Are you ageing successfully?

YourLifeChoices is partnering with the University of Sydney’s musculoskeletal research hub on ‘The Buddy Study’ – a free program aimed at helping older people with back pain. Full details below.

What it means to age successfully has been a topic of research for more than 40 years. Over that time there have been many different definitions ranging from ‘adding life to the years’ to ‘proactively coping’ and even ‘increasing the length of living into older age while decreasing age-related disease’.

However, the World Health Organization (WHO) now recognises ageing successfully as “reaching a personally defined level of physical, social and psychological wellbeing in old age”.

Physical function refers to your general health and wellness, as well as your ability to perform activities inside and outside your home.

Research states that as you get older, you are at a higher risk of developing chronic illnesses and the 2018 Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers found that almost half of Australians over the age of 65 had a disability that affected on their ability to look after themselves.

Fortunately, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) in 2016, seven out of 10 Australians aged over 65 believed they had good, very good or excellent health.

Interestingly, older women are more likely than men to rate their health as good or excellent until the age of 85 when this flips, and men become more likely to rate their health positively.

Read: Expert’s top five planning tips for positive ageing

Successful social functioning relates to a person’s ability to fulfill their roles within work and social environments, as well as maintain relationships with family and friends.

People who believe they have strong social abilities report having a higher quality of life, less loneliness and less life stress. In fact, the WHO recognises social connectedness and the degree to which people form close bonds with others, as being linked to better health and increased life expectancy.

Not surprisingly, the practical and emotional support that people derive from strong social networks benefits not only their physical health but also their mental health.

Successful ageing relates not only to physical function and social function but also to psychological wellbeing. It refers to a person’s happiness, contentment and positive mental function. It includes such things as having a sense of purpose, having enough self-confidence to tackle new or difficult things, empowerment, gratitude or being generally optimistic.

Why is it that some 75-year-olds think and function like 30-year-olds, yet others struggle with their health and cognition?

According to the WHO, when it comes to health, there is no typical ‘older’ person. Biological age is only a small part of ageing and while some of the variation in older people’s health is due to their genes, most successful ageing comes down to the influence of physical and social environments, and opportunities and behaviour.

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So, what can you do now to make sure you age successfully?

Anna-Louise Bouvier, physiotherapist, wellbeing commentator and founder of Physiocise, believes it is all about making little changes now that add up to helping you to stay younger for longer.

Ms Bouvier says you can consider yourself as being ‘in your prime’ between the ages of 35 and 75 and what you do during this time can help keep you young well into your 70s and beyond.

The benefits of exercise for successful ageing are immeasurable. Not only does exercise boost your brain, delay dementia and improve your immunity, but it also fights anxiety and depression.

Exercise decreases the incidence of chronic illnesses such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease and builds your musculoskeletal system, fighting the effects of arthritis, osteoporosis and poor balance.

The global initiative, Exercise is Medicine, speaks to the powerful benefits of exercise on your physical heath, your mental health and your ability to age successfully.

Read: Is exercise as good as medicine?

Making sure you sleep well most nights of the week will help to protect you against heart disease, diabetes and obesity.

Good quality sleep has been shown to increase your lifespan, improve your memory and your mood, as well as boost your immune system, and when you wake up feeling refreshed in the morning, you are likely to cope better when faced with difficulties during the day.

Manage your stress
Skills such as mindfulness and meditation have both been proven to have significant benefits for lowering stress levels, coping with illness and decreasing anxiety and depression.

They can take time to master but with a little practice, it is likely you will find yourself feeling happier and more resilient.

Read: How to create a healthier you, boost your memory and reduce stress

Choose healthy foods
The link between healthy food and mental health is widely recognised. According to Headspace, reaching for healthy snacks and choosing nutritious foods will help you get a better night’s sleep, improve your concentration and memory and give you more energy.

Two recent studies have also found that a healthy diet can decrease symptoms that are related to depression. In 2017, seven in 10 older Australians were overweight or obese, so choosing healthy food could be a really important change to help you age successfully.

Have purpose
Volunteer, learn something new, join a book club or help care for family and friends.

Beyond Blue says that the things you believe in and value shape your sense of purpose and these can range from family, financial stability and health to laughter, generosity and respect.

Read: Meaningful activities the key to happy ageing – and a longer life

Staying mentally active also helps maintain cognitive function, mental wellbeing, and promotes independence into older age.

Maintain strong social connections
Strong social support is critical for ageing successfully. Joining a group for exercise or organising a regular catch-up with like-minded people can go a long way to building social connections.

Community and social engagement is an important part of wellbeing.

Almost 50 per cent of older Australians who participate in recreational activities such as going to the movies, seeing a concert, going to the local library or visiting a museum are well on their way to ageing successfully.

If you’re feeling lonely, see if you can meet more people by joining community activities, get acquainted with your neighbours or reach out to old friends.

Ms Bouvier says that “while this can sound overwhelming, keeping it simple and making small changes makes it very manageable”.

Read: Why is low back pain such a pain? How can you fix it?

She recommends doing a few small things every day, such as going for a walk with a friend, doing a favourite stretch or calling someone for a chat. These small changes are like “making deposits into your body bank, helping you to age successfully and stay younger for longer”.

If you feel you need to make some deposits into your body bank, you might like to consider volunteering for one of the Sydney University’s research projects.

YourLifeChoices is partnering with researchers from the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre Musculoskeletal Research Hub on ‘The Buddy Study’ – a program that aims to not only get you moving, but also to enhance the physical and mental benefits of exercise. This study is aimed at helping older people with back pain by analysing whether exercising with a buddy is better than exercising alone.

If you’re interested in finding out more, please visit the Sydney University website – and tell them the YourLifeChoices team sent you. Or you can complete the pre-screening form.

Kate Roberts is an experienced physiotherapist and PhD candidate at the University of Sydney. She has a passion for helping older Australians manage their aches and pains. She is particularly interested in helping people to stay active and strong. When not working, she is kept busy with her three children, two dogs and a secret dedication to pointing her toes and leaping in her regular ballet class.

Do you feel as if you’re ageing successfully? What’s your secret? Do you exercise with a friend? Do you find it more motivating and beneficial than exercising alone? Why not share your tips in the comments section below?

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Written by Kate Roberts

Kate Roberts is an experienced physiotherapist and PhD Candidate at The University of Sydney. She has a passion for helping older Australians to manage their aches and pains. She is particularly interested in helping people to stay active and strong. When not working, she is kept busy with her three children, her two dogs and her secret dedication to pointing her toes and leaping in her regular ballet class.