JANET, a 60-year-old grandmother of two, is on her way to work, having just completed her early-morning tai chi class. Although she retired five years ago, she continues doing regular volunteer work several days a week with a local organisation. She enjoys it because it keeps her busy and allows her to lend her experience to a good cause.
As she walks into the building with her laptop bag, the only hint of her age is in her fashionable bob, which is streaked with grey strands.
Increasingly, there are more people like Janet, in the “50-and-above” age bracket, who defy the ageing category and show no signs of slowing down at all.
While there is no magic potion that can turn back the hands of time, the key to successful ageing lies in a healthy lifestyle with adequate and balanced intake of nutrients to match the body’s changing needs.
With birth rates going down and people living longer, an inevitable consequence is that many countries now have an unprecedented number and proportion of older people.
According to consultant physician and geriatrician Dr Rajbans Singh, Malaysia has seen an encouraging rise in life expectancy at birth.
“Today, the life expectancy of Malaysian men can go up to 70.56 years whilst for Malaysian women, up to 76.21 years. This reflects Malaysians’ deeper investment and involvement in taking care of their health,” he said at the launch of Centrum Silver, an age-adjusted multivitamin-mineral supplement for adults aged 50 and above.
“By year 2025, there will be approximately 2.1 million people above age 65 in Malaysia,” Dr Rajbans added.
Living longer, but healthier?
Compare Janet, from the beginning of this article, with Daud. Just a couple of years older than Janet, Daud seems a mere shadow of the active lady.
He stopped working at the age of 48, after his chronic diabetes led to kidney disease and heart problems. He is overweight, on haemodialysis and maintains a lacklustre, sedentary lifestyle confined to his home.
Dr Rajbans pointed out that acute diseases like infectious diseases are no longer the major cause of death in Malaysia.
“Today, one dies from chronic disease, degenerative diseases, metastatic cancer, immune deficiencies and other diseases which prolong disability, immobility and dependency.
“Coronary heart disease and stroke have become the major causes of death and disability among both ageing women and men,” he explained.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that about 75% of deaths in people over the age of 65 in industrialised countries are from heart disease, cancer and cerebrovascular disease (such as stroke) .
Another major cause of death and disability is osteoporosis and associated bone fractures, which affects many women due to post-menopausal bone loss.
However, not all ageing populations have to be disease-ridden, assured Dr Wong Sweet Fun, senior consultant with the Department of Geriatric Medicine in Alexandra Health, Singapore.
“Okinawa, a southern prefecture in Japan, has the highest percentage of centenarians in the world, as well as the longest disability-free life expectancy in the world,” she said as an example of healthy longevity.
The Okinawans’ secret
Just how do the people of Okinawa do it? Is it something in the air, the water or the food in Japan? Or does the secret lie in their spiritual and active lifestyles?
The answer is yes, to all of the above.
“Eating right, exercising regularly, and keeping mentally active and positive are important factors for active ageing,” said Dr Wong.
As Janet has proven, ageing gracefully is very much about engaging with life. Age should be no barrier for people to continue contributing productively to society as workers, volunteers and providers.
“A majority of Malaysia’s elderly lead independent, active lifestyles that demand good health and prevention of common ailments associated with age,” Dr Rajbans noted.
Fortunately, many of the risk factors related to heart disease, stroke, major cancers and osteoporosis can be prevented through the elements of a healthy lifestyle described by Dr Wong above.
Even though the aim is to prevent diseases in old age, these practices should begin early in life, so that as the years go by, we simply build upon a strong foundation for good health.
As the years go by, it is ever more important for us to ensure that we get the right amounts of nutrients from our diet, to maintain optimal health.
While we may remain young at heart, it is undeniable that our body is slowing down. Many body functions will eventually decline, and we will start to lose lean muscle while amassing more fat in our bodies.
Due to all these changes, your nutritional requirements will be different at this stage of life. You will not need so much energy from high-calorie and high-fat foods, but you should choose more nutrient-dense foods that are richer in important nutrients and fibre, compared to calories.
Nutrient-dense foods include fish, lean meat, liver, eggs, soy products (e.g. tofu and tempeh), low-fat dairy products, fruits and vegetables, herbs and spices, wholegrain cereals, nuts and seeds.
Older people also need to consciously increase their water intake, as they tend to feel less thirsty while losing more fluids. The recommended two-litre-a-day intake can come from plain water, fruit and vegetable juices, low-salt soups, low-fat milk, caffeine-free coffee and tea, or green tea.
The complex balance of macro- and micronutrients can make it difficult for a person to determine what foods need to be reduced, added or maintained in the daily diet, especially when it differs from one individual to another, depending on their health status.
“Adults over the age of 50 also face a host of new challenges as physiological changes may affect their body’s ability to absorb vitamins, thereby altering their nutritional requirements,” said Dr Wong.
“Physical problems such as loss of taste and smell as well as dental problems may interfere with appetite,” she elaborated.
She also added that some older people may not be able to go out and buy food, or prepare adequate meals at home, especially if they live alone or suffer from social and emotional problems, such as bereavement (due to loss of life partner) or depression.
Research has shown that multivitamins to meet the recommended levels of micronutrients is a prudent, inexpensive and convenient way to reduce the risk of age-related degenerative diseases. Thus, an age-adjusted multivitamin supplement can help adults above age 50 to overcome common age-related dietary problems and prevent chronic conditions.
Such supplements, adjusted to better correspond to the nutritional needs of the older age group, have increased vitamin A, vitamin B6 and B12, vitamin E, chromium, and antioxidants, as well as reduced levels of iron, to ensure an overall healthy balance of vitamins and minerals.
The importance of sufficient nutrient intake cannot be underestimated. It ensures that we are able to continue enjoying every single day, and contribute our experience and wisdom to society, instead of being dependent on welfare and assistance.
Fifty is just a sign that the best is yet to come!