The health resolutions it’s not too late to make

Do you still write New Year resolutions? As you get older the desire to list goals can drop away a little. Many of us are living the life we want, without the same desire for change that drove us in our 20s and 30s. And when it comes to health, there can be the feeling that routines are entrenched and any damage from unhealthy choices has been done. Certainly few of us were ‘sun aware’ all those years ago.

The good news is that, according to a report by the Australian Government,  adopting a healthy lifestyle in middle age, and later, can dramatically improve your health and life chances, and the effects can be seen quickly.

“We talk about healthy ageing nowadays and that is a very possible thing to do,” says GP Clare Ballingall. “A lot of the diseases we die from in the west are preventable, and it’s never too late to work towards avoiding them.”

You might not have written a list, so we’ve compiled one for you. Here are 12 (mostly) easily adopted health strategies, put together with Dr Ballingall’s help.

1. Get serious about eye health: Having regular eye check-ups is very important later in life, says Dr Ballingall, as certain conditions like glaucoma, which can cause blindness, are symptom-free for a long time. “Wearing proper sunglasses and hats regularly can help reduce damage and prevent cataracts, which are developed by three in four people over 80,” says Dr Ballingall. It can also be worth keeping your computer screen within 20–24 inches of your eyes and taking frequent breaks from the screen to prevent eye fatigue and strain.

2. Start meditating: It’s becoming more and more common to hear friends sing the praises of a daily meditation practice, whether it’s five minutes with a mindfulness app or a long, meditative walk. “Learning mindfulness is wonderful for sleep, relaxation and concentration,” says Dr Ballingall. And studies have revealed it may also reduce blood pressure and assist immune health and emotional wellbeing.

3. Give up cigarettes: We’re not saying it’s easy, but it’s a crucial goal to keep working at if you are a smoker. The bad news of course is that smoking dramatically increases your risk of many conditions including macular degeneration, cancer, heart disease, diabetes-related complications and stroke. The good news is that, according to the Australian Government’s QuitNow website, within a month of quitting your blood pressure has returned to normal, within a year your risk of dying from heart disease is half that of a smoker and after 10 years the effects of smoking are seriously diminished and your risk of lung cancer is less than half that of a smoker.

4. Have a tipple of red wine: “Surprisingly a small amount of alcohol is shown to help stave off dementia more than no alcohol. However, the benefits of alcohol decrease as the amount you drink increases, so a glass is OK, but perhaps not the bottle,” says Dr Ballingall. Also, red wine contains the antioxidant resveratrol, also found in dark chocolate. (Who said making health changes was difficult?!)

5. Eat for your age: “Eating to ward off osteoporosis is very important for over 50s. Around 15 per cent of women at 50 have osteoporosis and 70 per cent of those over 80 do, so we suggest four serves of low-fat dairy a day to get enough calcium,” says Dr Ballingall. “You lose muscle mass as you age so you have an increased need for protein when you’re over 50 to maintain muscle mass. Reduce salt for blood pressure, reduce sugar for diabetes risk, watch your alcohol intake and, of course, aim for a varied, well-rounded diet with all five food groups.”

6. Take up weights: Weight-bearing exercise is one of the most effective ways to prevent or slow the onset of osteoporosis, says Dr Ballingall, and it’s also great for cardiovascular health. “This means vigorous, bone-shaking activities rather than going for a walk,” says Dr Ballingall. We know from a certain age it might be difficult to hit the floor and give us 100 push-ups, but weight bearing also includes carrying shopping, heavy gardening, taking the stairs, yoga, vigorous dancing or even doing some repetitive lifts and squats with a tin in each hand.

7. Exercise outside: This is a great triple whammy – being outside is great for your essential sunshine quota for vitamin D intake, aerobic exercise is very important for preventing many illnesses and research shows that exercising outdoors boosts wellbeing, reveals Dr Ballingall. So walk to the shops, hike in the mountains, play some tennis or golf, go for a bike ride or swim in the sun. Whatever your favourite activities are, try to do them at least three times a week.

8. Challenge your mind with a new activity: A big part of keeping your brain agile is forcing yourself to use areas you don’t normally activate, and you can do this through new and challenging activities. “It’s the old ‘use it or lose it’ adage. There is quite good evidence that stimulating the brain is good for staving off dementia or slowing its progression for those who have dementia.” Dr Ballingall recommends games, crosswords, learning a musical instrument or a new language. “The University of the Third Age (U3A) is wonderful,” she adds.

9. Prioritise good-quality sleep: You should still aim for seven to nine hours of drug-free sleep, says Dr Ballingall. “We know that as you get older it can be harder to get enough sleep, and we don’t really know why that is. We do know that there are contributing factors to poor sleep in older age such as pain and mental health issues like anxiety and depression.” Dr Ballingall says it’s important not to rely on sleep medication, but rather check your sleep hygiene. “It’s always worth making sure there’s not a medical cause to poor sleep, such as sleep apnoea. Also that your pain is managed, that you’re getting some sunlight, some exercise, getting up at the same time each day and avoiding daytime naps, that your bed is just for sleep and sex and that you get up after 30 minutes if you can’t sleep, rather than lie there for hours.”

10. Have regular health check-ups and screening: Dr Ballingall laughs that being a GP she would say this, but we all know getting to the doctor can slip off the list of priorities if we’re not feeling unwell. “It’s not just seeing your GP. Getting your hearing and eyesight checked regularly are important as you might not notice degeneration. Likewise, a rise in blood pressure or cholesterol may not have any symptoms, so it’s important to keep an eye those. See your GP if you’re concerned about any skin lesions or prostate symptoms. And, of course, regular screening for breast cancer, cervical cancer and a poo test every second year for bowel cancer are very important.”

11. Find connections: Keeping active and social is very important for emotional and physical wellbeing as you get older, says Dr Ballingall. “The group at highest risk of suicide is men over 80, and we think isolation has a lot to do with that.” Joining clubs and partaking in activities can become a lifeline once you’ve retired. “It can take a lot of effort, but it’s really important not to stay at home all the time – maintain a link with the outside. Having a pet can also be great for companionship,” adds Dr Ballingall.

12. Make the most of free immunisations: “It’s wonderful that the PBS offers free flu, pneumonia and even shingles vaccines (for those aged 70–80) and it’s really worth making the most of it,” says Dr Ballingall. “About 3,000 Australians die of influenza every year and that’s often older people, so we’re not just talking about preventing a sniffle.”

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This material has been prepared for informational purposes only and is not intended to provide, and should not be relied on as a substitute for health and medical advice from a qualified health professional. You should seek the advice of a qualified health professional regarding your health or a medical condition.