnamon all help to stimulate the circulation. Herbs like ginseng and horse chestnut also have traditional use in circulation – horse chestnut is a traditional remedy for varicose veins. Improving circulation can help with energy levels and also with joint and muscle pain. Ginger and cayenne are ‘rubifacients’ which means they redden the skin as they bring blood to the surface, which in turn carries oxygen to the cells that need it for healing. At Napiers, we use them in our Capsicum and Ginger Cream, a rubbing cream to ease and warm joints and muscles.

Blood Pressure: Drinking a herbal tea with hawthorn and lime flowers, or taking Hawthorn Berry Tincture helps to keep strengthen the heart and keep the effects of high blood pressure to a minimum. Red rice yeast and CoQ10 supplements may also help. If your blood pressure is high you should never come off medication without consulting with a doctor or medical herbalist, but using herbs and supplements may help you to keep to lower dosage levels and minimise the side effects of the medication. You should also ask your herbalist or supplier if a herbal remedy or supplement may have a contraindication with your medication. For example, if you are on digoxin you should avoid hawthorn berry unless your GP is prepared to lower your digoxin dose. This is because hawthorn increases the effect of cardiac glycosides. Getting the right balance of both helps to reduce drug side effects but should be monitored by a doctor or medical herbalist.

Sun Damage: Use a blocking sun cream. If its too late Thuja Cream can help squamous cells, unusual moles, liver spots and some other signs of sun damage. If you have something suspicious on your skin, always get it checked out early. Early detection can SAVE YOUR LIFE in the case of skin cancer.

What do you think?