How to stay healthy well into your 80s.

I WOULD like to share with you some tips which I learned at two conferences that I attended recently. The first was the annual conference of the Society of Anti-Aging, Aesthetics and Regenerative Medicine; and the second was that of the Healthy Ageing Society. Then I will share about how three octogenarians keep themselves healthy and active in their 80s.

Many nations are preparing for the eventuality of becoming ageing nations as birth rates decline and life-expectancies increase. The older generation faces a multitude of health problems, not only due to the expected degenerative changes of ageing, but also due to affluent and sedentary modern lifestyles. The more advanced nations are already facing this crisis. For example, in Germany, the incidence of cancer increased 63% over the last 20 years. In Japan, the incidence of colon cancer increased drastically as the people lived longer and more adopted the Western diet.

We can expect the same in Malaysia as our population ages and we too adopt the Western diet (just look around and count how many American fast food outlets there are around us).

Today about 7% of Malaysians are 65 years or older. By 2035 we will become an ageing nation when the figure exceeds 15%.

If we want to mitigate the problems associated with this, then we have to look at the physical, mental, spiritual and social aspects of ageing. I will touch only on the physical health aspect.

First we have to drastically change our diet and lifestyle. As it is, statistics show that we are already getting unhealthier each year. Now, about 50% of the adults are overweight or obese (70% in the US); about 40% have hypertension; and about 15% have diabetes. Over 50% of the men smoke (women are catching up fast, especially in the last decade as we became more affluent), and most do not exercise enough. The top causes of death (excluding accidents) are heart disease, cancer ,and stroke.

Simple tips to prevent hypertension, heart disease, and stroke

Most of us are already aware of the basic need to maintain a healthy weight, have a healthy diet, sufficient exercise, avoid smoking, and managing stress to prevent these chronic diseases. The problem is that we lack discipline to prioritise these into the demands of our hectic modern living; and the temptations of delicious but unhealthy foods that have become our staple.

It will help if you incorporate these simple tips into your routine.

Learn to breathe slowly. Studies have shown that if you reduce your rate of breathing from the average 15 to 16 breaths per minute to 10 per minute, the effect is as good as taking a low dose of an anti-hypertensive drug. It is reasonable to expect that if you do not yet have hypertension, then this may prevent it.

When I teach qigong, I teach my students to breath at only six breaths per minute. It may be one of the reasons why qigong prevents hypertension (as at least one study in China had shown).

The next tip is to walk a lot, and to walk faster. You should walk at least 10,000 steps per day. While some people do actually wear a “step-meter” (pedometer), an easier way is to remember to walk whenever possible, and try to cover about five to seven kilometers a day. The more, the better. Studies have also shown that those who walk faster as a habit actually have a reduced risk of dying of cardiovascular diseases.

The third tip is to eat more fruits and veggies. While there is controversy whether this will help in reducing cancer significantly, the effect in reducing cardiovascular problems is more obvious. For example there is a direct correlation between eating fruits and veggies and the risk of getting stroke.

In the past, we were advised to eat five to nine portions or servings of fruits and veggies per day. After these studies, the advice has now been revised to seven to 13 portions or servings per day.

There is actually no limit to how much veggies you can eat per day, as they are nutrient-dense (full of nutrients but not much calories, except for the starchy ones). You should go for variety, and include the dark-leafy vegetables especially, as they have powerful antioxidants. This is the simplest way to lose weight without having to starve.

You can eat until you are full, without having to worry about gaining weight. In fact, if you eat lots of spinach, you may even lose weight (it contains less energy than that required to chew, digest, and assimilate it).

However, you must be more careful with fruits. Although they are rich in nutrients, they are also rich in calories. So go for variety, but limit the amount of each fruit to avoid eating excess calories. This is of course something difficult to do during durian season!

Healthy octogenarians

The life-expectancy of Malaysians is about 75 (women live two to three years longer than men). For Europeans and Japanese, it is about 80. So those of us who live past 80 have exceeded the national average.

However, taking note that the scientific estimate of our lifespan should be 120 years (indeed, the validated age of the longest-living humans in modern times have consistently been around 120 years), even 80 years is 33% short of what it should be.

But it is not just about how long we live, but more importantly, how healthy we are as we age. It is not about adding more years to our lifespan, but about adding health to the years we have. And if you add health, you are likely also to add longevity.

Tun Dr Mahathir is 85 years young. He was the keynote speaker at the Healthy Ageing conference, and he spoke on “Staying Physically Active and Mentally Sharp through the Golden Years – My Secret Recipe”. He gave a witty speech full of gems, which included not having a beard to look younger; keeping his mind sharp by reading; and continuing to criticise his successors because he always thinks that he is the best (!); being careful about his diet; and taking health supplements.

Of course, he admitted that when he was the Prime Minister, he had a doctor following him everywhere and that helped!

Although he had heart surgery many years ago, and several scary episodes (in his own admission) since then, most of the time he is fit and fiery, and feared by younger political leaders. It seems that retirement is not in his vocabulary.

I also had the opportunity to ask The Most Venerable Master Chin Kung about his secret to health and longevity. Like Tun Dr Mahathir, he is also approaching 85 and is still very healthy and sharp.

According to him, it is to maintain a pure, stable mind and a pure heart. With a pure mind, you are able to discipline yourself to only do the good and beneficial things, including eating healthily, and leading a healthy lifestyle. The pure mind can also command the body to be healthy, as the mind is fully in charge and in control of what is going on elsewhere in the body.

This is another aspect of mind-body science that scientists are now discovering. I have observed Master Chin Kung during the many trips that I have been with him, and I noticed that he never over-ate, even when we were served with the most scrumptious meals at the most elaborate feasts. And he continuous to dispense wisdom in his fatherly, smiling way as he travels to meet his followers all over the world. Like Tun Dr Mahathir, I do not see him slowing down yet.

His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI is also nearly 85 years young, and is still very active, having to preside over The Vatican as the head of over one billion Catholics spread all over the globe. His schedule is very hectic as he has to visit so many places, and also receive so many visitors. In order to cope with that, he must be in good health.

Although I do not know what is his secret, we should admire him and the other two octogenarians for leading by example – that we should lead fruitful, meaningful lives and contribute to society even in our old age, instead of being sick and becoming a burden to our families and our society.

I leave you with these words of wisdom: “Everybody wants to be old, but nobody wants to grow old” – Cato the Elder, 44BC.


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