Eat well, exercise, build your muscles, maintain good mental health and you are on your way to healthy ageing.
AGEING is an inevitable process of life. Despite the lofty promises of delaying ageing through procedures or supplements, there is no secret method that can slow it down.
As the body ages, there are some changes that age cannot hide, especially when it comes to health.
According to the World Health Organisation, ageing may lead to hearing loss, cataract and refractive errors, back and neck pain and osteoarthritis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes, depression and dementia. As people age, they are more likely to experience several of these conditions at the same time.
These issues can have a social and economic impact on the society, more so when it is expected that the ageing population will growing rapidly in the coming years.
Between 2015 and 2030, the number of people in the world aged 60 years and above is expected to grow from over 900 million to nearly 1.5 billion.
Today, 125 million people are aged 80 years or older. By 2050, the global population of those older than 60 is expected to jump to two billion.
In Malaysia, those aged 60 and above are projected to reach 3.5 million in 2020 and 6.3 million in 2040, about 20 per cent of the population.
With increasing number of ageing people, ensuring they are healthy is a priority so that they continue to have good quality of life, independent and are able to do the things they enjoy.
Researchers John Rowe and Robert Kahn in their book Successful Ageing (1999) defined successful ageing based on the interaction of three related elements — avoidance of physical illness and disability, maintenance of high physical and cognitive function and continuing engagement in social and productive activities.
Another popular model of healthy ageing is the Alberta Rose model which focuses on promoting health, preventing disease and injury; optimising mental and physical function, managing chronic conditions and engaging with life. The Alberta Rose model was conceptualised by Alberta Health and Wellness, a project of the Alberta province, Canada.
ENGAGED WITH LIFE
Universiti Malaya Specialist Centre consultant geriatrician Professor Dr Shahrul Bahyah Kamaruzzaman says healthy ageing is interchangeable with a few other types of ageing namely successful, active and productive ageing.
Every aspect of life supports and contributes to healthy ageing such as physical, economic, social and mental well-being.
She says the approach to healthy ageing is based on the individual’s lifestyle choices with the support of the community.
On an individual level, the person must make the right choices — a balanced diet, regular exercise, refraining from smoking and maintaining an ideal weight.
“One ages prematurely because of stress, overeating and never exercising. An unhealthy lifestyle is the reason a person’s biological age is older than his chronological age. You may be 30 years old but your body could be physiologically 60 years old. In obese children, excess fat puts them at risk of premature ageing.”
In 2005, researchers have found the first direct evidence that fat accelerates ageing. They found that the more people weigh, the older their cells appear on a molecular level, with obesity adding the equivalent of nearly nine years of age to a person’s body.
The findings suggest that many health problems associated with being overweight — heart disease, cancer, diabetes, arthritis — may result from fat cells hastening the natural ageing process.
Obese children are also at risk of health problems that are associated with older people such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, Type-2 diabetes, fatty liver disease, cardiovascular disease and joint problems.
Dr Shahrul Bahyah says it is important for older people to stay active and not isolate themselves from society after they retire.
“They need social contact and they need to participate and contribute to the community. When they stay active, their bodies and minds continue working which will lead to healthy ageing.
“Being healthy is also related to what you think of yourself. I have a 55-year-old patient who keeps saying she can’t do anything because she is old. But at that age, there are a lot of things she can still do and achieve.”
Dr Shahrul Bahyah says healthy lifestyle should ideally start from young because the diversity of disease tends to affect later in life.
Steps such as good nutrition early in life, physical activity, immune and hormone systems contribute to healthy muscle and bone mass, which lead to healthy ageing.
“After 40, we naturally lose bone and muscle mass as normal ageing process. But in some people, they lose muscle mass faster due to unhealthy diet and lack of physical activities.”
NEVER TOO LATE
Dr Shahrul Bahyah says it is never too late to embark on a healthy lifestyle to build up muscle strength because she has done it herself.
“Last year, I had a bioelectrical impedance analysis done which found that I have a biological age of a 70-year-old even though my chronological age is 46. I was stressed out, busy and I enjoyed food too much. I was also sedentary which led to the weight I gained.
“It was a wake-up call. I started to diet and exercise and now my biological age is 53. I still have to do more but I am glad that I took the steps to change.”
The bioelectrical impedance analysis (BIA) is a simple test that assesses body composition, measuring body fat to lean body mass.
Dr Shahrul Bahyah says that on community level, policymakers and doctors should provide infrastructure for healthy ageing.
Government agencies and private sectors must be age-friendly by implementing policies that include the participation from senior citizens.
She says a person can have all these tools for healthy ageing but he also needs the support from public and private sectors. This include access to affordable healthcare and financial support.
“Policymakers and doctors also need to adapt to ageing problems. It is also important to train primary care doctors so that they have better understanding of the health issues related to older people.
“They can provide early diagnosis and early treatment. The patient should not have to be diagnosed by specialists because by that time, the problem could get worse and cannot be reversed.
“We need to stop ageism. There must be awareness that ageing does not always means frail, slow and a burden. Older Malaysians must rebrand ageing, so that being old is no longer a social stigma.”
HEALTHY IN OLD AGE
AT 80 years old, Ng Koon Kow does not see himself slowing down.
Instead of staying home to “enjoy” retirement, he is busy with community activities as the secretary of Damansara Jaya Senior Citizens Association.
It is not a surprise that he leads an active life because even when he retired at 55 in 1994, he continued to work in various organisations. Only in 2005, when he was 66 that he decided to stop working full time.
But he was bored after two years of not doing anything. He then joined the association and became a certified coach in career development.
Ng says he was not health conscious when he was younger and only recently started on healthy diet and engaged in regular exercise. Other than age-related minor health issues, Ng does not suffer from any chronic condition and still maintains his weight.
“I can thank my genes for that but I also think it is because I worked hard when I was younger. I was always busy and on the move which kept me healthy.
“I also believe my positive attitude has helped me to stay healthy. Being positive contributes to healthy mind and body. I am a follower of our association’s motto which is to be happy, stay healthy and think positive.”
Ng says he likes to learn new things, teach others and meet people. He keeps himself busy with activities related to the association and spends time with his wife and friends.
Diagnosed with hypertension when he was 30, Koh Pak Boo has always been diligent about his health.
He eats a healthy diet, sleeps and wakes up early. He enjoys a brisk walk three times a week and joins a tai chi class twice a week.
“I am careful about my diet because of hypertension which I inherited from my father. All my siblings were diagnosed with the condition when they were in their 30s.
“But I have always been active since young. I used to ride my bicycle from my house near Universiti Malaya to my school, St John’s Institution. As an undergraduate in University Malaya, I would ride the bicycle around campus.”
The 75-year-old Koh, who is the association’s committee member, says a combination of healthy measures and positive thinking is the key to healthy ageing.
The aim is to stay healthy not only for ourselves but also for family and society.
“Being healthy means living a disciplined life. It is our responsibility to take care of our health so that we will not become a burden to our family. A positive attitude is another important factor to healthy ageing.
“I have reached a stage in life when making money is no longer important. What is important is to help others. I can’t help everyone but I can help those in our neighbourhood. It is also our responsibility to take care of our health so that we can continue to contribute to our community.”